When Women Whaleboned Themselves

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Want to know about the real history of abortion in the Unites States? This is the second post in a series from Dr. Frederick N. Dyer’s book, The Physician’s Crusade Against Abortion. If this interests you, then get the thorough volume of this history, fully-referenced, for your own library. It is a great tool for defending true history.[/stextbox]


Doctors Opposed Abortion

Hippocrates opposed abortion in the fourth and fifth century B.C. and medical students swore for centuries “not to give a woman an abortive remedy.” Doctors opposed abortion so strongly and with a united force in the 1800’s that abortion became illegal in the United States. But to read textbooks today and to listen to “reproductive rights” advocates tell falsified accounts of history, one would easily think abortion was always the norm.

It wasn’t. The Hippocratic Oath was a significant part of the “Physician’s Crusade Against Abortion” in the late 1800’s, a crusade that led to legislation that criminalized abortion. Didn’t think it could happen? It already did. But why don’t we hear about this today? Who changed what was written in textbooks?

In the 1950’s Alan Guttmacher tried to discredit the Hippocratic Oath by saying that another Hippocrates wrote the oath, a Hippocrates that also recommended abortion. [1] There was more than one man by that name. The thing is, Guttmacher knew he was lying. He wrote in 1952 about one man, but two years later in 1954 he came up with a different story. [2] Why did he do that? Because he knew the oath was significant to the opposition to abortion. He knew!

A large part of American history regarding abortion played out in the late nineteenth century when the ancient ethics were being challenged by modern brazenness, and physicians rejected it on natural grounds. Thomas Percival, an English physician wrote Medical Ethics in 1803, spoke so beautifully honest.

“To extinguish the first spark of life is a crime of the same nature, both against our Maker and society, as to destroy an infant, a child, or a man; these regular and successive stages of existence being the ordinances of God, subject alone to His divine will, and appointed by sovereign wisdom and goodness as the exclusive means of preserving the race, and multiplying the enjoyments of mankind.” [3]

Multiplying the enjoyments of mankind! How the rhetoric has changed in the pro-choice movement where today children are considered “punishments” if no one who can keep them alive wants them.

Dr. John Brodhead Beck from New York quoted Percival in his 1817 dissertation, “Infanticide,” and his brother published the above quote in an 1823 textbook used at Harvard Medical School, Elements of Medical Jurisprudence. [4] Horatio Storer, a medical student mentioned Beck in a review article on the history of medical opposition to abortion in the North-American Medico-Chirurgical Review. [5] Physicians did not think abortion a less serious crime in early pregnancy than any other time in life because they knew the fetus was a living human being.

“The foetus, previous to the time of quickening, must be either dead or living. Now, that it is not the former, is most evident from neither putrefaction nor decomposition taking place…facts are opposed to it. Foetuses do actually die in the uterus…and then all the signs of death are present. The embryo…must be in a state different from that of death, and this can be no other than life.” [6]

The British physician, Michael Ryan, also referred to Percival and Beck and opposed abortion at any stage of pregnancy in his1836 edition of A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence and State Medicine. [7]

The New York code in 1828 stated that it is a crime at all stages of pregnancy to “willfully administer to any pregnant woman, any medicine, drug, substance or thing whatever, or shall use or employ any instrument or other means whatever, with intent thereby to procure the miscarriage of any such woman, unless the same shall have been necessary to preserve the life of such woman, or shall have been advised by two physicians to be necessary for that purpose.” [8]

The National Abortion Federation today tells the history in a very distorted way. They say that doctors feared the immigrant population was growing too fast and refused to let American women stop giving birth.  They say that physicians wanted to prevent “untrained” practitioners, such as midwives and apothecaries from competing with them for money. They say that the newly formed American Medical Association (AMA) argued that abortion was both immoral and dangerous to hide their real motivations for money.

Yet, they cite or source no one – except the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

Who Really Cared About Women’s Health?

By 1910 all but one state had criminalized abortion except to save the mother’s life, and it is true that this transformed the practice into a physician-only procedure, but by the physician’s own words, it was because they so strongly opposed abortion on legitimate moral grounds all across the United States. As will be shown later, the leader of the Physician’s Crusade Against Abortion, Dr. Horatio Storer, knew of these other physicians and the details of the opposition. He is also credited as the co-founder of modern gynecology.

Consider a difficult story from a Roman Catholic physician from New York, Dr. John Brodhead Beck. In 1844 he published an article titled “Vaginal Hysterectomy” describing how a woman was in labor for 29 hours and couldn’t give birth. He had to open the womb surgically, and because he did so, the child and mother survived. When the doctor investigated the cause of the long labor, he found scar tissue on the opening of the womb. The woman confessed that she had tried to cause an abortion by inserting a whalebone into her body. Why did she do this?

A woman, Anna Caroline Lohman, who advertised by the name Madame Restell sold drugs to cause abortions, and used whalebones inserted into the body when drugs did not do the job. However, Dr. Bedford’s patient could not afford Madame Restell’s fees, so she did it herself. She also confessed to five prior abortions by drugs and she said that there were “a great number of females who were in the habit of applying to Madame Restell for the purpose of miscarrying and that she scarcely ever failed in affording the desired relief.” [9] Dr. Bedford wrote:

“It, indeed, seems too monstrous for belief that such gross violations of the laws both of God and man should be suffered in the very heart of a community professing to be Christian, and to be governed by law and good order. Yet these facts are known to all who read. This creature’s advertisements are to be seen in our daily papers; there she invites the base and the guilty, the innocent and the unwary, to apply to her.” [10]

Whalebones are also known as baleen, the filter feeding system in the mouth of whales. They were used to give corsets their shape. So, the same tight-laced device that abnormally shaped the waist of women so that they would appear more aesthetically appealing to men, also provided the devices that, well, abnormally shaped the waist of women by killing the child within the womb.

Whalebones – killing the waist.

First women unsexed themselves; then they whaleboned themselves.

What’s next?

A physician’s crusade begins.

See you next time…


From Dr. Dyer’s book, The Physician’s Crusade Against Abortion, Chapter 2, “Early Medical Opposition.”

  1. Alan F. Guttmacher, “Therapeutic Abortion: The Doctor’s Dilemma,” Journal of the Mt. Sinai Hospital 21 (October 1954): 111-21, 111.
  2. Tage U.H. Ellinger, Hippocrates on Intercourse and Pregnancy (New York: Henry Schuman, 1952), p. 15.
  3. Thomas Percival, Medical Ethics (Manchester: S. Russell, 1803).
  4. John Brodhead Beck, “Infanticide,” T.R. Beck and J.B. Beck, Elements of Medical Jurisprudence (Albany: Packard and Van Benthusen, 1835), pp. 271-448, 293.
  5. Walter Channing was Horatio’s professor of medical jurisprudence and Channing “relied heavily” on Beck’s text. See Amalie M. Kass, Midwifery and Medicine in Boston: Walter Channing, M.D. 1786-1876 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002), p. 123.
  6. Beck, “Infanticide,” pp. 290-91.
  7. Michael Ryan, A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence and State Medicine (London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 1836), p. 282.
  8. James C. Mohr, “Beck, John Brodhead,” American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, Vol. 1, 1999), pp. 27, 436-437.
  9. Gunning S. Bedford, “Vaginal Hystereotomy,” New York Journal of Medicine 2 (March 1844): 199-203.
  10. Ibid., p. 202.

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