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AMA Report on Criminal Abortion, 1859




Although no draft of the Report on Criminal Abortion has been located, the unanimous approval of Horatio's March effort probably indicates slight changes at most from the following final version read at the convention in Louisville in May, 1859 and published later that year in the Transactions of the American Medical Association.

The committee appointed in May, 1857, to investigate the subject of Criminal Abortion, with a view to its general suppression, have attended to the duty assigned them, and would present the following report:

           The heinous guilt of criminal abortion, however viewed by the community, is everywhere acknowledged by medical men.

           Its frequency - among all classes of society, rich and poor, single and married - most physicians have been led to suspect; very many, from their own experience of its deplorable results, have known. Were any doubt, however, entertained upon this point, it is at once removed by comparisons of the present with our past rates of increase in population, the size of our families, the statistics of our foetal deaths, by themselves considered, and relatively to the births and to the general mortality. The evidence from these sources is too constant and too overwhelming to be explained on the ground that pregnancies are merely prevented; or on any other supposition than that of fearfully extended crime.

           The causes of this general demoralization are manifold. There are three of them, however, and they are the most important, with which the medical profession have especially to do.

           The first of these causes is a wide-spread popular ignorance of the true character of the crime--a belief, even among mothers themselves, that the foetus is not alive till after the period of quickening.

           The second of the agents alluded to is the fact that the profession themselves are frequently supposed careless of foetal life; not that its respectable members are ever knowingly and intentionally accessory to the unjustifiable commission of abortion, but that they are thought at times to omit precautions or measures that might prevent the occurrence of so unfortunate an event.

           The third reason of the frightful extent of this crime is found in the grave defects of our laws, both common and statute, as regards the independent and actual existence of the child before birth, as a living being. These errors, which are sufficient in most instances to prevent conviction, are based, and only based, upon mistaken and exploded medical dogmas. With strange inconsistency, the law fully acknowledges the foetus in utero and its inherent rights, for civil purposes; while personally and as criminally affected, it fails to recognize it, and to its life as yet denies all protection.

           Abundant proof upon each of these points has been prepared by the Committee, and is elsewhere* [Report Footnote: *North American Medico-Chirurgical Review, Jan. 1859, et seq.] being published to the profession; but as the statements now made are almost axiomatic, recapitulation would be here wearisome and is unnecessary.

           Our duty is plain. If, by any act, we can effect aught towards the suppression of this crime, it must be done. In questions of abstract right, the medical profession do not acknowledge such words as expediency, time service, cowardice. We are the physical guardians of women; we, alone, thus far, of their offspring in utero. The case is here of life or death--the life or death of thousands--and it depends, almost wholly, upon ourselves.

           As a profession we are unanimous in our condemnation of the crime. Mere resolutions to this effect, and nothing more, are therefore useless, evasive, and cruel.

           If to want of knowledge on a medical point, the slaughter of countless children now steadily perpetrated in our midst, is to be attributed, it is our duty, as physicians, and as good and true men, both publicly and privately, and by every means in our power, to enlighten this ignorance.

           If we have ever been thought negligent of the sanctity of foetal life, the means of correcting the error are before us. If we have ever been so in deed, there are materials, and there is good occasion for the establishment of an obstetric code; which, rigorously kept to the standard of our attainments in knowledge, and generally accepted by the profession, would tend to prevent such unnecessary and unjustifiable destruction of human life.

           If the tenets of the law, here unscientific, unjust, inhuman, can be bettered--as citizens, and to the best of our ability we should seek this end. If the evidence upon this point is especially of a medical character, it is our duty to proffer our aid, and in so important a matter to urge it. But if, as is also true, these great fundamental, and fatal faults of the law are owing to doctrinal errors of the profession in a former age, it devolves upon us, by every bond we hold sacred, by our reverence for the fathers in medicine, by our love for our race, and by our responsibility as accountable beings, to see these errors removed and their grievous results abated.

           In accordance, therefore, with the facts in the case, the Committee would advise that this body, representing, as it does, the physicians of the land, publicly express its abhorrence of the unnatural and now rapidly increasing crime of abortion; that it avow its true nature, as no simple offence against public morality and decency, no mere misdemeanor, no attempt upon the life of the mother, but the wanton and murderous destruction of her child; and that while it would in no wise transcend its legitimate province or invade the precincts of the law, the Association recommend, by memorial, to the governors and legislatures of the several States, and, as representing the federal district, to the President and Congress, a careful examination and revision of the statutory and of so much of the common law, as relates to this crime. For we hold it to be a thing deserving all hate and detestation, that a man in his very originall, whiles he is framed, whiles he is enlived, should be put to death under the very hands, and in the shop, of Nature.

In the belief that we have expressed the unanimous opinion of the Association, our report is respectfully submitted.

Horatio R. Storer, of Massachusetts.
Thomas W. Blatchford, of New York.
Hugh L. Hodge, of Pennsylvania.
Charles A. Pope, of Missouri.
Edward H. Barton, of South Carolina.
A. Lopez, of Alabama.
Wm. Henry Brisbane, of Wisconsin.
A. J. Semmes, of District of Columbia.

If the recommendation of the report are adopted, the Committee would offer the following resolutions:

Resolved, That while physicians have long been united in condemning the act of producing abortion, at every period of gestation, except as necessary for preserving the life of either mother or child, it has become the duty of this Association, in view of the prevalence and increasing frequency of the crime, publicly to enter an earnest and solemn protest against such unwarrantable destruction of human life.

Resolved, That in pursuance of the grand and noble calling we profess, the saving of human lives, and of the sacred responsibilities thereby devolving upon us, the Association present this subject to the attention of the several legislative assemblies of the Union, with the prayer that the laws by which the crime of procuring abortion is attempted to be controlled may be revised, and that such other action may be taken in the premises as they in their wisdom may deem necessary.

Resolved, That the Association request the zealous co-operation of the various State Medical Societies in pressing this subject upon the legislatures of either respective States, and that the President and Secretaries of the Association are hereby authorized to carry out, by memorial, these resolutions. (pp. 75-8)