Book Reviews -- By: Anonymous

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 14:2 (Fall 1993)
Article: Book Reviews
Author: Anonymous

Book Reviews

Marvin Olasky. Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1992. 318 + xiii pp. Cloth, $25.00. Paper, $13.95.

Fetal personhood, women’s rights, privacy, abortifacient drugs, are issues of the sixties. The 1860s that is. Marvin Olasky, professor of journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, and sometime cultural commentator, has reminded us that “there is no new thing under the sun” (Eccl 1:9), in his book, Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America. While Olasky chronicles the history of abortion from the early seventeenth century in America, the nineteenth century receives the bulk of his analysis. Advocates of both sides of the current abortion controversy will find surprises in the book.

Abortion Rites is divided into three sections of four, five, and four chapters respectively. “Part One: Abortion Emerges,” commences with a survey of abortion, illegitimate childbirth, and infanticide in the New England colonies. As a biblical anthropology informs us, and as Olasky records, human nature was as fallen in the 1620s as it shall be in the 2020s. The story of abortion in the colonies is the story of seduction by masters and slave owners and abandonment of pregnant women by men of immoral character. Abortion must have been a particularly painful and lonely ordeal at that time in our history. Olasky unearths some of the grisly details in his first chapter. For instance, the first conviction for the intention to abort a child came in Maryland in 1652 when a Captain Mitchell forced his twenty-one-year-old bondservant to sleep with him and, subsequently, made her drink an abortifacient drug, causing her, in the language of the court testimony, to “break into boils and blains, her whole body being scurfy, and the hair of her head almost fallen off” (p. 21). Cases of infanticide were also heard by seventeenth-century courts, but such a crime was difficult to prove since most children were born at home and forensic pathology was not sufficiently sophisticated to determine the cause of death in every case.

For any persons under the mistaken impression that discussions of fetal personhood and the beginnings of human life are post-Roe v. Wade phenomena, reading Abortion Rites will be an important educational experience. Though there were those physicians and scientists who held that human sperm contained many homuncules (tiny humans) and the mother contributed nothing to fetal development save the growth medium of the womb, there were also some who, as harbingers of modern molecular biology, discerned that both male and female contributed significantly to the developing infant.

Olasky argues in chapters 2 t...

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