What Did the Suffragists Really Think About Abortion?
Contrary to contemporary claims, Susan B. Anthony and her peers rarely discussed abortion, which only emerged as a key political issue in the 1960s
In July 1869, an anonymously authored article appeared in the Revolution, a weekly newspaper run by suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Titled “Marriage and Maternity,” the essay deemed abortion a “horrible crime of child-murder,” albeit one practiced not out of malice, but desperation, “by those whose inmost souls revolt against the dreadful deed, and in whose hearts the maternal feeling is pure and undying.”
Signed only with the letter “A,” the article has long been used by anti-abortion advocates as proof of Anthony’s anti-abortion views and of a broader throughline within feminist thought and activism. This claim, however, ignores two key facts: first, that substantial evidence points to the author not even being Anthony, and second, that the essay argues against the criminalization of abortion, calling for “prevention, not merely punishment.”
The question of whether the architects of women’s rights activism in the United States supported or opposed legalized abortion does not have a single, uncomplicated answer. But the debate, which tends to resurface whenever a new bill or court decision about abortion emerges, is back in the news following the leak of a Supreme Court draft majority opinion that would effectively overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that codified the right to abortion nationwide.
Since Politico published Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion earlier this month, observers across the political spectrum have highlighted both the history of those fighting to uphold abortion rights and those fighting to dismantle those rights. This dive into the archives has sparked contentious conversations about the legacies of figures like Anthony, with whom both anti-abortion and reproductive rights activists claim ideological kinship. Divergent historical recollections and analyses aside, the truth of the matter is that Anthony, at least, almost never addressed the topic of abortion directly.
“Was Susan B. Anthony pro-life or pro-choice? The answer is easy: neither,” Deborah Hughes, president of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House, told Slate in 2017. “Those are 20th-century movements, and she was a 19th-century person.”
Prior to the 19th century, people in what is now the U.S. engaged in a wide range of largely unregulated and culturally specific abortive practices. Before European settlers arrived in the Americas, for instance, some Native American nations used stoneseed, dogbane and other herbs to prevent pregnancy, in addition to taking abortifacients (substances that induce abortions). As European settlers arrived and forcefully established colonies in the names of their respective countries, abortion regulations continued to evolve. British colonies legalized pre-quickening abortions, which took place before the pregnant person felt fetal movement. (A term derived from quick, an archaic word for “not dead,” quickening typically takes place between 14 and 26 weeks into a pregnancy.) Spanish and Portuguese colonies, meanwhile, banned abortion entirely. Despite variation in laws and customs, abortions were common in the U.S. during the early modern and colonial eras.
For enslaved Black women, the ability to induce abortions in the aftermath of rape by an enslaver or a forced breeding encounter was a form of resistance to the institution of chattel slavery. These women attempted to and succeeded in taking charge of their reproductive lives by concocting their own remedies to induce miscarriages and prevent their unborn progeny from being enslaved. Unsurprisingly, enslavers and plantation doctors were adamantly opposed to enslaved women’s use of abortifacients, as they impacted the expansion of the enslaved Black labor force.
Before the 19th century, cultural and religious opposition to abortion was rooted in expectations about abstaining from premarital and otherwise illicit types of sex. This disapproval wasn’t firmly grounded in the question of whether life began at conception, but rather the fact that abortions served as evidence of sexual immorality and impropriety.
Opposition to abortion also came from those concerned about the health risks associated with terminating pregnancies. In Connecticut in 1742, a wealthy, white 19-year-old named Sarah Grosvenor took an abortifacient—most likely pennyroyal or savin—after conceiving out of wedlock. When she fell ill, Amasa Sessions, the 27-year-old father of the fetus, recruited a self-proclaimed “practitioner of physick” to “remove her conseption” by “manual operation,” according to archival records. Grosvenor miscarried, developed a fever and died. Three years later, amid ongoing speculation about her death, local authorities brought charges against both the doctor and Sessions. The doctor fled to Rhode Island after being found guilty of a misdemeanor; the charges against Sessions were eventually dropped.
By the early 1800s, the legal, cultural, political, medical and cultural landscapes for abortion rights had begun to drastically change. Though common law offered a legal context for pre-quickening abortions and less regulation and criminalization for post-quickening abortions, by the 1820s, states such as Connecticut and New York had begun restricting or banning post-quickening procedures. The demonization of abortion providers also intensified. Madame Restell, a self-proclaimed physician who offered both abortifacients and surgical abortions, faced continued legal troubles and even imprisonment for her work. She died by suicide in 1878 after decades of vilification by the public, which deemed her “the Wickedest Woman in New York.”
This 19th-century shift was largely prompted by the medical community’s concerns about the risk of injury and death for those undergoing abortions, as well as emergent arguments about when life begins. The burgeoning anti-abortion movement culminated in the Comstock Law of 1873, which criminalized purchasing, producing or publishing information about contraception, sexually transmitted infections and diseases, and abortions.
