The Truth About Abortion In Colonial America

In January 1973, as the Supreme Court was announcing its Roe v. Wade decision, construction began in Philadelphia on a shopping mall and restaurant complex known as the New Market. An entire city block along Pine Street had to be excavated. During the excavation, a brick­lined privy pit was uncovered at the rear of the property that is now 110 Pine Street. Archaeologists who dug into the pit found fragments of over one thousand ceramic, glass, and metal artifacts, along with a variety of pins, beads, buttons, dresshooks, lead counters, and wax seals from the 1750-1785 period. The pit also contained over eleven thousand pieces of bone, most of which were animal bones left over from long-ago dinners. However, archaeologists were surprised to discover fifty-two human bones which, after study, were seen to represent the remains of two infants who had been victims of late-term abortions or infanticide.

Were those killings rare occurrences, or were they part of an early American quilt of death? Solid statistics concerning early abortion and even unwed pregnancy are unavailable, but I have looked at enough pre-1800 records of infanticide and abortion to see a pattern emerging; let’s look at some typical cases.

Virginia, 1629: Suspicion but insufficient evidence
Many of us read about Captain John Smith in elementary school but we probably did not hear about the time he was called in to hear depositions concerning Dorcas Howard. Miss Howard, an unmarried servant, was arrested after she gave birth in secret to a son who was soon found dead; he may have been America’s first recorded victim of abortion, or he may have died during birth or through infanticide immediately after birth. Miss Howard was found out after Elizabeth Moorecode and other neighbors saw the dead baby and testified that “the mould of the head was bruised. …” In this case John Smith and others found there was insufficient evidence to determine whether the child had died of natural causes or foul play. Similarly ambiguous incidences were scattered through the seventeenth century. However, colony records of October 27, 1665, do show an “indictment against a man and woman for killing a bastard child.”

Massachusetts, 1648: Execution for infanticide
Another giant of American history, John Winthrop, observed the plight of a twenty-one-year-old servant Mary Martin, seduced by a married man who was “taken with her, and soliciting her chastity. …” The man “obtained his desire … divers times,” Winthrop wrote; Miss Martin soon was “with child, and not able to bear the shame of it, she concealed it.” Although a midwife who observed the pregnant woman was suspicious, tight binding kept the concealment intact until December 13, 1648. Then, “in the night, and the child born alive, she kneeled upon the head of it till she thought it had been dead. …” But horror was not yet done: “the child, being strong, recovered, and cried again. Then she took it again, and used violence to it till it was quite dead.”

Mary Martin did not get away with her crime. The suspicious midwife confronted her and called the authorities. Miss Martin could have burned the tiny corpse, but “search being made, it was found in her chest,” that place where unmarried women stored their most precious belongings in an attempt to keep hope alive. When a surgeon found a fracture in the skull, and Miss Martin “confessed the whole truth,” she was executed.

Maryland 1652: First conviction for intention to abort
Captain William Mitchell was a member of the Maryland governor’s council because Cecil Calvert, proprietor of Maryland, pronounced him a man of “honour, worth, and good abilities.” However, as Mitchell in 1650 voyaged from England to Maryland accompanied by his twenty-one-year-old bondservant, Susan Warren, Calvert’s judgment proved poor. Mitchell tried to convince her to abandon Christianity; he did succeed in convincing her, or forcing her, to sleep with him. When she became pregnant, Captain Mitchell forced her to drink an abortifacient—a potion designed to produce abortion—which caused her to “break into boils and blains, her whole body being scurfy, and the hair of her head almost fallen off.”

Susan Warren survived, bur the baby was stillborn, and a grand jury indicted Mitchell for having “Murtherously endeavoured to destroy or Murther the Child by him begotten in the Womb of the Said Susan Warren.” It could not be proven that Mitchell had murdered the child, but he was convicted of “adultery, fornication, and murtherous intention,” fined five thousand pounds of tobacco, and required to give a bond for his future good behavior. Lord Baltimore forced him to resign as a member of the governor’s council, and he was forbidden to hold any public office in Maryland. Susan Warren received a whipping for fornication but was freed and discharged from any further service to Mitchell. Court records show Mitchell in repeated trouble thereafter. Read more»

Marvin Olasky | “Did Colonial America Have Abortions? Yes, But …” An excerpt from Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America | WORLD | January 15, 2015


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