Contraception and Abortion

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Abundance in fields, livestock, and (legitimate) children, particularly sons, remained cause for celebration between 1754 and 1829. Yet a rapidly growing countermovement advocated smaller, cost-effective, affectionate families that would alleviate the strains of excessive childbearing on wives and allow for sons and daughters to be educated, provided with adequate resources, and appreciated for their individuality. Birth rates were in decline—falling faster in the cities than in the country, in the East than in the West, among the native-born than among immigrants, and among the free than among the enslaved. For the free population of the United States, the number of births per 1,000 population fell from the upper 50s to the upper 40s during this period. This new movement involved economic, familial, social, sexual, marital, and emotional changes. Legal, political and religious reactions to falling fertility occurred primarily after this period.

The term "contraception" was not coined until the 1880s, but limitation of births was practiced. Delaying marriage may have been the most widely practiced means of reducing family size in the early Republic. Adolescent marriages became rarer, especially in urban areas, and white women who became pregnant out of wedlock faced severe consequences. Particularly in the Northeast, a small but growing number of women never married. Celibacy within marriage was not common. Women frequently employed extended breast-feeding, which can reduce the chances of becoming pregnant, to lengthen the intervals between births, particularly later in the course of their childbearing. Enslaved people could not legally marry, and the master class neither valued enslaved women's chastity nor honored the preferences of bound women and men for few or many children.

Practices designed to prevent conception and associated with sexual intercourse were extremely rare at the beginning of the period and uncommon at the end. Condoms were associated with prostitution and used primarily to prevent syphilis, not pregnancy. Couples may have practiced coitus interruptus, but evidence is scarce and in any event the failure rate for this practice is high. Manuals describing douching and barrier methods of contraception appear only after 1829.

Emmenagogues, substances and practices designed to restore interrupted menstruation, are recorded in women's writings, in home guides to health, and in medical, botanical, and pharmaceutical texts. Seen at the time as cures for women's ailments, these would now be classed as abortifacients, because an effect of restoring menstruation in sexually active women could be the termination of earlyterm pregnancies. When unmarried women used these same substances they were in fact considered abortifacients. A wide range of herbs, including savin, seneca snakeroot, cotton root, pennyroyal, and aloe, were thought to have the ability to restore menstruation. Horseback riding, jumping rope, or other vigorous exercise might also be recommended, but uterine intrusion was, according to surviving sources, extremely rare.

Women in the eighteenth century used herbal remedies of British, Continental European, African, and Native American origin. By the early nineteenth century, there was less experimentation and African and Native American practices were largely, but not entirely, superceded by European traditional and patent medicines. After about 1810, doctors in the newly developing field of obstetrics began to cast doubt on the effectiveness of these traditional remedies, although women, professors of materia medica (pharmacy), and family physicians continued to tout their usefulness.

Attempting to judge the effectiveness of emmenagogic remedies through scattered information in diaries, letters, and medical records is a difficult task because of the many possibilities involved in diagnosis. What is clear is that women and men increasingly discussed the desirability of limiting fertility, and birth rates steadily declined from 1760 to the twenty-first century (except for the 1950s).

The legislatures and courts paid little attention to early- or late-term abortion in the colonies and early Republic. Even the crimes of infanticide and the concealment of the death of a bastard child were rarely and selectively prosecuted. The regulation of abortion began with a Connecticut law in 1821, followed by Missouri in 1825, Illinois in 1827, and New York in 1828. These laws were as much about poison control as abortion and were confined to actions taken after quickening—the point, during the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy, at which fetal movement is detected. New York added a therapeutic exception. As the desire to limit family size became more apparent and widespread in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and commercialized abortion services more widely advertised, some legal, medical, and religious leaders demanded further controls on emmenagogues and abortion; but these developments occurred after 1829.

See alsoChildbirth and Childbearing; Domestic Life; Gender: Ideas of Womanhood; Law: Women and the Law; Manliness and Masculinity; Parenthood; Sexuality; Sexual Morality; Women: Female Reform Societies and Reformers .


Brodie, Janet Farrell. Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Klepp, Susan E. "Lost, Hidden, Obstructed, and Repressed: Contraceptive and Abortive Technology in the Early Delaware Valley." In Early American Technology: Making and Doing Things from the Colonial Era to 1850. Edited by Judith A. McGaw. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Mohr, James C. Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of a National Policy, 1800–1900. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Tone, Andrea. Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

Susan E. Klepp