Conference Agenda

4B: Abortion, Medicine and Morality in the Twentieth Century
Wednesday, 08/Sept/2021:
3:15pm - 4:30pm

Session Chair: Dr. Agata Ignaciuk, University of Granada


Abortion, Medicine and Morality in the Twentieth Century

Chair(s): Ignaciuk, Agata (University of Granada, Spain)

This panel will explore a particularly controversial area of twentieth-century healthcare, where religious and moral values have been discussed most overtly. Abortion has long been considered incompatible with both obstetricians’ and midwives’ raison d'être, to bring life into the world, and the religious Commandment, ‘thou shalt not kill’. We will offer a transnational examination of abortion provision in Ireland, Canada and Britain, considering the grounds on which abortion was made available, the influence of religion and broader moral beliefs to those seeking and providing services, and the extent to which abortion was secularised in these differing medical and political contexts


Presentations of the Symposium


Religion, Medicine, and Criminal Abortions in Ireland, 1900-1967

Delay, Cara
College of Charleston, US

This paper examines the interface between religion (Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism), medicine and criminal abortion in Ireland from 1900 to 1967. Focusing on criminal abortion trials, it demonstrates that religion was significant to some extent in women’s clandestine abortions; women almost always sought abortions within their own religious community, for example. However, there was also a distinct lack of moral concern amongst not only abortion-seeking women but also medical professionals, including physicians, coroners, nurses, and chemists, when it came to criminal abortion. Frequently appearing in criminal trials as witnesses and sometimes as defendants, medical experts most commonly expressed sympathy for abortion-seeking women rather than condemning abortion from a moral or religious standpoint. In this, their sentiments mirrored those of abortion-seeking women more so than those of legal officials (police, judges and lawyers), who more often categorized abortion as morally wrong.

The paper demonstrates that the ordinary women seeking abortion, and the members of the medical community who helped them, rarely allowed religious beliefs or even a sense of morality to inform their reproductive decision-making. Instead, they placed their experiences within the familiar context of traditions of domestic health care and community connections. For those nurses, doctors and chemists who were willing to break the law and face serious consequences, abortion was a service they conceptualized as essential healthcare. These professionals practiced a patient-centered form of medicine that prioritised the needs and wants of ordinary women.


Unhappy Accidents: Unwanted Pregnancy, Secularism and Abortion

Sethna, Christabelle
University of Ottawa, Canada

As a survivor of the Second World War and the Holocaust, Henry Morgentaler sailed from Europe to Montreal, Canada in 1953, opening a medical practice in the city two years later. Having been imprisoned in Auschwitz and Dachau because of his Jewish origins, Morgentaler grew convinced of the toxicity of religion. He joined the Humanist Fellowship of Montreal because of the organization's emphasis on science and secularism and became its president. When the federal government’s 1967 Standing Committee on Health and Welfare entertained submissions on proposed changes to the abortion laws, Morgentaler appeared before the committee to present a brief on behalf of the Humanist Fellowship of Montreal. His testimony would place him at the forefront of an abortion law reform battle that raged over the next two decades. This paper revisits Morgentaler's testimony. It suggests that in contrast to the religion-heavy presentations physicians, clergy and laypeople made about the morality of abortion, Morgentaler's testimony deliberately constructed an unwanted pregnancy as an unhappy accident of biology and abortion as an effective technical solution applicable during the first three months of gestation. In order to do so, Morgentaler highlighted the development of the conceptus in scientific terms, secularized the morality of abortion, and insisted upon the religious plurality of Canadian society. These approaches helped him to make a case for women's access to abortion services in the first trimester that was free of legal interference from the State.


'Hideous Atheistic Expediency': Abortion, Medicine and Morality in Post-1967 Britain

Davis, Gayle
University of Edinburgh, UK

The 1967 Abortion Act 'medicalised' abortion by requiring doctors to decide that the grounds were sufficient to justify a termination of pregnancy. Yet many argued that the intentional destruction of human life could not be treated as a normal aspect of healthcare, and doctors arguably had little more than their own moral values to guide them. The Act has since been subjected to fierce contestation. The Catholic Church, the 'most effective pressure group in British politics', has mobilised its networks in various effective ways and championed those Catholic doctors and nurses allegedly discriminated against for refusing to participate. Parliamentarians of strong Christian faith have made the case for (mostly) restrictive reform. The major anti-abortion groups – SPUC and LIFE – have sought to present a more non-denominational character, though not always convincingly. All recognised that medical evidence had the greatest potential to fight their cause, and recruited senior obstetricians as prominent spokespeople.

This paper will examine the relationship between religion, morality and abortion provision in Britain over the lifetime of the Act: how religious belief and moral values informed interpretations of the Act and attempts to restrict the legislation. It will explore how moral arguments were often justified through or translated into medical 'evidence', from the use of in utero visualisation technologies to the pathologisation of women's post-abortion distress as 'post-abortion syndrome', and how such evidence was interpreted by the wider medical community.