What did abortion look like in 1899?

As Queensland debates decriminalising abortion, Lisa Featherstone reviews what lack of access to safe and legal abortions historically meant.

Currently Queensland parliament is debating the decriminalisation of abortion. The Private Members Bill has been introduced by Cairns Independent Rob Pyne, and is strongly supported by women’s groups across the state.

In Queensland, pro-choice activists have drawn on the slogan, “It’s not 1899”, which powerfully evokes the multiple ways society, culture, technology and the political landscape have changed, but abortion law has not. The hashtag reminds us that women’s bodies remain controlled by legislation that is over a century old.

Nonetheless, as historians, it begs us to ask: what was abortion like in 1899?

Histories of abortion are notoriously difficult. Terminating a pregnancy was, in general, a private act, and, if done effectively, left no record for historians to trace. At the turn into the twentieth century, the main time abortion becomes visible in the public record was when there was a problem: then, there might be archival evidence left in hospital records, policing or legal records, or in the coroner’s reports. Even so, these records can be deceptive, for the term ‘abortion’ could mean induced or criminal abortion, or spontaneous abortion and miscarriage.

Drawing from a 13th-century manuscript of Pseudo-Apuleius’s Herbarium, depicting a pregnant woman in repose, while another holds some pennyroyal, a herbal abortifacient, in one hand and prepares a concoction with the other. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Nonetheless, we can find evidence to suggest that in 1899, abortion was a relatively common form of birth control.

One popular form was patent medicine or abortifacient pills. Advertised widely in the press until 1908, when Commonwealth legislation was introduced to prevent their mail order, emmenagogues were reputed to restore the menstrual flow, to clear blockages or to remove “obstructions”. Many women routinely used pills to bring on their period when it was a day or two late, and larger doses were used in attempts to bring on abortion. Most of the pills contained ergot, arsenic, iron and aloes, all of which had varying degrees of effectiveness and impacts on women’s broader health. They worked by poisoning the system and inducing abdominal cramps, and had side effects including headaches, nausea, paralysis, blindness and even death. Other pills were merely expensive fakes.

Nonetheless, women evidently considered patent medicines both safe and legal, and they were incredibly popular. The New South Wales Royal Commission into the Declining Birth Rate estimated that over a million pills were imported in 1902 alone, in addition to those manufactured locally.

But if patent medications failed – and they did – women turned to surgical abortion, from midwives, nurses, doctors, local women and sometimes friends and neighbours.

It is difficult to estimate just how dangerous surgical abortion was in 1899. Many women undoubtedly experienced safe abortions: these elude the historical record.

Hooked instrument used to perform abortions. Image via Wellcome Trust.

Operations for abortion were performed in a number of ways. At the abortionist, a miscarriage was generally brought on by a puncture wound to the uterus, often using a sound or catheter. If a doctor was involved, a curette might also be used, either as the main surgery or afterwards to clean out the womb and help prevent infection.

Women might also choose to abort themselves. One unusually frank editorial in the Australasian Medical Gazette in 1899 included a list of instruments used by women: darning needles, catheters, knives, penholders, stilettos, bonnet pins and surgical sounds. Other doctors reported the use of crochet hooks, pens and knitting needles. The Higginson syringe – designed to aid vaginal “cleanliness” – could also be used to flush out the uterus, often with the aid of the strong disinfectant Lysol.

Soviet poster, 1925, showing a woman visiting a midwife for an abortion that ultimately leads to her death when doctors are unable to save her. The text at the bottom reads: “Any trained or self-taught midwife who induces a miscarriage is committing a crime.” Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The main risk was that infection could be introduced into the womb, and sepsis and death would follow. Other risks included haemorrhage or perforation of the uterus.

Despite the risks, abortion was used by all social classes and by both single and married women. Hospital records reveal that abortion was by no means the sole domain of the desperate unmarried woman.

Doctors might also choose to perform what was termed a “therapeutic abortion”, which was defined as necessary when the woman’s life was in danger. The therapeutic abortion was constructed by the medical profession as distinct from the criminal abortion: the former hygienic and necessary, the latter tawdry and immoral. It is clear however that at least some doctors performed criminal abortions for a price. These were not necessarily safer than terminations performed by midwives and other women, who had more experience in dealing with the female body.

Though abortions were criminal in 1899, and women faced expenses and dangers in seeking to end their pregnancy, this did not stem demand. Women required agency over their bodies and continued to seek terminations, with or without state and medical approval.


Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 6.28.22 PMLisa Featherstone is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Queensland. Her latest book Sex Crimes in the Fifties with Andy Kaladelfos was recently published by MUP. Lisa has published widely on sexuality, masculinity, childbirth, medicine and child health. She is currently chief investigator on an ARC discovery project, “Sexual Offences, Legal Responses and Public Perceptions: 1880s-1980s,” with Andy Kaladelfos, Carolyn Strange and Nina Westera.

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