‘Thank the lord, I have been relieved’: the truth about the history of abortion in America

Abortion in the 19th-century US was widely accepted as a means of avoiding the risks of pregnancy. The idea of banning or punishing it came later

by Tamara Dean
Tue 12 Jul 2022

At our rural county’s historical society, the past lives loosely in bulletins, news clippings, maps and handwritten index cards. It’s pieced together by pale, grey-haired women who sit at oak tables and pore over old photos. Western sun filters in, half-lighting the women as they name who’s pictured, who has passed on. Other volunteers gossip and cut obituaries from local newspapers.

I was sent here by hearsay. For years, my neighbour has claimed that the old cemetery in the low-lying field on my Wisconsin property contains more bodies than the scant number of tombstones indicates. The epic flood of 1978 washed away the markers of the nameless – civil war soldiers, he says. I want to know who the dead were in life. After many walks through the cemetery, I’m familiar with the markers that remain. One narrow footstone reads simply: “MAS”. Three marble headstones rest at odd angles among the box elder trees. Stained, eroded and lichen-crusted, the stones belong to a boy and two baby girls who died in the 1850s and 60s. On the boy’s is a relief of a weeping willow; on the sisters’ are rosebuds. Signs of young lives cut short.