In a recent campaign interview with Chris Matthews, presidential candidate Donald Drumpf contended “there has to be some form of punishment” for women seeking abortions, should the procedure be made illegal in the United States. In a rare moment, the candidate quickly retracted his statement, but not before his Republican opponents and pro-life advocates seized the opportunity to critique his comments. Ted Cruz responded by releasing a statement on his campaign website criticizing Drumpf for saying anything in the interest of seeking press attention.
Interestingly, Cruz’s statement appropriates the woman-centered language of the reproductive justice movement as he reminds voters “what’s far too often neglected is that being pro-life is not simply about the unborn child; it’s also about the mother…. Of course we shouldn’t be talking about punishing women; we should affirm their dignity….” Prominent pro-life activists similarly condemned Drumpf’s comments, painting him as out-of-touch with the movement’s philosophy and issues.
In Senator Cruz’s criticism of Drumpf and in Drumpf’s later “clarified” statement, both presidential candidates make clear the idea that abortion providers, and not the women themselves, should be held legally responsible should the procedure be made illegal in the future. This is not a new interpretation of abortion policy.
The notion that physicians should be punished for performing abortions was a central tenet of nineteenth-century legal culture in the United States and, like today, its primary function had nothing to do with “affirming the dignity” of nineteenth-century women. In this blog post I’ll explore the historical connection between “punishing the doctor” and the training of the first women physicians in the United States at the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia (WMC).
A Mock Trial and a Century of Punishing Doctors
The Woman’s Medical College opened its doors in 1850 and was the first medical college to train women in the United States.1 Its national reputation drew women from across the nation to receive treatment from women doctors who specialized in gynecological and obstetrical care, and young women travelled from as far away as India, Japan, and Syria to receive a medical education.
On March 23, 1892, Dr. Anna Broomall, the head of the Gynecology and Obstetrics Department at WMC, assembled her students in the east lecture room of the College to participate in a mock trial meant to augment her winter term course lectures on infanticide. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania versus Susan Jones featured a young domestic worker accused of infanticide. Students from the class of 1893 filled nearly every role required in the “courtroom,” from the attending and assistant physicians to the coroner and the jury, while prominent Philadelphia attorneys played the part of the judge, the counsel for the defense, and the prosecution.2
This mock trial dealt specifically with a case of infanticide, and according to the court transcript it was meant to reinforce Broomall’s lecture and to allow students to practice delivering medical testimony to jurors on the witness stand.3 But why did Dr. Broomall choose the topic of infanticide, and how is it related to abortion?
During the mock trial, the District Attorney mentioned a recent increase in infanticide cases and the “well-known reluctance of juries to convict a mother of this crime.”4 A significant reason for this reluctance was that the crime occurred in private and was thus very difficult to obtain solid evidence.5 It was likely not lost on Dr. Broomall that her women medical students would brush up against cases of infanticide and abortion in their medical practices, perhaps more so than their male colleagues — a matter that was complicated by the fact that these women lived and worked in a time of rapidly changing legal, medical and cultural views on abortion and the boundaries of human life.6
Criminalizing Abortion in the 1800s
In the colonial United States, women had significant leeway in terminating pregnancy through abortion, which was permitted until the moment of “quickening,” or the point at which the mother could feel the movement of the fetal body. It is important to note the power of a woman and her physician in this situation: fetal movement could only be detected by the woman, abortions occurred in private, and it was very difficult to prove that a fetus had been aborted after it “quickened.” The doctrine of quickening remained intact through the mid-nineteenth century.
The first campaign to criminalize abortion was spearheaded by the newly professionalizing American Medical Association in the mid-nineteenth century in an attempt to sully the reputation of midwives, who represented doctors’ main competition in a complex medical marketplace.7 The AMA’s campaign, coupled with the 1873 Comstock Act, effectively outlawed abortion in the later part of the nineteenth century and signaled the origin of an ethical shift in the medical and legal community’s views of maternal and fetal bodies.
