Brothers in Arms, Part 1: Racist Anti-Abortion Rhetoric from the Restell Years to Roe v. Wade

Newspaper illustration of Madame Restell in jail, February 23, 1878

This article is our first installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion, from the fears of immigration that fueled abortion prohibition in the late 1800s to the gender-based hatred rooted in today’s white nationalist resurgence.

In the battle over abortion, Kentucky was this year’s ground zero. In Louisville, the EMW Women’s Surgical Center fought to keep its doors open, as a governor, a legislature, and a base of activists — all hostile to abortion — made it their mission to shut the clinic down. For reproductive justice advocates, the stakes were high, as EMW stands as the only abortion provider in Kentucky, the last one in a state that had more than a dozen such providers in the late 1970s.

In the 19th century, opposition to abortion was fueled by racist paranoia.

The situation in Louisville was emblematic of a national phenomenon. In 2011, state legislatures entered a fever pitch, passing new restrictions on abortion, including ultrasound requirements, waiting periods, state-mandated counseling, and prohibitions against telemedicine care and abortion medications. Within a few years, more than 200 restrictions were enacted, and by early 2016, The Washington Post was reporting that 162 abortion providers had closed in their wake.

Boom Years for Abortion

When Ann Lohman first opened her abortion practice, her experience could not have stood in starker contrast to the battle of attrition against regulations and harassment that shutters many of today’s providers. If there were any challenges to keeping her doors open, it was competing with the many other providers who clamored for attention, with advertisements in newspapers, popular magazines, and even religious publications. Lohman’s own advertising budget, to stand out from the crowd, eventually reached $60,000 a year.

Lohman’s experience, like the EMW Center’s, was a sign of the times — but they were very different times.  Lohman’s first advertisement ran in the New York Sun on March 18, 1839. Throughout much of the 1800s, midwives, healers, and other providers in the U.S. offered abortion services openly and without legal barriers — and it was a thriving and competitive business for many, as well as one of the first specialty services in U.S. medical history. That $60,000 Lohman spent, which was in 1870, would soar to more than a million in today’s dollars. As if that weren’t enough marketing, Lohman adopted the name Madame Restell, a flamboyant French identity that belied her birth in Painswick, England. Her commercial instincts paid off, enough so that “Restellism” became a period term for abortion, and she and her husband could afford to invest in one of New York City’s first luxury apartment buildings, the Osborne on Fifth Avenue.

Madame Restell’s success, however, made her a target of abortion opponents from the start, and she would eventually see abortion’s social acceptance come to an end. By 1880, most abortions in the U.S. were outlawed, and only those necessary for a woman’s survival remained legal. Many physicians argued that providers like Restell, who worked with little or no formal medical training — and with about as much regulation — lacked adequate knowledge of reproductive health and embryonic development to be safe and reliable practitioners. However, governmental regulation and licensing were relatively new to health care, and historians have noted that there were no notable advances in embryonic knowledge that should have prompted the physicians’ concerns.

Racial Bias and the Anti-Abortion Backlash

While physicians spoke, convincingly or not, about a knowledge gap that would compromise the well-being of patients, for many lay persons, outlawing abortion allayed concerns about the era’s movements for women’s suffrage, equal education, and other women’s rights. According to historian Jennifer Holland of the University of Oklahoma, outlawing abortion was a form of backlash that “reasserted women’s connection to and limitation by their own reproductive anatomy.”

In addition to its roots in 19th century antifeminism, opposition to abortion was fueled by racist paranoia, as a declining birthrate among women of Anglo-Saxon heritage raised concerns among people in both government and the eugenics movement, who worried about the loss of civilization to immigrant groups who they perceived as less advanced. In the late 1800s, many native-born elites, most of whom were both Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, expressed concerns over the waves of “new” immigrants who were arriving from eastern and southern Europe, many of whom were Catholic and Jewish — and viewed as coming from less advanced cultures. Though a 1790 law had opened the states to the arrival from Europe of “all free white persons,” as those immigrants became increasingly more diverse, social scientists began categorizing them into groups such as “Celtic,” “Hebrew,” and “Asiatic.” They thereby made whiteness hierarchical, viewing many Europeans as less white than those of Anglo-Saxon stock.

A 2004 article in American Sociological Review explored the history of anti-abortion rhetoric from the 1800s, focusing on a common theme of racialized concern about “the reproductive capacity of Anglo-Saxon women.” But in addition to quantitative concerns about the birthrate, qualitative concerns were raised about the cultural meaning of abortion. From the perspective of many of its opponents, abortion represented a fall from the sophistication of their own “civilized” races into the so-called barbarism of other, “savage” races. The exotic savages were thought to display less gender differentiation in the roles their men and women assumed — a quality that abortion could bring about as it distanced women from reproduction and childbearing.

