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When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 [Paperback]

by Leslie J. Reagan
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 21, 1998 0520216571 978-0520216570
As we approach the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it's crucial to look back to the time when abortion was illegal. Leslie Reagan traces the practice and policing of abortion, which although illegal was nonetheless widely available, but always with threats for both doctor and patient. In a time when many young women don't even know that there was a period when abortion was a crime, this work offers chilling and vital lessons of importance to everyone.

The linking of the words "abortion" and "crime" emphasizes the difficult and painful history that is the focus of Leslie J. Reagan's important book. Her study is the first to examine the entire period during which abortion was illegal in the United States, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and ending with Roe v. Wade in 1973. Although illegal, millions of abortions were provided during these years to women of every class, race, and marital status. The experiences and perspectives of these women, as well as their physicians and midwives, are movingly portrayed here.

Reagan traces the practice and policing of abortion. While abortions have been typically portrayed as grim "back alley" operations, she finds that abortion providers often practiced openly and safely. Moreover, numerous physicians performed abortions, despite prohibitions by the state and the American Medical Association. Women often found cooperative practioners, but prosecution, public humiliation, loss of privacy, and inferior medical care were a constant threat.

Reagan's analysis of previously untapped sources, including inquest records and trial transcripts, shows the fragility of patient rights and raises provocative questions about the relationship between medicine and law. With the right to abortion again under attack in the United States, this book offers vital lessons for every American concerned with health care, civil liberties, and personal and sexual freedom.

Frequently Bought Together

When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 + Choice and Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare (Gender and American Culture)
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In 1900, women attempted to induce abortions by inserting knitting needles, crochet hooks, hairpins, scissors, chicken feathers and cotton balls into their uteruses. In 1917, black women "pinned their faith on... [the] ingestion of... starch or gunpowder and whiskey." Reagan, an assistant professor of history, medicine and women's studies at the University of Illinois, dedicates her disturbing work on abortion in America before Roe v. Wade to "the lives of... women who died trying to control their reproduction." She chronicles the covert efforts and subsequent prosecution of doctors and midwives, and of unmarried women and their lovers (while married women made up the majority of clientele and were accused of "race suicide," they were pursued less often). Reagan has her work cut out for her: Though the law forbade abortions, she writes, "some late-nineteenth-century doctors believed there were two million abortions [performed] every year." And then, as now, debate raged: though some doctors disagreed, the Journal of the American Medical Association declared itself against abortion in the case of rape since "pregnancy is rare after real rape." For those who take legal abortion for granted, Reagan's work is an eye-opener.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From School Library Journal

YA?Most books written about this subject focus on the post-Roe v. Wade period. Reagan relates heart-wrenching stories of women who survived abortions and those who did not. She includes narratives from physicians, midwives, husbands, and boyfriends. The stories of poisonous potions drunk by women in an attempt to "open up the womb" remind readers that reliable birth control and pregnancy tests are recent developments. The author's research for this book comes from the Chicago AMA archives beginning in the mid-1800s when the organization led the way to criminalize abortion. Reagan utilized court records, police reports, medical literature of the day, and coroners' reports. The result is a scholarly chronicle of abortion in a large city. Containing 112 pages of endnotes and bibliography, and a 20-page index, this is a well-researched, organized, and interesting look at the inception and expansion of women's reproductive freedom as a political issue. After reading it, YAs will be better informed about the complexities of this ever-controversial subject.?Nancy Karst, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (September 21, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520216571
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520216570
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #177,192 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
95 of 100 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When abortion was a crime September 2, 2004
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In summary:

*Don't read this book if you are pro-life and you want data to support your beliefs.

*Do read this book if you are pro-choice and you want data to support your beliefs.

*Do read this book if you need to do historical research on abortions and if you need specific examples of how abortions were performed in the early 1900's.


Most of the reviewers who have given this book a negative review seem to be pro-life and seem to be basing their opinion off of their political beliefs. I can see why they're disappointed. With a title like: When Abortion Was A Crime, they were probably expecting something that would support their political beliefs. If you want to read a book to support your pro-life beliefs, don't read this one. It is very obviously pro-choice.

Reagan starts off with a premise that although the law and the church were against abortion, women in the general public were not. She covers historical periods both before and after birth control was widely available. Before birth control was available, the majority of women who had abortions were married and already had children. Some of them felt like they had no other option than to abort a child. If they had sex with their husband, they would eventually get pregnant. If they got pregnant, how would they feed their eleventh child?

