Thursday, February 19, 2009

For Students: The Grosvenor-Sessions Abortion Case

This is aimed primarily at students who might be looking for a topic for a term paper, debate, or speech. Instead of doing my write-up, I am going to provide primary source documents for an historic abortion case in the US Colonial era, along with some questions for you. The entire exercise is an excellent one for honing research and analysis skills. And although you can't draw definitive conclusions from just one case, you can use it as an example to combine with other evidence to try to paint as accurate a picture as you can of abortion as practiced in Colonial times.

I've found that writing up these historic abortion cases challenged many of my assumptions, introduced ideas that hadn't occurred to me before, and reinforced other assumptions. I'm hoping that regardless of your stand on abortion it will do the same for you. The more thought and consideration we give to the dynamics of abortion, the more we can do to prevent the practice -- a goal all prolifers and most prochoicers would agree on.

Before you start looking at the documents, think a while about some of what you've been taught about abortion historically -- what the different people have said to you, what you've seen written up, and what conclusions you yourself have drawn.

  • Was it common?
  • Was it legal in the time period in question?
  • Was it approved of? By whom? Why or why not? What role did concern for the fetus play? Concern for the mother? Other concerns (social stability, religious beliefs, etc.)?
  • Was it perceived as safe or dangerous? Why?
  • Was the perceived safety or danger the primary concern?
  • Was it practiced openly or secretly?
  • How did people go about arranging abortions?
  • Who took the the lead in making abortion arrangements?
  • Was abortion thought of as killing a baby?

    Since this is a death, it's also important to ask before you read:

  • Was the mother's death thought of as the only crime, the primary crime, the secondary crime?
  • How much significance was placed on the death of the fetus?

    Now it's time to start reading original source documents. The involved parties' depositions are here, and the indictments here.

    As you read, try to develop a timeline of who was doing what and when it was happening. What roles did various people play? What was their perception of what was happening? What impact did social mores, laws, religion, relationships, and other circumstances play?

    You can double-check your timeline against this chronology when you're finished. More commentary and questions are available here, and another person's commentary here.

    Were any aspects of this case surprising to you? What aspects played out the way you thought they would have? What did you learn? Do you think your preconceptions played a role in how you interpreted the events? Read these accounts and analyses, and consider what sorts of conclusions others drew from the same source documents. What other sources might they have had access to that you lack? What further information do you need?

  • "Taking the trade": abortion and gender relations in an eighteenth-century New England village. (abstract)
  • Sexual Borderlands
  • Sarah Grosvenor vs. Mary Fish
  • Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America
  • Meehan Reports (Use search to find the reference, then look at the surrounding work and compare it to what you see elsewhere.)
  • When Abortion Was a Crime (Use search to find the reference, then look at the surrounding work and compare it to what you see elsewhere.)

    Do you think this young woman's death could have been prevented? If so, how? What role did law, social mores, family and social dynamics, the relationship with the man, and medical practices of the time play in her death?

    Most importantly: What are we doing today that might be preventing such tragedies? Facilitating them? What can or should we change? What can or should we maintain or protect?
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