This week, The New York Times ran an editorial entitled “The Long, Cruel History of the Anti-Abortion Crusade” and written by John Irving, the author of the 1985 novel “The Cider House Rules.” Throughout the editorial, Irving makes a number of questionable assertions about the theological and political motivations of pro-lifers. However, the weakest part of Irving’s op-ed is his analysis of abortion policy during the 1800s. Irving is certainly correct that physicians played a role in passing laws to protect the unborn after the 1840s. That said, he claims that we “don’t know the doctors’ reasons for making abortion illegal.” However, historical research clearly shows that many physicians opposed abortion because they had strong beliefs about the value of human life.
Indeed, the role of physicians in general, and the American Medical Association (AMA) in particular, in lobbying for legislation to protect the unborn merits more attention. The AMA was established in 1847 in order to professionalize the field of medicine and standardize its practices. Originally, there was no mention of abortion in the group’s original Code of Ethics. However, when Dr. Horatio Storer, who received his M.D. at Harvard, started practicing medicine in 1855, noticed that the medical problems of female patients were frequently related to previous abortions, Storer played a key role in getting the American Medical Association to formally oppose abortion.
The Committee on Criminal Abortion was formed in 1857 at the request of Dr. Storer. His committee included well-known physicians from around the country. The AMA adopted Storer’s report unanimously in 1859 and went on to convince state legislatures to pass the protective laws against abortion. The American Medical Association continued to oppose abortion until 1967. Furthermore, the writings of Dr. Storer in various medical journals made it clear he opposed abortion because of his belief in the value of innocent human life. Interestingly, Storer frequently praised the Catholic Church for its successful prevention of abortion in Catholic women. He converted to Catholicism in 1878.
Abortion and other sanctity of life issues have been extremely salient this year. Several states including Missouri, Alabama, and Georgia have passed laws intended to protect the unborn. Other states like New York, Vermont, and Illinois have enacted laws with the intent to make their state’s abortion policy more permissive. Good historical analysis can usefully inform debates about various public policy issues. As such, it is unfortunate, but not surprising that The New York Times continues to publish editorials which clearly distort the intentions of individuals and organizations who sought to protect the unborn.
Michael J. New is a Visiting Assistant Professor at The Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.