I read this book for a specific reason. I was trying to find out what a woman experienced if she had an abortion in 1910. This book was perfect for that. It talked about the different options she had available (midwives and doctors), the different procedures she could have gone through.
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42 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Much Needed Work March 23, 2006
I am retired from the practice of family medicine, and witnessed the remakabe anguish and hardship that unplanned pregnancy constituted for so many women of all ages and stations. Dr. Reagan's work is a much needed one that provides an accurate and scholarly review of the history of abortion in the United States and the ways in which they were obtained before Roe vs. Wade. In an era when the greater majority of the population is too young to remember the bad old days when abortions were illegal, this is particularly important. Further, while some charge that opponents of a women's right to choose are deluded and ignorant religious fanatics, I do not believe this is necessarily true. Given accurate information such as that provided by "When Abortion Was A Crime," most people can and will make reasoned choices. I found this to be particulaly true when a daughter or wife or other family member is involved.
This book is a meticulously researched derivation from Reagan's doctoral dissertation, and has received numerous awards that include "Outstanding Book of the Year by Choice," the "President's Award from the Social Science History Association," and the "Law and Society Association's James Willard Hurst Prize for Best Book in Legal History."

--Dr. John R. Guthrie
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59 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Powerful Work of History May 6, 2003
By A Customer
This is elegant historical scholarship that is informative and compelling. I was struck by the way the author used the voices of so many people--women, legal authorities, doctors and journalists to explain not only the legal history of abortion but so much about American history and about women's lives. I'm sorry some other reviewers seem compelled to push their politics rather than describe the book--perhaps they didn't bother to read it. The book is well documented and a model for how to write and explain women's lives.
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46 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When abortion was a crime, I would have sought one February 21, 2007
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I've just ordered this book, because it's theme is not just history for me, it was a frightening part of my life. When I was a teenager abortion was a crime: and the choices that forced on women was another crime. Two of my young friends got pregnant while in high school, one at 14 and one at 16, "A" students both, they were forced to drop out of high school, marry, and face the world with a 9th and 10th grade education. Oh, the 14 year-old was "allowed" to come back and take her freshman finals: very possibly because a 14 year old, 9 months pregnant, was meant to be a frightening an object lesson, and one that successfully prevented me from having sex until I was 19. Which meant that my first love at 17 left me after a year of frustration for both of us. Another of my friends was sent to Arizona to live with her Aunt for her "asthma" -- I now believe to have a baby in a home for unwed mothers. Which was another object lesson in our town, a home for unwed mothers, from which troops of teenage unwed mothers marched to the local mall together. To a lower-middle class girl like myself, sex was frightening, because it meant I might not escape the fate of my friends" a furnished basement "apartment" in their parents's home, a new baby, a teenage husband, and no education. When I made it to state college, I began to have sex with another long-term boyfriend, still frightened, watching another friend get pregnant at 19, and drop out of college for another baby and teenage husband. My fear was only partly relieved by a local campus character we all called "Crazy Charlie" for what-seemed to be tall tales of his exploits. But I was ready to take on face value what Crazy Charlie said one day: that he knew a doctor in Philadelphia, who would perform an abortion for $200. Read more ›
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Very informative
Exhaustively researched book detailing the social climate, politics, and paternalistic attitudes that led up to abortion gradually becoming highly restricted by the twentieth... Read more
Published 9 days ago by Ivy Shoots
5.0 out of 5 stars An Important Resource for Anyone Studying the History of Abortion
This book deserves its reputation as a classic. The author draws on historical documents like coroner's inquests and the records of the criminal trials of abortion providers to... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Lindsay Beyerstein
4.0 out of 5 stars THINK!
I beleive women DESERVE a CHOICE!!!! I mean so.e women absolutely ADORE children. I Adore them. but the body of a woman is HER business. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Elvinbeloved
3.0 out of 5 stars Pro Abortion Treatise
Ms Reagan did document a great deal of history to validate the fact that abortion has always been practiced. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Jerry Slauter
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative!!
"When Abortion was a Crime" by Leslie Reagan. Without a doubt one of the best books I have read recently, if you are as passionate about women's reproductive rights as I am and... Read more
Published 17 months ago by ganddw42
4.0 out of 5 stars When abortion was a crime....
Fascinating book about a difficult subject, but the author has unearthed some amazing facts and shines a light on the dark area that is the abortion debate ... Read more
Published 18 months ago by Judy Donnelly
5.0 out of 5 stars Very readable, incredibly informative
When we consider the abortion, we often do so in a vacuum of information and a with a lack of historical perspective. This is true for both pro-choice and pro-life proponents. Read more
Published 18 months ago by Penny Duff
5.0 out of 5 stars when abortion was a crime
excellent book. very well researched and objective.a MUST for any feminist library.
Item arrived in a timely fashion and seller was quick to deliver my item. very satisfied.
Published on April 11, 2012 by Arlette Alcock
5.0 out of 5 stars Very factual and a lot of research done
The author is clearly pro-choice, but that does not make any of the facts in the book less true. I have read 4 books on abortion so far and this and the one in the link below are... Read more
Published on September 14, 2011 by Internet Safe
5.0 out of 5 stars Not much has changed
I read this over the past week. During this week Utah passed a law criminalizing miscarriages, a legislator in Virginia claimed that having abortion would cause God to punish... Read more
Published on February 26, 2010 by A. Bonomo
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