Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Abortion in Colonial America

Originally designed as a protection against syphilis, the condom began to come into use as a contraceptive in the eighteenth century. Condoms were usually made from sheep gut and were stocked by brothels and a few specialist wholesalers such as London’s Mrs. Philips who advertised to apothecaries, druggists, and “ambassadors, foreigners, gentlemen, and captains of ships going abroad.” Condoms were not widely used by the general population.

Abortion, rather than contraception, was the primary form of artificial birth control. Most available abortion material relied on folk remedies for ending pregnancy. Bloodletting, for example, was thought to be helpful. It was hoped that bleeding from any part of the body might flush the womb. Similarly, bathing went back to primitive beliefs that pregnancy could simply be washed away. The health risks involved in bringing on an abortion by falling or taking strong purgatives were relatively low, or at least not much worse than childbirth itself. In the absence of any legislation, abortion in America prior to 1800 was governed by traditional British common law. The common law did not recognize the existence of the fetus in criminal cases until it had quickened (begun to move perceptibly in the womb). This occurred late in the fourth or early in the fifth month. According to the prevailing view of the time, the fetus had no soul before quickening and had not demonstrated its independent existence through movement. Until quickening, the fetus was regarded as an extraneous part of the pregnant woman that could be removed without ethical constraint. After quickening, the expulsion and destruction of a fetus without due cause was considered a crime.

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