If any researcher out there is thinking about writing the definitive work on the history of abortion, don’t bother. It’s already been done. Joseph Dellapenna’s massive, and exhaustive work, Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History, is unlikely to ever be surpassed. Thirty years in the making, professor Dellapenna seems to have read virtually every published work on the subject, as the vast blizzard of footnotes attests. Don’t let the combative title fool you – this is a scholarly masterpiece. Dellapenna, far from being a pro-life zealot with an ax to grind, is in fact a pro-choice Unitarian.
The main myth that Dellapenna seeks to dispel is the ubiquitous claim that abortion was not illegal at common law in the United Kingdom, and then in America. In fact, Dellapenna shows, abortion was considered illegal from the dawn of English law right on down to the 2oth century. The most fascinating disclosure in the book, however, comes in the first few chapters. This is the historical phenomenon of widespread infanticide and abandonment.
Before early pregnancy tests, anesthesia, or the discoveries of Lister and Pasteur, abortion was anything but an ordinary and safe procedure. After carefully reviewing the historical record, Dellapenna concludes that before about 1800, only the truly desperate would even attempt abortion. The practice did not become common, even illegally, until the 19th century, when medical advances made it mostly safe for the mother.
And before then? Most women facing an unwanted pregnancy went ahead and gave birth. But after that, all bets were off for the newborn baby. If the baby was unwanted, there was a good chance he or she would be immediately suffocated or drowned, or else abandoned to die. Dellapenna shares some shocking statistics which show how common these practices once were. A mere 200 years ago, dead babies were occasionally found on the streets of London, or at the bottom of public toilets. In France, the the phenomenon was even more pronounced.
Laws were passed. And then, in the 19th century, as if by magic, infanticide and abandonment suddenly started fading away as social problems. But, of course, they had not really faded away. Only now the babies were being killed by illegal abortion rather than illegal infanticide. A century later, infanticide remained illegal, but the western world began warming up to abortion.
The lesson of history is that death always finds an outlet. Today, of course, death is easier than ever. Pregnancy can be detected unfathomably early, and new human life can be aborted out of existence before it assumes an even remotely human shape. A vast realm of euphemistic terms like fetus, embryo, and parasite are available as well. The usually unstated assumption of the abortion debate is that abortion would certainly be unacceptable if everyone could agree that it was a baby being killed.
But all the talk of fetuses, and personhood, and bodily autonomy ultimately turns out to be a smokescreen. They turn out to be not true justifications, but the lamest of excuses. Before abortion was medically feasible, babies were still killed, and worse yet, they actually were, indisputably, real babies – persons, separate from the mother. Abortion does not exist because infanticide is out of the question given human nature, abortion exists because it’s so much more convenient that infanticide.
One of the principal functions of the state – possibly the principal function – is to bridle human nature. We make and enforce laws against theft, abuse, and murder because we know full well that we will inevitably gravitate toward those sins in the absence of some authority. True, death always finds an outlet, but at least the outlet is not gilded by public at large. And that is why the legalization of abortion is so tragic. Death no longer needs to even search for an outlet. We are no longer ashamed of human nature, but openly celebrate it. And though we do not realize it, we tacitly admit that it was wrong to stigmatize those who killed and abandoned their children so many centuries before.