Abortion in the American Imagination

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IMG_6017 (1)Karen Weingarten is an Assistant Professor of Queens College, City University of New York. Her first book, Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880–1940 was published by Rutgers University Press in 2014. Her current project examines the historical and current overlaps and tensions between the feminist movement for reproductive justice and disability rights scholarship and activism.

What initially drew you to your topic?

I’ve been interested in abortion politics since my undergraduate days when I volunteered to escort women who were seeking abortions in clinics that were heavily protested. Then as a graduate student I took a seminar on women’s memoirs, and we read two memoirs from the 1960s that described illegal abortions. I was drawn to the descriptions of the abortions because even though these were “back-alley” abortions, the authors felt no shame or regret after the procedure. There was none of the language that surrounds the abortion controversy today—even on the “pro-choice” side. For that class, I started doing some preliminary research to see whether any criticism had been written about the representation of abortion during the almost 100 years when the procedure was illegal, and I was surprised that so few articles and books had been written on the topic. That was when I first started looking into the archive to see what other fictional and cultural representations of abortion existed from roughly 1880—when abortion was first outlawed in the United States—to about 1940 when the conversation about abortion shifted again.

How did you develop your archive for this project?

My primary archive consisted of literary texts, and it was challenging at first to compile a list of works that represented abortion. The Wright American Fiction archive helped me search literature published roughly between 1774 to 1900. It’s a great archive because it’s so extensive, and you can do keyword searches. However, I heard through word of mouth about many of the books I discuss that were published after 1900. For example, I was told about about Christopher Morley’s 1939 novel Kitty Foyle and Viña Delmar’s 1928 novel Bad Girl, which have both been out of print for many years now but were incredibly popular during their time, from colleagues who had happened to have read the novels or heard presentations about them for entirely different reasons.

I also drew on a non-literary archive because I was interested in how abortion was viewed culturally, politically, and medically during the era of my project (1880- 1940). The New York Academy of Medicine Library has an excellent archive of medical journals that are searchable, and the librarians there were incredibly helpful. Reading medical conversations about abortion from before 1940 and watching how physicians slowly became influenced by the political language and culture surrounding the procedure was eye opening. I also drew on birth control activist Margaret Sanger’s archive at the Sophia Smith Collection because Sanger collected articles and data about abortion in her personal files. Finally, beginning in the 1920s, Hollywood studios began arguing about how abortion (and sex, more generally) should be represented on film, and these conversations reflected a changing attitude about how abortion was discussed and perceived publicly. The Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles has a wonderful archive of letters and reports that documents some of this conversation.

What was the strangest/most interesting thing you found in the archives/while doing research?

I was riveted by the news story that opens the first chapter of my book, which was dubbed “The Trunk Mystery” by the The New York Times. It’s about a young woman who died during an illegal abortion, and her body was found tightly packed in a trunk that was supposed to travel between New York City and Chicago. The only reason it didn’t make its destination was because the August day was so hot that the trunk began to reek while sitting on the platform, and the baggage master decided to open it. It took police several weeks to identify the body, and even longer to find a suspect to accuse of performing the abortion. Even then, the evidence that was used to convict the doctor accused of performing the abortion was tenuous and so obviously invested in the racial politics of the time. The doctor was an Eastern European Jew, and the New York Times articles did little to hide their xenophobia in representations of him. Apparently, the Times, starting in about the 1850s, was determined through their reporting to villainize abortion and contribute to the campaign to outlaw abortion in New York.

It turns out, if you trace the reporting on the topic, that some of their reporters (who, as was common practice at the time, never had bylines) resorted to some unscrupulous measures to convict doctors and others who regularly performed abortions in New York City. In many cases, their reporting was fabricated or distorted to advance their anti-abortion perspectives. Occasionally, the Times would admit to this reporting bias, but these “apologies” were usually brief, buried, and quite easy to overlook. I was lucky to stumble across some as I traced this odd and convoluted abortion case. To get the full story, you should read the first chapter of my book! In short, however, I was astonished at how the story of the “Trunk Mystery” unfolded in the New York press at the time. It was both fun and fascinating to trace the story and its myriad—and often bizarre—representations.

What surprised you while writing this book?

There were so many things! For one, there was a popular sentiment, which was often represented in popular literature and definitely in the press, that abortion was a procedure mostly used by working-class and disenfranchised women. Margaret Sanger, for example, often perpetuated this belief in her writing and in her journal, The Birth Control Review, because for most of her career she publically spoke against abortion, which she thought would be eliminated as a necessity if women had access to birth control. Yet, most historians agree that it was middle-class and wealthy women who most often had abortions, in part because the procedure was expensive and difficult to access. (See James Mohr’s Abortion in America for more of this history.) It was surprising to see how activists like Sanger, and perhaps less surprising, the moralist Anthony Comstock, and novelists like Viña Delmar, Sinclair Lewis, and Edith Wharton contributed to this misrepresentation, which, I argue in the book, was meant to shame middle-class women who had abortions. However, I should also add that a number of writers like Langston Hughes, Agnes Smedley, and Theodore Dreiser did represent the economic—and racial—aspects of abortion with more nuance and accuracy.