By the time of Dr. Broomall’s mock trial in 1892, abortion was largely illegal in the United States, and the physicians who were convicted of providing the procedure often suffered legal and professional consequences. Yet historian Regina Morantz-Sanchez suggests it was quite common for middle-class women patients to ask women physicians for illegal abortions.8
To this end, Dr. Broomall believed a vital part of her students’ comprehensive education included the ability to provide expert medical testimony to a jury and defend themselves against the charge of infanticide or abortion, an event Broomall probably felt an inevitability in her students’ future careers.
This exercise could also be interpreted as a pedagogical experience meant to warn Broomall’s students about the dangers of assisting their patients with abortion. The boundaries of human life were swiftly changing, a fact confirmed by the trial transcript. Much of the dialogue between the witnesses, defense, and prosecution is spent parsing the physical signs of life and debating whether or not the fetus was born living.
Why Punish the Doctor?
The question remains: why punish physicians instead of the women who sought abortions? As mentioned above, legally penalizing physicians who provided abortions served as a mechanism to professionalize the medical field and push out the competition from midwives and other health practitioners. Yet accusing a physician of providing an illegal abortion was difficult because of the procedure’s private nature. By criminalizing physicians instead of women patients, law enforcement officers were able to collect testimony from women who had abortions and use this testimony to prosecute the physician who performed the procedure.9
In other words, the testimonies provided by women served to convict their doctors of abortion. Ultimately women and their physicians suffered under this system that effectively curtailed the work of abortion providers through threat of legal punishment, in turn making it difficult for women to obtain a safe procedure. Dr. Anna Broomall knew her students were at particular risk for being accused of providing illegal abortions because of their perceived gender allegiance to women seeking abortions. Training for how to deal with these inevitable accusations, according to Dr. Broomall, was vital to her students’ future success as women physicians.
“Women’s Dignity?” or Punishment?
Efforts to prosecute physicians instead of women in the late nineteenth century had little to do with protecting women. Proving a person guilty of providing an abortion was tricky business, and criminalizing physicians instead of women proved an incredibly effective way to prosecute abortion providers and curtail their practice.
The 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v Wade made most abortions legal in the United States; however, the pro-life movement continues to pursue legal ramifications for abortion providers. These ramifications often take the form of state-level legislation meant to make it financially impossible for abortion providers to operate, such as regulations requiring providers to make expensive and unnecessary renovations that do nothing to enhance the safety or effectiveness of their services. In other words, legislators seek to “protect” women from unsafe procedures and facilities, when in reality the legislation is meant to shut down the work of licensed, credentialed providers.
Ultimately, this work punishes women by restricting their access to safe and affordable abortion procedures.
Motivations for refusing to “punish” women who seek abortions have taken many different forms throughout U.S. history. None of them, however, have anything to do with protecting women’s dignity and autonomy. The pro-life response to Donald Drumpf’s comments reveals a paternalistic ideology invested in infantilizing women rather than respecting their ability to make the hard decisions that are best for themselves and their families. Further, these statements ring hollow when considered against the recent cases of Purvi Patel, Bei Bei Shuai, and Christine Taylor.
All three of these women were charged with fetal homicide or feticide: Patel for self-inducing an abortion with mail-ordered medication from Hong Kong, Shuai for attempting suicide while pregnant, and Taylor for falling down stairs while pregnant. Charges against Shuai and Taylor were later dropped, but Patel was sentenced to twenty years in prison for simultaneous charges of child neglect and feticide — clear proof that the muddy waters between pregnancy and birth persist well beyond the confines of Anna Broomall’s courtroom and the nineteenth-century.
- Steven J. Peitzman, A New and Untried Course: Woman’s Medical College and Medical College of Pennsylvania, 1850-1998 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000). Return to text.
- Mock Trial at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, Records of W/MCP Medical Students 1850-1981 (ACC-072). Drexel University College of Medicine, Legacy Center: Archives and Special Collections on Women in Medicine and Homeopathy. Return to text.
- Ibid., 2. Return to text.
- Ibid., 4. Return to text.
- Ibid. Return to text.
- Regina Markell Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 220. Morantz-Sanchez notes that female physicians were often surprised by how many (middle-class) women asked for illegal abortions in their private practices. Return to text.
- Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 253-58; 266-272. Return to text.
- Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and Science, 220. Return to text.
- Leslie J. Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 130-1. Return to text.