A major American newspaper launched a crusade to stamp out abortion. That’s right. I’ll tell you about it next, on BreakPoint.
It’s time for another BreakPoint pop quiz: name the major American newspaper that ran an expose on what goes on in abortion mills entitled “The Evil of the Age.”
Give up? The answer is the New York Times.
No, you haven’t missed anything: the expose ran in the paper’s August 23, 1871 edition.
The story, which is recounted in Cait Murphy’s book about New York in the Gilded Age, “Scoundrels in Law,” is, to use the old sixties phrase, mind-blowing.
As Murphy tells us, while all abortions had been illegal in New York since 1869, not only were both abortifacients and surgical abortions readily available, abortionists openly advertised their services.
One notorious abortionist, an English immigrant who went by the name of “Madame Restell,” made so much money that she built a mansion on Fifth Avenue! And not just any mansion, but one of the grandest of them all: even the servants’ quarters were “lined with mahogany” and furnished with imported carpets.
Not everyone was impressed: street urchins would yell at her, “Your house is built on babies’ skulls!” as she passed in her carriage.
It wasn’t only street urchins who disapproved of the abortion trade. Anti-abortion activists, who “included most doctors and women’s groups, were disappointed at the ineffectiveness of the  law.”
And that is when the New York Times sprang into action. It made stamping out the abortion trade a “crusade.” It ran “a regular series of editorials and reports on the subject,” culminating in “The Evil of the Age.”
The Times sent one of its reporters, accompanied by a woman, to the “city’s most notable abortionists.” The reporter summed up his findings thusly: “there is a systematic business of wholesale murder conducted by men and women in this city that is seldom detected, rarely interfered with, and scarcely ever punished by law.”
“Evil.” “Wholesale murder.” To see how much has changed in 143 years, just consider what the Times had to say about Kermit Gosnell, who last year was convicted of three counts of murder in connection with late-term abortions at his Philadelphia clinic.
While conceding that the “details of the crimes are horrific,” the Times insisted that “the Gosnell case does not really speak to the broader abortion debate.”
On the contrary, the Times regarded attempts to push back the “commonly defined date of viability from 24 weeks to 20 weeks or even earlier,” to be a “part of a larger push to prevent women from exercising their reproductive rights.”
I look forward to the Times’ next about-face.
And this is not entirely in jest. What the story from “Scoundrels in Law” illustrates is that attitudes toward abortion in America have never been fixed and immutable. The nineteenth century saw abortion go from mostly illegal but winked at, to illegal and strongly frowned upon. Public revulsion, translated into policy, put that century’s abortion mills out of business.
It could happen again. Forty-one years after Roe, public attitudes toward abortions seem to be turning against abortion. While children don’t chant about houses being built on babies’ skulls, most Americans think that there’s something disreputable about abortion and its practitioners.
While I doubt that the Times will be repeating “The Evil of The Age” anytime soon, we should continue to make it clear that the Times was correct when it described abortion that way.
Even if they’re embarrassed to recall that bit of their history.
The Evil of The Age: The Times’ Crusade against AbortionAs you present the reality of abortion, recognize that public sentiment can change, and has changed in the past.
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