By 1900, abortion was a felony in every state, with a few legal exceptions for terminating pregnancies in extenuating circumstances. Those opposing abortion, led by reputable organizations such as the American Medical Association, effectively ended legalized abortion. Meanwhile, those seeking and performing abortions continued to find ways to end unwanted pregnancies.
The anti-abortion movement took shape around the same time as another key movement grounded in the future of women’s rights: the campaign for women’s suffrage. Though the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention is often identified as the beginning of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement, the seeds of the struggle were present long before this historic convention. Notably, the right to abortion was not a central aspect of the emerging women’s rights agenda—but neither was being anti-abortion.
Abortion opponents who identify suffragists as foremothers of their movement often home in on unsigned articles in Stanton and Anthony’s Revolution. The identity of the elusive “A,” who authored the essay that deemed abortion both “infanticide” and “child-murder,” is unclear, but as the Susan B. Anthony Museum and House notes, other Revolution stories signed by “A” hold “some uncomfortable surprises for those who want to believe that Anthony wrote them.” One story discusses “a technical controversy about mechanics, hardly Anthony’s field of expertise,” while another sparked a debate in which the newspaper’s editors addressed the author as “Mr. A.”
Crucially for modern debates, the unknown author of the article spoke out against the criminalization of abortion—a measure contemporaneously proposed by a prominent medical journal. “I cannot believe such a law would have the desired effect,” the author wrote. “It seems to be only mowing off the top of the noxious weed, while the root remains.” After describing men’s legal control over women, “A” lamented that the “wife has … no right over her own body.”
Even as the author acknowledged women’s lack of agency, they argued that abortions “burden her conscience in life [and] her soul in death.” This reference to the guilt ostensibly felt by those who undergo abortions is often cited by contemporary anti-abortion activists, who “miss the context and neglect to print the rest” of the essay, wrote Anthony experts Lynn Sherr and Ann D. Gordon for Time in 2015.
Historians will likely never know who wrote “Marriage and Maternity.” What they do know is that Anthony often signed her articles with “S.B.A.,” not “A.” And abortion wasn’t a primary focus for the Revolution, which chiefly functioned as a forum for the exchange of multiple points of view about the era’s issues.
Ultimately, the archive of written work and speeches delivered by suffragists simply doesn’t indicate that abortion was at the forefront of discussions about women’s rights during the mid-19th to early 20th centuries. Suffragists are not on record in any overwhelming way as being for or against abortion, though it’s reasonable to informedly speculate that at least some agreed with the broader societal move toward restricting or ending legalized abortion.
It’s also possible that some suffragists, especially those who were formerly enslaved, embraced abortion as an extension of the autonomy and fuller recognition of personhood they sought via voting rights. Arguments for voluntary motherhood by unnamed women appeared in local publications like the Women’s Advocate of Dayton, Ohio, with one author writing, “[L]et us hear no more invectives against women for the destruction of prospective unwelcome children, whose dispositions, made miserable by unhappy ante-natal conditions, would only make their lives a curse to themselves and others.”
According to Tracy A. Thomas, an expert on constitutional law at the University of Akron, many suffragists were “highly sympathetic to the reasons why women sought abortions,” including “husbands who refused to restrain their sexual demands.” Still, concerns about addressing the conditions that led to unwanted pregnancies failed to produce a singular perspective on whether abortion should be legal or criminalized.
Stanton, for her part, firmly believed in a woman’s “sovereign right to her own person,” which included the decision to be a wife or mother. In an 1856 letter to the Seventh National Women’s Rights Convention, the suffragist wrote, “The woman is greater than the wife or the mother; and in consenting to take upon herself these relations, she should never sacrifice one iota of her individuality to any senseless conventionalisms, or false codes of feminine delicacy and refinement.”
While not a full-throated statement in support of abortion rights, Stanton’s words do condemn forced maternity—an issue inextricably linked to abortion access. She saw voluntary motherhood as a key element of women’s rights.
Another complicating factor in the debate over suffragists’ views is the lack of evidence of many non-white women’s stances. Without the documented voices of Black, Indigenous, Asian and Latina activists—many of whom were excluded from the mainstream suffrage movement by Anthony and other leaders—historians can’t accurately make sweeping statements about suffragists’ thoughts on abortion.
Legality aside, people during the Victorian era still sought abortions, and abortion seekers and providers continued to find one another. The archives show that abortions continued legally and illegally, with both the support and ire of those committed to women’s rights. Abortion rights only emerged as a primary issue in the space of public debate in the 1960s and ’70s, during the U.S. women’s liberation movement.
At a moment when abortion has once again taken center stage, those looking to the past for support of their respective positions would do well to remember, in the words of the Atlantic’s Emma Green, that “[t]he country’s history has always been told through appropriated narratives, as later generations align themselves with the moral victories of earlier generations.” The abortion debate is no exception to this trend.