Normalized Abortion

Tamara Dean on the surprising parallels between 19th- and 21st-century reproductive health

Hillel Steinberg/Flickr
Hillel Steinberg/Flickr

On December 16, 1876, a 35-year-old woman named Nancy Ann Harris died in rural Wisconsin of complications from an abortion. Only one other abortion is mentioned in the leather-bound death records of the county where Harris died and Tamara Dean lives, which she writes about in her essay “Safer than Childbirth,” in the Spring 2022 issue of The American Scholar. The more common cause of death, Dean found, was giving birth. With new challenges to safe and legal abortion coming hard and fast in recent years, it can be instructive to remember that, in the 19th century, abortion was widely accepted as a means of avoiding the risks of pregnancy and childbirth. Even the Catholic Church didn’t oppose ending pregnancy before “quickening,” usually around the fourth month, because no one believed that human life existed before a woman could feel the fetus move. Tamara Dean joins the podcast to talk about what struck her about this one woman’s story, and what gets forgotten in the contemporary battle against abortion.

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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