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Abortion in the American Imagination

Abortion in the American Imagination: Before Life and Choice, 1880-1940

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Abortion in the American Imagination
    Book Description:

    The public debate on abortion stretches back much further than Roe v. Wade, to long before the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life" were ever invented. Yet the ways Americans discussed abortion in the early decades of the twentieth century had little in common with our now-entrenched debates about personal responsibility and individual autonomy.Abortion in the American Imaginationreturns to the moment when American writers first dared to broach the controversial subject of abortion. What was once a topic avoided by polite society, only discussed in vague euphemisms behind closed doors, suddenly became open to vigorous public debate as it was represented everywhere from sensationalistic melodramas to treatises on social reform. Literary scholar and cultural historian Karen Weingarten shows how these discussions were remarkably fluid and far-ranging, touching upon issues of eugenics, economics, race, and gender roles.Weingarten traces the discourses on abortion across a wide array of media, putting fiction by canonical writers like William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, and Langston Hughes into conversation with the era's films, newspaper articles, and activist rhetoric. By doing so, she exposes not only the ways that public perceptions of abortion changed over the course of the twentieth century, but also the ways in which these abortion debates shaped our very sense of what it means to be an American.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6539-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-XIV)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    Visually almost indistinguishable from mint yet even stronger smelling and tasting than the average leaves from a peppermint plant, pennyroyal, a member of the mint family, is an obscure herb that is rarely used today. Along with savin, tansy, thyme, aloes, and various tree barks, pennyroyal was often advertised in various nineteenth-century guides as a possible abortifacient.¹ If taken in too large a dose, it was also known to cause death. In Sarah Orne Jewett’sThe Country of the Pointed Firs, pennyroyal is described as the favorite herb of Mrs. Todd, her town’s renowned herbalist, who takes every opportunity to...

  5. 1 The Biopolitics of Abortion as the Century Turns
    (pp. 14-37)

    “Cora Unashamed,” first published in 1936 in Langston Hughes’s collectionThe Ways of White Folks, is focalized through Cora Jenkins, the eponymous protagonist, who is a black woman in a predominantly white southern town.¹ Cora works for the Studevants, a white family that “treats her like a dog”² and that, in a postslavery era, “thought they owned her, and they were probably right: they did.”³ When Cora’s daughter dies of whooping cough, she develops a strong bond with Jessie, the Studevants’ youngest daughter, who was born the same year as her own daughter. And when Cora learns of Jessie’s pregnancy...

  6. 2 The Inadvertent Alliance of Anthony Comstock and Margaret Sanger: Choice, Rights, and Freedom in Modern America
    (pp. 38-65)

    This chapter seeks to trace a continuum between Anthony Comstock’s moralizing jeremiads against “obscene acts” and Margaret Sanger’s quest to legalize birth control, by demonstrating the ways in which both Comstock and Sanger used disciplining tactics that condemned abortion. Most important, this chapter demonstrates how Comstock and Sanger succeeded in criminalizing abortion, thus completing the task begun by the American Medical Association, which by the 1880s had managed to outlaw abortion in every American state.¹ Comstock’s contribution to this juridical process worked by lumping abortion together with other “sexual crimes” and contributing to the misconception that abortion was primarily used...

  7. 3 The Eugenics of Bad Girls: Abortion, Popular Fiction, and Population Control
    (pp. 66-95)

    The history of American eugenics is a history of difference. This chapter begins with an outline of an abbreviated history of eugenics to illustrate how the American obsession with race in the early twentieth century was very much focused on building knowledge about how populations differ from each other and how this knowledge about difference could be used to manage lives. As Catherine Mills succinctly argues, “The normalizing forces of racism, which allow for the biological fracturing of population and designating of some races as inferior, are the mechanisms by which a state is able ‘to exercise its sovereign power.’”¹...

  8. 4 Economies of Abortion: Money, Markets, and the Scene of Exchange
    (pp. 96-117)

    “How much will it cost?” is the first question the protagonist of Agnes Smedley’sDaughter of Earthasks the doctor who provides her with advice about procuring an abortion. Smedley’s autobiographical novel, first published in 1929, traces her own development through radical leftist politics and openly admits that access to abortion—indeed, the politics of abortion—is always tied to money. Marie, the novel’s protagonist, has two abortions, and both times she reasons with herself that an abortion “would be cheaper”¹ than carrying a pregnancy to term and raising a child.Daughter of Earthis perhaps not a typical example...

  9. 5 Making a Living: Labor, Life, and Abortion Rhetoric
    (pp. 118-138)

    Human life has value. In contemporary American society this belief is held as a truism, one that is so essential to understanding contemporary politics that even to question it publicly would be disquieting. As I discussed briefly in chapters 1 and 2, the emphasis on valorizing individual human life is key to the theories of liberalism and the foundations of the American state. Yet, while the importance of life might seem like a fundamental axiom, taken for granted in human rights treatises and the constitutions of liberal governments, the valuing of life has its own genealogy. The rise of Judeo-Christian...

  10. Epilogue: 1944 and Beyond
    (pp. 139-146)

    The above conversation takes place between Dr. Sam Perry and Bess Anderson, friends with a professional relationship, given that Sam is also the town’s only African American doctor. Bess has come to tell him that her sister, Nonnie, is pregnant as a result of a love affair with a white man, Tracy Deen, and she wants to keep the baby even though marriage is impossible given race relations in rural Georgia in the 1940s. Bess, however, insists that her sister must have an abortion. Both women are college educated, an accomplishment they achieved in part because of their mother’s hard...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 147-170)
  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 171-184)
  13. Index
    (pp. 185-188)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 189-189)