Sarah F Norton was a traveling lecturer in upstate New York. Her adventures, including her agitation to have women admitted to Cornell University, are recounted in several letters to The Revolution during the spring of 1869. Foremost among her spirited contributions to the feminist press is the following indictment of abortion. Norton makes it clear that abortion did not simply involve the exploitation of individual women and children by individual men. Male exploitation played into that of a callously profit oriented abortion industry. And the larger society as well had complicity in this “life destroying trade,” despite all the lip service paid to denouncing it.
“Tragedy – Social and Domestic” by Sarah F Norton
“Two of the most fearful domestic tragedies which occasionally startle society into a sense of its own complicity with what it pleases to call crime have recently occurred – 1 in New York, the other in a Western city. They were chiefly remarkable for certain kind of desperate savageness, the result, evidently of a mania peculiar to parturient women, and also for striking coincidence in time, in outline and in detail which renders it possible to tell the story of one book reversing the circumstances of the other.
Briefly, without prologue and without naming the persons engaged in either of these domestic dramas, the argument runs thus: a young woman, scarcely 20 years of age, of good family, well-educated, having amiable manners and enjoying the esteem of a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, alone and unattended, during the gloom of midnight, gives birth in a bathroom to an illegitimate child, which she immediately strangles and throws out of a window into a neighboring yard.
She makes her way as best she can do her own bedroom, and awaits the revelation of the coming dawn. Sick at heart, delirious in mind and exhausted in body, her friends find her in the morning beyond the reach of medical or surgical skill; and while they are learning the shocking details of that horrible night, her lips are sealed by death, and the secret is told which the sacrifice of 2 lives could not conceal.
Here are the outlines of a crime at which society shudders, and for a moment stands appalled. In another moment it is put aside with a wave of the hand, after the matter of Pod Snap, and the affair is forgotten.
Society would have avenged the murder of the child by making a victim of the unhappy mother, but death prevented that, and now, since the grave hides them both, let the social revel go on.
Sad and tragical as all this is, there is another fact still more sad and tragical, which society utterly ignores.
The woman expiated the murder of her child by her own death; but there is somewhere a man, who, if he had been modestly honorable, might’ve save both lives, and who, in the last analysis, is responsible for both, if there be personal responsibility for anything whatsoever.
Who is he? Where is he? And what is the name of and penalty for his crime. These questions, however pertinent, society does not ask. Its war is against the woman and the child, and as they are both beyond the reach of its revenge, it is entirely willing the man should receive its protection.
In their social aspect it is clearly the use of force that makes these matter shocking; for society has made child murder a fine art, and strangulation, though good enough for a guilty man, is entirely out of place when applied to a babe guilty of being born without the sanction of that law which provides no punishment for the father’s share in its conception, holds him to know a conference premature death if it happen, nor to any responsibility for its support and protection, if, perchance it persists in living, despite all efforts to destroy it.
Society has come to believe it an impertinence in children to be born at all. It is even difficult for a family with children to find a home; and throughout the entire city there are few landlords who do not stipulate for childless couples when renting the property. This partiality explains why people in cities might not want children, but is totally inadequate as a reason for the murder of them without a combination of other and greater reasons to lead it; and it cannot be considered at all in relation to the fast increasing crime of feticide throughout the country, where space is ample, ran slow, and provisions comparatively cheap. It is safe to conclude, however, that the prevailing causes are the same in both city and country. What these causes are can only be guessed at by the stray scraps vouchsafed to us through such accidents as this recent one at 94 Chatham St., and which occasionally happen to open the doors of these dens of death and reveal their secrets.
Here we find that a husband has been procuring poison for his wife and prospective offspring! Not with any wish to kill the wife perhaps, but as the chances are 5 to 1 against every woman who attempts abortion, he could not fail to realize the danger. Had this scheme been successful in destroying only the life aimed at, what could’ve been the man’s crime – and what should be his punishment if, as accessory to one murder he commits two?
Instead of expressing satisfaction at the non-success of his attempted crime, he writes with a sort of mournful cadence to his infamous coadjutor that “it,” the potion, ”had about as much effect as a glass of soda water. Just as I expected.” In this incident we find the proof of two facts: first that professional child murders are supported by the married as well as the single; and second, that the husbands are equally implicated and guilty with their wives.
These, however, are no new facts; for it is generally understood, among women at least, that in such cases the husband approves if he does not instigate. Usually he does the last; as the evidence of weakly wives and their confidential physicians would amply prove, could they be induced or compelled by any means to reveal the truth.
The servants in the house where such cases occur are not to be deceived; and the selfsame servants form the greater proportion of the unmarried who patronize such dens as that in Chatham Street. They get an example from their mistress, or if not that, learn from the common gossip in the house about other wives, that child murder is an easy and everyday affair.
The pernicious effort of all this is to make the seduction of the unmarried an easy matter, and murder an accepted contingency. If the married, to whom maternity is expected and an honor, have reason to destroy their offspring, how much more reason have they to whom it would be a lifelong dishonor; and if the first is the example, why should not the last follow it?
No returns are made of premature or illegitimate births, and we can only judge of the number by the daily accounts given in the newspapers of some women dying or dead from the effects of an abortion or premature birth, and newly born, castaway infants; and as efforts at concealment are in the main successful, we can very justly determine that the cases which come to notice are mere indications of what remains unknown.
Any business self-supporting enough to become a recognized fact by the people must, of necessity, be on the increase; and the single fact that child murderers practice their profession without let or hindrance, and open infant butcheries unquestioned, establishing themselves with impunity that is not allowed to the slaughters of cattle, is, of itself, sufficient to prove that society makes a demand which they alone can supply.
Scores of persons advertise their willingness to commit this form of murder, and with unblushing effrontery announce their names and residences in the daily papers. No one seems to be shocked by the fact; the papers are taken into the family without hesitation, and read by all the members thereof without distinction of age or sex. The subject is discussed almost without restraint; circulars are distributed broadcast, recommending certain pills and potions for the very purpose, and by these means the names of these slayers of infants, and the methods by which they practice their life destroying trade, have become “familiar in our mouth as household words.”
… Is there no remedy for this ante–natal child murder? Not any, is the reply to the question so frequently asked. Is there, then, no penalty for the crime? None I can be inflicted, for the crime has become an art, and society cannot punish those who serve it so skillfully and well.
Perhaps there will come a time when the man who wantonly kills a woman and her babe will be loathed and scorned as deeply as the woman is now loathed and scorned who becomes his dupe; when the sympathy of society will be with the victim rather than the victimizer; when an unmarried mother will not be despised because of her motherhood; when unchastity in men will be placed on an equality with unchastity in women, and when the right of the unborn to be born will not be denied or interfered with…”
Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, November 19, 1870
Quoted by Mary Krane Derr
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