What Our Pro-Life Predecessors Can Teach Us about Standing against Abortion

The Supply and Demand of Abortion

Success on the abortion supply side—cutting down the number of abortion suppliers—is only part of the battle. Work on the demand side is at least as important, as our 19th-century pro-life predecessors realized.

Reducing demand had two main parts: education and compassion. In 1850 some Americans believed that unborn children were just lumps in a womb until “quickening,” that time almost halfway through the pregnancy when a mother can feel the child moving. In 1839 Dr. Hugh Hodge, the brother of theologian Charles Hodge, published a book showing that life begins at conception. In 1853, Dr. Stephen Tracy’s The Mother and Her Offspring also changed some thinking.

Tracy said science showed life begins “at the moment of conception.” He described what few then knew: “At forty-five days . . . the eyes, mouth, and nose are to be distinguished; the hands and arms are in the middle of its length—fingers distinct . . . at two months, all the parts of the child are present . . . the fingers and toes are distinct. At three months, the heart pulsates strongly, and the principal vessels carry red blood.”

Doctors such as Horatio Storer and others spoke up. Many state legislatures passed laws protecting unborn children throughout pregnancy. Reformers said the new laws would protect unborn children. Not so fast. Juries often refused to convict abortionists, and many doctors looked the other way. But then came the Civil War and the deaths of more than 600,000 young men. Those who survived were changed: It’s hard to quantify the difference, but lots of soldiers and doctors who had seen so much death became, after the war, actively pro-life.

The Story of Abortion in America

Marvin Olasky, Leah Savas

Authors Marvin Olasky and Leah Savas detail the long history of abortion and its impact on American culture through vivid personal stories that humanize people on both sides of the debate.

The Perspective of Civil War Doctors

I read in the Library of Congress many letters by Civil War doctors who literally bound up the nation’s wounds—and then traced what they did after the war. Iowa’s Dr. Joseph C. Stone served in the war and then, elected to Congress, called abortion—like slavery—a “violation of every natural sentiment, and in opposition to the laws of God and man. [The] fertilized human ovum is not like the seed that has been wrapped in some old mummy, and left to await for ages the conditions for its development. Its growth is steady and progressive, physiological and positive.” Dr. Joshua Bradford recalled “thousands in their noisome bunks—some dead, some dying,” and joined pro-life activities in Connecticut once the war ended.

Dr. P.S. Haskell of Maine said both slavery and abortion were sins that brought penalties: “If abortion continues, we shall all suffer, as a people, as a profession and as individuals, just as we all have suffered and are now suffering for the curse of American slavery.” He saw defenders of abortion treating unborn children as the property of their mothers, owners who could dispose of the voiceless without regard for their welfare.

Philadelphia’s Andrew Nebinger served as surgeon-in-charge at a hospital for wounded soldiers and did not take a salary. His earnings were comments from mothers like these: “God bless you for your faithful efforts to relieve the sufferings of, and restore my dear, my oldest son.” After the war he surveyed 59 Philadelphia doctors and learned that “the murder of the innocent is now in our day of such magnitude as to out-Herod Herod.”

Nebinger saw that pro-life laws in most states after the Civil War were rarely enforced—and when they were, hung juries often let abortionists go free. He wrote a short book, Criminal Abortion: Its Extent and Prevention, that showed his low expectations as long as a woman lets “the little being within to be ruthlessly destroyed, [thinking] the foetus is not alive, but only has . . . a capacity for living.” Merely interdicting the supply of abortionists was ineffective when “ladies of the most undoubted character . . . innocently suppose that it cannot be wrong to produce abortion, as long as there is no quickening.”

Philadelphians paid attention to Nebinger’s comments because they saw “his kindness to the sick, and his untiring zeal for their comfort,” whether rich or poor. Nebinger was particularly helpful to poor immigrants: He “gave advice, medicine and pecuniary assistance to those who stood in need. It is said that during his long professional life he never asked or accepted a fee from a poor orphan or widow. . . . He followed the teachings of the Divine Master, ‘In so much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me.’”

In other words, work on the supply side—arresting abortionists—needed an accompanying escalation of efforts on the demand side to reduce the number of abortion-seekers. Nebinger was optimistic about the opportunity to save lives through education, particularly by pastors. He thought every minister should know “that the embryo is a living being from the moment of its conception,” and by speaking up they would “very perceptibly diminish . . . the commission of the crime of abortion.”

Other Allies

Others were also optimistic. Minister John Todd said regarding abortion, “We have rid ourselves of the blight of Negro slavery, affirming that no man may be considered less than any other man. Now let us apply that holy reason to the present scandal.” Nebinger applauded statements by Catholic Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick of Boston, who spoke of “human life beginning the very instant conception has taken place,” and Episcopal Bishop Arthur Cleveland Coxe, who criticized “murder of the unborn human” and said science was on his side: “No physiologist doubts [that] the ovum an instant old [has] existence and individuality.”

