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Womens Health Issues. 1992 Spring;2(1):32-9.

Abortion in nineteenth century America: a conflict between women and their physicians.

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  • 1University of Kansas Medical Center, Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics, Kansas City.



During the 1800s, male physicians took over women's established sources of medical care and knowledge causing friction between women and their health matters and the rising medical profession. This conflict still exists today. Physicians provided little information on how to prevent pregnancy since to do so would interfere with their natural biologic function of motherhood. Reproduction no longer controlled women who used contraceptives, had an abortion, and those who supported such decisions. Since women had to actively terminate a pregnancy themselves or seek an abortionist, abortion posed a threat to the traditional male dominance of reproductive decisions. Even though no accurate data on the frequently of abortion existed, women often practice abortion in the absence of other means of fertility control. They even helped their fellow sisters by telling them what they can use to induce abortion. These women were often church-going women and well respected in their communities. During most of the century, the clergy did not condemn abortion. There were plenty of agents and materials available to induce abortion which were sometimes publicized as methods to regulate menstruation. Abortifacients included emmenagogues, purgatives, oxytocics, and herbal or botanical products. Yet many proprietary potions did not actually terminate pregnancies. Women often resorted to using sharp instruments, wax candles, penholders with attached wires, glass rods, hair curling tongues, sticks, spoons, knives, and catheters. Physicians during the 19th century did not have the diagnostics means to determine pregnancy so often women misled them so the physicians would perform medical interventions. In the mid-1800s, allopathic physicians strengthened their professional position by regulating physicians and forming the American Medical Association. This resulted in condemnation of abortionists and abortions. They blamed complications of abortion on women's reproductive decisions. The new political climate concerning abortion resulted in regulation of women and their sexuality.

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