Publication Date


Degree Program

Department of History

Degree Type

Master of Arts


The moment life began was defined at the beginning of the nineteenth century by the mother's awareness of fetal movement. That moment was called quickening. The common law of England and of the early United States embraced quickening. Prior to quickening abortion was legally and socially benign. Abortion was a non-issue, for life was not considered to exist before the fetus was quick — which usually occurs in the fourth or fifth month of gestation. At the early stages of fetal development there was no difference between terminating pregnancy and simply restoring menses. By the end of the nineteenth century, the quickening doctrine was no longer the key to abortion law. The doctrine was dismantled for a variety of reasons. The American Medical Association (AMA) played a major role in the movement to redefine the moment of animation and restrict abortions. The physicians' motivation was not concern for the fetus. The physicians gained status and power from the restriction of abortion; they emerged fro the century as the only abortion authority. Physicians alone were able to sanction abortions. Changes occurred in the nineteenth century that increased the sense of urgency of the physicians' campaign. They utilized sensitive issues to persuade state legislatures to act. The main issues included a shift in the women seeking abortions and disparities in the population trend. In the 1840s there was an upsurge of married women in the upper classes having abortions. Abortion was no longer for the shamed single women. That trend combined with the increasing number of births among the lower class and foreign born to concern native America that they were going to be outbred. The physicians capitalized on eugenics and collective fear among the most powerful section of the population — the law makers. Religious disparities in the population growth also concerned the primarily Protestant physicians. The fear and distaste is clear in their rhetoric. Physicians were empowered by the sole ability to grant abortions, emerged as primary care givers, and successfully lobbied state legislatures for the alterations in law that allowed them to fill those roles. The common law quickening doctrine was transformed until a near prohibition on abortion existed by the 1880s. The termination of legal abortions fueled by the AMA lasted for nearly a century.


History | Social History | United States History