"Taking the Trade": Abortion in America from the Colonies to Criminalization

Abortion has been practiced since antiquity. And for just as long, people have held differing views on its morality. Nevertheless, for much of human history at least some forms of abortion have been socially tolerated. It is only relatively recently that societies have made efforts to criminalize the practice.

This exhibit explores the history of the practice of abortion in America before its criminalization in the 19th century, a period of more than 200 years when abortion was left to the judgment of women rather than to the decisions of legislators. How this transformation in the understanding of abortion occurred is complex and the subject of continuing scholarly debate. Our hope is that the material in this exhibit will stimulate deeper thinking and discussion about the factors that led to an increase in the social control of women’s reproductive decisions.


Eric Johnson-DeBaufre, Rare Books and Special Collections Librarian, Watkinson Library