Nebinger commended the one denomination that took a strong stand on abortion, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Its 1869 resolution regarded “the destruction by parents of their own offspring before birth with abhorrence. . . . We also exhort those who have been called to preach the gospel, and all who love purity and truth, and who would avert the just judgement of almighty God from the nation, that they be no longer silent or tolerant of these things, but that they endeavor by all proper means to stay the flood of impurity and cruelty.”

Nebinger thought teachers could do more. He was a member of Philadelphia’s Board of Public Education for 18 years and chaired the Committee on Text Books. But his greatest effectiveness came when he aided directly those leaning toward abortion because of poverty. Nebinger after 1876 abandoned his paid medical practice and volunteered “to relieve the sufferings of the sick poor who had not the means to engage a physician.” He became a manager of the St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum and a doctor at two charity-oriented hospitals.

Colleagues said Nebinger was effective because he was “the guide, philosopher, and friend of all,” not only “a man of strong opinions” but one of the “tender helpers to the distressed of every sort and condition.” He also became the reform-minded president of the Democratic Association of the Second Ward, delivering in 1878 “a forcible address, in which he urged the members to continue earnestly their efforts in the direction of removing the political affairs of the ward from the dictation of a few self-chosen persons who make politics their sole business.”

When Nebinger died in 1886 at age 67, a biographer called him “a brave man who struck with no uncertain hand at a crime that still remains a blot upon our civilization. Would that there were more men of his stamp among us, ready to brave everything for the truth.” He left behind bequests for the Southwark Soup Society, the St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, the House of the Good Shepherd, and the Sisters of the Order of St. Francis, for erection of a hospital.

Silence in the Church

But doctors complained that few ministers spoke and acted similarly. Dr. Addison Niles of Illinois criticized the “lack of proper religious teaching” about protecting the unborn. He listed several cases of clerical cover-up and demanded, “The clergy should speak out from the pulpit, [with] discipline of the Church brought into action.” Dr. Winslow Ayer in 1880 said “we so seldom hear pulpit discourses” about abortion. Ayer blamed pastoral unwillingness to chastise “many professed Christian members, and give such mortal offence that the offender would preach to slim audiences ever after, if at all.”

One exception to this silence of the shepherds came in 1891 at Old South First Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, Mass. That church’s pastor, Brevard Sinclair, preached a sermon against abortion that The Boston Globe reprinted. Sinclair the next year published it along with the reactions it generated. His major point: American pastors dodging the abortion issue constitute “the Church asleep.” He challenged those who claim “life only begins at birth. . . . When they make this claim they lie! I know that the best biological science of the 19th century says they lie!”

“If abortion continues, we shall all suffer . . . just as we all have suffered and are now suffering for the curse of American slavery.”

Sinclair contended that many churchgoers “would be astonished to hear that they are not Christians,” given their lackadaisical attitude toward abortion and sometimes their patronage of abortionists. He said those “who perhaps with great pretentions pray for a revival in the church, and for the out-pouring of God’s Holy Spirit, are often the guilty parties. . . . Let me say then to hypocritical Pharisees that smoking a cigar may be a filthy habit, but that abortion is murder! And not even the mask of self-righteousness . . . will save them from the wrath of God.”

Pastoral reaction to Sinclair’s gambit proved his point about fear among ministers. Some ministers thought his sermon should have been “toned down.” James Mitchell, pastor of First Presbyterian in New Bedford, told Sinclair he “recently treated the same subject in a part of a discourse which I preached to my people. I was not able then, nor am I at any time, to present it with the pointedness and boldness which you have done.” Frank Barton, pastor of a Newton, Mass., Methodist church, said he knew “what it means to stand before a cultured, refined and conservative audience and proclaim the bold, uncompromising and unflinching truths of God”—but most do not, since “many pulpits are but empty or ornamental.”

After seeing the reaction, Sinclair concluded that “euphemism is . . . the bane of the modern sermon, [but] a sermon against sin, which does not like a quivering spear hit the mark of some guilty soul, is as great a failure as Satan might himself desire.” He said ministers are “too often afraid to handle the delicate matters,” so they could safely refer to “the sins of Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, or the Slaughter of the Innocents . . . but [not] assail the sins of today.”

As the Social Gospel emerged at the turn into the 20th century, it became fashionable for pastors to speak out more often about the plight of the poor, but not about abortion. Some outsourced preaching to pro-life doctors. Dr. E.E. Hume told a Kentucky medical meeting that when a couple “anxious to have her relieved” asked him to do an abortion, he explained to them “the crime of abortion and murder.” Learning that the husband and wife were church members, Hume expanded his advice: “This is a life, as soon as impregnation occurs.”

The Medical and Surgical Reporter said of Nebinger when he died, “Would that there were more men of his stamp among us.” In my historical research I’ve found there were more, but were they enough? Would laws prohibiting abortion cut down one by one the supply of abortionists? Would young women and men decide two by two to decrease demand? Would government and civil society be part of the problem or part of the solution?

This article by Marvin Olasky, co-author of The Story of Abortion in America: A Street-Level History, 1652–2022 with Leah Savas, was first published in World Magazine.

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