Seeing Pregnant People: History, Empathy, and Reproductive Politics
On November 22, 1863, New Yorker Charles F. Robertson testified in a deposition that, “About two months ago [his wife Letitia] suspected that she was in the family way and seemed almost crazy at the idea, and commenced taking medicine to bring on an abortion. She took blood root, tanzy, &c., and on the night of her death used a wire, which brought on bleeding. [Letitia’s] death followed in about five minutes after the bleeding.” In the same year, Jane Lyvore pleaded with doctors that she needed an abortion because, “she was averse to increasing her family, and did not want the trouble of rearing any more children.” And in 1844, two decades earlier, a woman identified by Dr. Gunning Bedford only as “Mrs. M” could not afford to pay for her sixth abortion, and thus probed her own uterus with a piece of whalebone. These stories are just a few of the hundreds I have uncovered from newspapers and court records for my dissertation on nineteenth-century abortion in New York City. This collection has continually demonstrated one point that feminists repeatedly have cried: women have always, and will always, need abortions. And when they cannot easily access them, then extreme actions become reasonable.
My attendance at an evangelical church in the years immediately before the Trump presidency inspired me to choose abortion as the subject of my dissertation. While I rarely heard the procedure denounced from the pulpit, I did overhear invitations to pray in protest outside of Planned Parenthood, and, in an age of social media sharing, observed viral media from Christian groups that condemned abortion. One image published by an especially influential organization deeply struck me as antithetical to the faith to which I subscribed. Overlaying an image of an ultrasound were the words, “Abortion is the evil reverse-image of the gospel. Instead of, ‘I’ll die for you,’ it says, ‘You die for me.’”
Those words stung with propagandistic shame and condemnation, contradictory to the freedom and forgiveness that I had learned God provides. That women virally shared this image in good faith unnerved me, and, I believed, bore witness to the church’s critical blindness to the historical politics of abortion. I was most affected by the statement’s cruel disregard for the pregnant person’s perspective on their situation. I am no theologian, but there is ample evidence in the Bible of a God who listens to His people, especially the marginalized, which then and now includes women. Condemning abortion, and the women who have them, as “evil” without listening to them seemed to me to be about power rather than grace. An imagined narrative of wickedness and selfishness made real women’s stories – their work, their families and other relationships, any number of their needs – invisible.
My perception of my task as a historian is directly empowered by this interpretation of Christianity. I am inspired to illuminate the stories of women such as Letitia Robertson, Jane Lyvere, and Mrs. M by a God who sees, speaks to, and helps the suffering. As Amy L. Poppinga has written in Faith and History: A Devotional, a volume of Christian devotionals written by professional historians, “As a historian, I am called professionally and personally to avoid indifference by actively choosing to see, to humbly bear witness to the plight of the Other.” Poppinga’s professional and methodological philosophy resonates with my own. I read court records, newspapers, and other sources produced by investigations into abortion both along and against the bias grain, and always with the goal of unveiling the woman’s perspective on her pregnancy.
Seeing the woman clearly is not always easy given my sources’ twists and distortions, however. Trial transcripts and newspaper accounts produced by (male) authorities of the day often buried these stories. Authorities could eliminate a woman’s words, and quite commonly cast doubt on her character and honesty in order to invalidate her testimony. A woman’s truth could be lost in service of preserving power structures. Therefore, when I open a deposition in which a woman vulnerably disclosed the circumstances that led to her pregnancy and her desire to not be pregnant, I understand that this is the most visible a woman who suffered and was made an “Other” so long ago will be to me. The women pled that they could not breastfeed another child while they still nursed their first, revealed that they found themselves pregnant after their employers violently raped them, and disclosed that they were abandoned by husbands who were drafted to war or who imagined California as a promised land for a man unencumbered by family. Still others did not provide a reason – no matter what, they simply did not want to be pregnant.
I am awestruck at the resonances between the lives of the women to whom I have access and those who seek abortions now. While the “pro-life” ideal may imagine a happy family, or a “brave” or “selfless” single mother willing to “make it work,” pregnant people’s stories make clear that their reproductive needs are embedded in their material, economic, and familial circumstances. Empathetic and humane abortion policy would trust that those people are capable of making reproductive decision for themselves. While I cannot include every narrative I have uncovered in my dissertation, each one has proved to me that empathy, listening, and questioning who is allowed to tell the story are necessary for understanding and legislating reproductive control. I am no politician or church leader, but, as a historian, I am a storyteller. Restricting access to abortion undermines a person’s ability to write their own story, which is brutally unempathetic at best, and dehumanizing and coercive at worst.
To deny pregnant people access to abortion is to deny the validity of their perspectives. Historians face the risk of the archive of reproductive control once again becoming criminal court records subject to distortion, and produced under duress. To help protect this access, I recommend donating directly to Texas abortion funds.These organizations directly help pregnant people in Texas obtain abortion access when that access has been critically limited.
- “Another Case in Grand Street,” New York Herald, November 11, 1863. ↑
- “Abortion Case in Columbia Street – A Married Woman the Victim,” New York Herald, June 19, 1863. ↑
- Gunning S. Bedford, “Vaginal Hysterotomy. By Gunning S. Bedford, M.D., Professor of Midwifery and the Diseases of Women and Children in the University of New York,” New York Journal of Medicine 2, no. 5 (March 1844): 199–202. ↑
- Beth Allison Barr and Christopher Gehrz, eds., Faith and History: A Devotional (Waco, Texas: 1845 Books, 2020). ↑
Brooke Lansing is a PhD candidate in History at Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation explores women’s perspectives on reproductive control, and the gender politics behind its increasing restriction, from 1839–1878. She earned her AB in History with a concentration in Gender and Sexuality from Princeton University.