The Story of Abortion in America: A Street-Level History 1652–2022

Written by Marvin Olasky and Leah Savas Reviewed By Emily J. Maurits

Originally scheduled for publication alongside the fiftieth anniversary of the pro-abortion Roe v. Wade ruling (January 22, 2023), The Story of Abortion in America is just as significant (if not more so) in a post Roe v. Wade world. It adroitly straddles the political and personal in the abortion debate by providing a ‘street level’ history of the changing public sentiments in America since 1652. It is these ‘street-level’ opinions, the everyday beliefs of doctors, women, journalists, pastors, boyfriends and husbands, that influence both political and personal decisions. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Dobbs v. Jackson case (key to overturning Roe v. Wade), where the Supreme Court stated that a ‘re-reading of American history’ was crucial in its decision (p. 2). Whether the ‘right’ of abortion was an intrinsic part of the country’s cultural past was crucial—and it remains so. The opinions of everyday people regarding abortion matter because, ultimately, whatever the American government (or any government) has ruled in regard to the ‘supply’ of abortion, it is the public that determines the ‘demand’ (p. 75).

For those who do not live in the USA, this history is still important. Not only for understanding how societal attitudes can change and public opinions drift but also in engendering compassion towards the victims of abortion, be they child, woman or man. This is one of the book’s greatest strengths. By seeking to offer story rather than strict sociology, these pages are able to capture the deepest tragedies of abortion while bypassing melodrama. Disturbing, sickening and enraging, this history leaves the reader with no doubt that abortion is a fight for human dignity and worth. There is nothing abstract in the (remarkably) restrained reports of abortionists who ‘threw the tiny corpses into their cooking stove’, making dinner from their heat in 1883, or, a hundred years later, the discovery of ‘16,500 dead, unborn children’ in a shipping container owned by the head of a pathology lab (pp. 9–10). One cannot help but feel pity for the female abortionist who embraced the ‘career’ in 1918, partly out of hatred for the man who had impregnated her, and then said, ‘He was not to blame…. What kind of a little fool had I been to be so careless?… You got yourself that way, now get yourself out of it…. How do I know I’m responsible anyways?’ (pp. 273–74). Or frustration at a society which allows a nineteenth century apprentice, recently moved to the city, to describe himself as ‘an unprotected boy without female friends to introduce me to respectable society, sent into a boarding house, where I could enter at what hour I pleased—subservient to no control after the business of the day was over’ (p. 104). This book is not pro-abortion, but neither does it fall into simplistic judgments or a ‘“Shun the Aborting Woman” approach’ (p. 4). Rather it demonstrates that abortion can be simply wrong and inherently complex at the same time.

That said, this history is clear that the process of abortion has historically revolved around lies and obfuscation. Books in the nineteenth century claimed that undesired children ‘would be addicted to “drunkenness, to lying, to revenge,” and thus become “a miser, a warrior, a slaveholder, a robber, murderer, a pirate, or an assassin”’ (p. 129). Children born from unhappy mothers were explained to be the cause of ‘monstrous evils’ and as such it was ‘a “sinful waste” to “work for the reform of such persons”’ when their criminal careers and pitiful lives could be snuffed out pre-birth (p. 133). In a similar vein, the twentieth century saw the villainization of adoption by many who were pro-abortion, whether through the reinterpretation of adoption as a ‘class struggle’ or extreme anti-adoption short stories, such as one published in Playboy in 1989. In this narrative, fictional adopted-child Anthony ‘broils a puppy in the oven, rapes a fifth-grade girl, eats [himself into obesity] … and sends [his parents] thirty-two death threats’ causing them to flee their home town (pp. 336–37). A short time later, lawyer J. Stanley Rotinger was praised for his ‘balanced’ account of abortion in his first novel (1995), which featured a pro-lifer with ‘two empty craters, the eyes of a man whose soul had already departed’ and another anti-abortionist who uses his picket sign to stab the hero in the eye (p. 337). The overall message is clear: unborn children aren’t worth fighting for, unwanted children aren’t worth adopting, and anyone who argues otherwise is mindless and soulless. Truth?

Lest readers dismiss the above literature as over-the-top but ‘understandable’ propaganda, the authors ensure that the language used for the abortive process is also a recurring theme. In the 1800s abortifacients were marketed as pills to ‘remove female blockages’, to ‘cure… stoppages of the menses’ or even to prevent the ‘melancholy of mind and depression of Spirits that makes existence itself but a prolongation of suffering’ (p. 105). While these claims were literally true (undesired pregnancy does ‘block’ the womb, prevent periods and cause distress) the language was specifically designed to obscure what was really taking place. In the twenty-first century this continues with frightening (but perhaps unsurprising) similarity: women are provided with pills at Planned Parenthood clinics to help you ‘get your period’, leaving some women unaware that they are in fact having a chemical abortion (p. 375). They are also informed that the pills are safe, despite documented deaths (p. 377). Online websites selling abortion pills, such as Aid Access, even counsel women against full disclosure if anything goes wrong, further covering up the true number of adult victims (p. 378). When the word ‘abortion’ is intentionally avoided and the effects of abortions remain undocumented, it is very difficult to see how abortion rights can be claimed as a victory for bodily autonomy, an offering of free choice.

The Story of Abortion in America not only critiques pro-choice arguments, it outlines the successes and failures of the pro-life movement as well. This is valuable and admirable, as is the authors’ clear determination to present, rather than analyze, the historical data. The latter, however, does mean that the recounts are at times either overly didactic, thus reducing the power inherent to ‘plain’ story, or leave the reader somewhat unclear as to whether certain anecdotes are arguments or interludes. A more detailed epilogue containing an analysis of the presented data, or a concluding chapter of analysis for each section, would have been beneficial. A list of historical persons and a timeline at the beginning of the book would also have helped combat the overwhelming amount of names and dates—a necessary by-product of covering such a large swathe of history. While a book co-written by a 72-year-old man and a 27-year-old woman has obvious benefits, not least in providing diversity of perspective, I can’t help but think the book as a whole would have profited even more if the distribution of chapters (or even authorial involvement) had been more even (p. 4). It’s not until the epilogue that Marvin Olasky admits ‘Leah [Savas] has pointed out to me that women who have abortions aren’t victims in the same way unborn children are … [they] can choose not to give in’ (p. 442). This would have been a helpful perspective to have brought to the first forty chapters (written by Olasky), which give the impression that men are mostly, if not solely, responsible for the abortion statistics. To this end, allowing the sexual revolution to go unreferenced is surely a regrettable oversight.

Nevertheless, A History of Abortion in America presents a compelling and harrowing account of both the evil of abortion and the good of fighting it. It is worth reading, particularly if the subject matter has only ever felt like a distant social issue or polarising political tool. Finally, while it is not itself prophecy, this book is certainly a tool for the church’s prophetic task. For thanks to Olasky and Savas’s labors, no one can rightfully claim ignorance about ‘what a world without Roe v. Wade’ looked like (p. 439). That world is written in these pages, and with it Christians can be better equipped to face the future.

Emily J. Maurits

Emily J. Maurits
Marrickville Road Church
Marrickville, New South Wales, Australia

Other Articles in this Issue

Early Christians had to develop and negotiate their (new) identity within a society, to which their beliefs and ethical convictions were largely alien...

Acts of the Apostles reports several uprisings and instances of mob violence that occur across Asia Minor, caused by or related to the evangelistic and missionary endeavors of Paul and his companions in the middle of the first century...

As states continue to decriminalize marijuana and usage escalates in American culture, Christians must increasingly navigate their associations with the drug...

This article seeks to retrieve from the past in order to gain perspective for the present...