“Help, I’m Living in My Research!”: Writing on Abortion in a Post-Roe World
In 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, my friend and I were in the midst of writing our honors theses, she on smallpox vaccine hesitancy among the working class and I on female emancipation in Weimar Germany. We would jokingly say “Help, I’m living in my research!” on a regular basis. We drew connections between our current political climate and our work, attempting to make light of the chaos surrounding us to cope with both a pandemic and continued attacks on reproductive health. When I started writing this current piece, Politico leaked Justice Alito’s initial draft, which detailed the intent of the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn the landmark case Roe v. Wade. I stopped researching and writing. It was awful enough to think about the women in my research who died from abortions because they were denied access to reproductive healthcare. After watching the Supreme Court succeed in denying people their bodily autonomy, knowing that historically the illegality of abortions has never stopped them from happening, I felt paralyzed. How can I grapple with questions about abortion in the past, while knowing there are people who are made prisoners to their bodies in the same manner as those I research?
What is more, I knew the fear of pregnancy well. Growing up, my friends had pregnancy scares. It was almost a routine. You called your partner or best friend, took a test, or prayed to whatever you believed in. Luckily, none of us fell pregnant. But that fear was always in our minds. In August 2018, I sat in an obstetrics and gynecology office with a paper sheet under me, a hospital sheet over me, and no pants. I had just finished peeing in a cup and sat waiting for the results of a mandatory pregnancy test before a routine IUD placement. I had felt nauseated as I sat there waiting for the doctor to come in, knowing that my period was late, but also secure in the fact that I could determine my future.
I began researching abortion during the course of my undergraduate degree, focusing on the sex reform movement in Weimar Germany, 1918-1933. Numerous scholars can attest that the issue of abortion has united women across social spheres, class, and age, and Germany has been no different. During the Weimar era, advocates of the sex reform movement to increase access to reproductive health services, such as contraceptives and abortions, argued that the only way to combat “the abortion scourge” would be to legalize and regulate contraception and abortions respectively. In this history, women defined their pregnancies as unwanted illness. Scholar Patricia Stokes argues that women in Germany viewed pregnancy as inherently dangerous irrespective of their class or geographical region. Shockingly, the law in Germany in 1926 was more liberal than the current laws in many states in America. In 1926, the German Supreme Court amended Paragraph 218, the abortion law, so that women who had medical terminations were charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony. In 1927, the Supreme Court made further reforms to permit abortion on strict medical grounds, as well as mandating statutory rights to maternity leave. Historian Cornelie Usborne notes that these reforms were made possible from the grassroots efforts of women and by pressure on parliament by women politicians, doctors, and sex reformers.
My current research focuses on the treatment of lay practitioners of abortion by the German criminal justice system in the same period. While doing archival work at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin, I came across many cases of women turning to lay practitioners for their abortions. These practitioners did not have academic medical training to perform such abortions and other members of the medical profession frequently referred to them as “quacks.” One woman sought a lay practitioner who injected her uterus with poisonous liquid; she died ten days later from blood poisoning. Another woman became pregnant while unmarried and sought help from a nature therapist who used forceps and a “uterine pen” to bring on a miscarriage, after which she quickly became sick and had a high fever. The lay practitioner waited to consult a doctor and by then it was too late; the woman died several days later from peritonitis. There were numerous reasons why these women chose to have an abortion, varying from pregnancies out of wedlock or financial limitations, though these women all had one common factor: they did not want to be pregnant. Their government failed them by denying their bodily autonomy, thus endangering their lives.
Though it’s unlikely that people today will turn to lay abortionists, people will still be at risk by inducing miscarriage in a variety of unsafe ways or in not receiving care because of ambiguous laws about what constitutes a serious threat to the life of the mother. From my research, I see people maintaining a network of aid for people seeking to terminate their pregnancies. I see the refusal of doctors to comply with the law and help women despite their own risk, such as Dr. Else Kienle, who performed abortions in her private clinic and was careful to obtain the second opinion required by law to confirm that the pregnant mothers’ lives were in danger. It is clear the US is moving backward. Unlike the abortion reform movement in Weimar Germany, we must not let up in our pressure on the federal government, nor can we concede to those who are pro-forced birth.
To be frank, I do not want to engage in debates about bodily autonomy and personhood. I refuse to validate the idea that a clump of cells is more important than the actual life of the person carrying. Denying access to abortion and other reproductive health services decreases quality of life. Abortions are healthcare, and the decision belongs solely to the person who is pregnant. Abortions must be easily accessible and available upon demand because, as the reformers of Weimar Germany so succinctly put it, “your body belongs to you.”
- Gabrielle McLaren, “What Can We Say to the Poor People Now?”: Anti-Establishment Vaccine Rejection and Slow Violence in the 1885 Smallpox Epidemic,” Honours Thesis (Bachelor of Arts), Simon Fraser University, 2020, http://summit.sfu.ca/item/20624. ↑
- Politico Staff, “Read Justice Alito’s initial draft abortion opinion which would overturn Roe v. Wade,” Politico, May 2, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/05/02/read-justice-alito-initial-abortion-opinion-overturn-roe-v-wade-pdf-00029504. ↑
- Atina Grossmann, Reforming Sex: The German Movement for Birth Control and Abortion Reform, 1920-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 18-20. ↑
- Patricia R. Stokes, “Pathology, Danger, and Power: Women’s and Physicians’ Views of Pregnancy and Childbirth in Weimar Germany,” Social History of Medicine 13, no. 3 (2000: 359-380), 359-360. ↑
- Grossmann, Reforming Sex, 82. ↑
- Cornelie Usborne, “Social Body, Racial Body, Woman’s Body. Discourses, Policies, Practices from Wilhelmine to Nazi Germany, 1912-1945,” Historical Social Research/ Historsiche Sozialforschung 36, no. 2 (2011: 140-161), 158. ↑
- Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz (GStA), I HA Rep 84a Nr. 57861, 5. ↑
- GStA I HA Rep 84a Nr. 57832, 13; Cornelie Usborne, Cultures of Abortion in Weimar Germany, (Berghan Books: London, 2007), 114-115. ↑
- Grossmann, Reforming Sex, 87-88. ↑
- Grossmann, Reforming Sex, 92. ↑
Katherine St Arnaud is an MA student at the University of Victoria. She completed her Bachelor of Arts in History with Honours at Simon Fraser University in 2020. Her current research project for her thesis investigates the social networks of lay abortionists and their clients, as well how the criminal justice system treated lay abortionists as compared to doctors who performed abortions.