The Corner

Law & the Courts

The Phony History behind Roe v. Wade

False and even fraudulent historical claims pervade the abortion debate. Newspaper stories, academic and popular books, and legal briefs — not to mention Roe v. Wade itself — traffic in myths about the history of the law and practice of abortion. In our latest issue, I clear away a tangle of misrepresentations to uncover the truth.

An influential legal brief signed by 400 historians, for example, asserted that in the early 19th century, abortion was legal and often used to limit family size. To give credence to this idea,

the authors of the brief quoted a physician who wrote that “abortion is not always associated with crime and disgrace; it may arise from causes perfectly natural and altogether beyond the control of the female.” But those words suggest and their context makes obvious that the physician, Theodric Beck, was writing about miscarriages, which are to this day sometimes described as “spontaneous abortions.” Earlier in the same work, Beck wrote that “the procuring of abortion . . . can be considered no less than murder.” . . .


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