Abortion was furthermore equated with infanticide, and therefore the crude behavior of brutes. The article quotes an 1870 book by a Dr. Augustus K. Gardner:

Infanticide is no new crime. Savages have existed in all times, and abortions and destruction of children at and subsequent to birth have been practiced among all barbarous nations of antiquity … The savages of past ages were not better than the women who commit such infamous murders to-day, to avoid the cares, the expense or the duty of nursing and tending a child.

Gardner specifically cited such societies as the Greeks, Chinese, and “several savage people of North America,” while his contemporaries often shared sensationalized stories of infant sacrifice in India.

Madame Restell was herself the subject of sensationalized stories when she faced her first arrest in 1841, for complications suffered by one of her patients. Her conviction was only for minor legal infractions, but that didn’t stop the hyperbole of abortion opponents. A pamphlet that recounted her trial called her “a monster in human shape.” It also evoked images of lynching, the form of mob violence named after the Virginia planter and slave-owner Charles Lynch that became common in the South as a way of enforcing the subordinate status of blacks. Restell’s actions, the screed suggested, could merit “a recourse to Lynch law,” adding that her clinic “would not stand an hour on Negro Hill.” Tabloids filled with other epithets, often provoked by her extravagance and defiance, including “hag of misery” and “modern Thug of civilized society.”

Restell would weather more altercations with the law, including misdemeanor charges under the Comstock Act, which prohibited publishing, selling, or advertising information about contraception or abortion. Restell committed suicide before her last trial in 1878, purportedly after asking those in her house, “Why do they persecute me so? I have done nothing to harm anyone.”

The Era of Abortion Prohibition: Between Restell and Roe

The interaction of racist ideology and abortion opposition is not easily summarized in the interim years that followed — the period of abortion prohibition between Restell’s era and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationally. With abortion services forced into an underground economy, focus turned to contraceptives, especially during the birth control movement that was spearheaded by Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. Sanger signaled the movement’s beginning in 1914 when she published the first issue of The Woman Rebel, a magazine devoted to the promotion of feminism and reproductive freedom.

Margaret Sanger and Shidzue Kato, 1955

A contemporary of the birth control movement, the eugenics movement that began in the late 1800s grew into a complicated and varied collection of ideologies. Most notoriously, it included advocates for forced sterilization; the banning of interracial marriage; the closure of American borders to “inferior,” non-Nordic races; and the lynching of African Americans. However, as Daylanne English, a professor of African American literature at Macalester College, has noted, “Eugenics was so pervasive in the United States that it found expression across the political spectrum and even across racial lines, despite its origins in elitism and white supremacy.” In fact, the eugenics movement included advocates of mainstream health and hygiene practices who showed more interest in reputable medical science than the racist pseudoscience of racial taxonomy and biological determinism. They were interested in improving human health by promoting nutrition, prenatal care, and the prevention of disease — even participation in arts, leisure, and children’s recreation.

Like many of her era, Margaret Sanger took an interest in the eugenics movement, a fact that abortion opponents have used repeatedly to defame her. Those critics have ignored both the spectrum of ideas that eugenics included and the fact that Sanger rejected the use of eugenics principles for racist purposes. As Ellen Chesler, a senior fellow at the Open Society Institute, has explained, “She distinguished between individual applications of eugenic principles and cultural ones and spoke out against immigration prohibitions that promoted ethnic or racial stereotypes with a biological rationale. She saw birth control as an instrument of social justice, not of social control.”

Other historians who have examined Sanger’s written records have likewise discredited accusations that Sanger was racist, and an examination of her actions would further discredit that charge. Sanger worked closely with both the Japanese feminist Shidzue Kato and the black civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, and she wasted no time firing one of her clinic nurses who disparaged black patients. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared many of Sanger’s convictions and stated in 1966, “There is a striking kinship between our [civil rights] movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts.”

Among those in the eugenics movement who did embrace racial animosity, the issue of birth control was divisive. On either side of the divide, however, racism directed their opinion. They either feared that Anglo-Saxon women would use birth control to the point of letting “inferior” races eclipse their own, or they saw birth control as a potential tool to achieve the opposite outcome: the limitation of childbirth by other races.

It would not be until the post-Roe years, when women’s reproductive freedoms once again included abortion, that proponents of white supremacy would draw clearer lines about where they stood.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll explore the first years after Roe v. Wade, when a fight to preserve segregation brought together a religious right that used abortion as its rallying cryand set the stage for Jimmy Carter’s defeat in the 1980 election.