Also, we tend to think that abortion when it was illegal was a secretive topic that was rarely spoken about publicly. Yet after 1900, which perhaps not coincidentally was shortly after abortion was outlawed in every American state, the number of novels and stories about abortion just exploded. Before 1900 there were a handful of novels that openly depicted an abortion, and as often as not “abortion” often referred to something monstrous (as in Moby Dick when the whale is described as a hideous abortion) or to unintended miscarriage. In fact, when doctors began writing about abortion in medical journals after the 1860s, they distinguished between what we now call miscarriages and what we now call abortions by referring to miscarriages as “abortions” and abortions as “criminal abortions.”

What do you think are the benefits of focusing abortion historiography on literature and popular culture versus more traditional political narratives?

There are some excellent histories of abortion during the years of its illegality (James Mohr’s Abortion in American, Leslie J. Reagan’s When Abortion was a Crime, Janet Brodie’s Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America), and they do a thorough job tracing how and why abortion became outlawed, who sought abortions, and how abortion was accessed during this era. However, I found that the literary, filmic, and popular representations of abortion didn’t always align with the historical facts. These contemporary representations of abortion allow us to see how a particular discourse is created and perpetuated—often in contradiction to what’s actually happening in a historical moment. For example, several of my chapters touch on racial politics and eugenics in the early twentieth century, and how they influenced abortion politics. Historians, like Reagan, have acknowledged the role eugenics and other forms of racism played in outlawing abortion, but understandably, their work doesn’t focus on how this connection was popularized and circulated.

After the 1860s when slavery was abolished and immigration to the U.S. was still unrestricted, white Americans felt anxiety about the changing demographics of the nation, and there was a fear that so-called native Americans (i.e. those of Anglo-Saxon origin) would soon be outnumbered by immigrant populations. One response to this perceived threat was to encourage—and in some cases, coerce—middle-class white women to reproduce in greater numbers and to prevent them from controlling their reproduction through procedures like abortion. While there are historical facts to support this narrative, it’s also revealing to see how the literature and popular culture of the time perpetuated—and sometimes resisted—this circulating discourse. For example, the 1916 silent film Where Are My Children? (directed by Lois Weber) participated in this eugenic discourse by condemning wealthy white women who sought abortions because they wanted a life of leisure—according to the film’s narrative. The film contrasted these scenes with others featuring representations of poor, immigrant women who were reproducing dozens of children because they made no attempt to control their fertility. In the film’s logic, this trajectory would eventually destroy the white American family as the U.S. became overrun with the unhealthy children of outsiders. The film had a wide circulation, even as several cities tried to censor it, and together with some popular novels of the time and the increasingly anti-abortion rhetoric in the popular press, it convinced some Americans that abortion was contributing to the demise of the nation—even as the actual evidence for that belief was quite thin.

Have you experienced any difficulties given the politically charged nature of abortion politics in the United States? What are your thoughts on academics and scholars writing monographs that can speak to current political concerns?

Abortion is definitely politically charged in mainstream political culture. Even supporters of access to abortion—like Hillary Clinton—are careful to avoid seeming “pro-abortion.” In other words, abortion is now so stigmatized that its more mainstream supporters have acquiesced to some anti-abortion rhetoric that depicts it as a shameful or harmful procedure. My book, in part, contributes to a critique of this position by showing how abortion came to be viewed through this negative lens, and in doing so, I argue that it is limiting to frame abortion through the language of choice and rights. Feminists engaged in reproductive justice have slowly accepted this position, and my book contributes to their conversation by showing the way that abortion was once discussed more frankly as entangled in issues connected to race, economics, the professionalization of medicine, and, of course, women’s status as full citizens. However, because my book critiques the “pro-choice” position (as it does the “pro-life” position) activists and others engaged in more mainstream feminist politics sometimes misunderstand me. My editor at Rutgers University Press advised that I deal with these critiques by addressing them directly—and being quite explicit about the stakes of my project—in my introduction. I hope that by doing so I’ll be able to circumvent future misunderstandings. Finally, I think that monographs concerned with historical topics that take on current political concerns are incredibly important for reminding us that any contemporary debate is made up of a constructed and ephemeral discourse. Americans are accustomed to thinking that the debate around abortion is polarized into the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” camps; however, digging into the discursive history of this debate shows how relatively new this binary is, and more importantly, how it works to disguise other issues at play in how we understand abortion—important issues, like race, class, economics, and biopolitics.

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