What Did the Pilgrims Think About Abortion?
Abortion is a hot topic in modern America. The history of abortion is long and complex, and well outside the scope of this blog post. I recently came across a claim in a PBS report by Professor Michele Goodwin that “The Pilgrims were performing abortions.”1 The report has no evidence to support that claim and her book on abortion appears to not reference the Pilgrims.2 While perhaps they did, and I’d be interested in any evidence in support of that claim, let’s consider what they themselves said about it.
Towards the end of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation he includes several position papers written by the pastors of Plymouth colony some two decades after their arrival in response to a request for advice from the Massachusetts Bay colony on how they should handle some crimes of child abuse and homosexuality that had been discovered. While answering those questions, Charles Chauncy, future president of Harvard, wrote this on the issue of abortion:
[T]her is no express law against destroying conception in the wombe by potions, yet by anologie with Exod 21:22, 23 we may reason that life is to be given for life.3
In this passing reference Chauncy argues not only that abortion by drugs be illegal, but that it be punished by the death penalty. One issue that complicated some historical discussions of abortion was the concept of quickening. Before ultrasounds some doctors taught that the child was not alive in the womb until the mother could feel it move – the “quickening.” So would they have permitted abortion in the first four months of pregnancy? I would suggest no. Bradford himself, when discussing the corrupt past of Rev. John Lyford said of his rape of a woman that “though he satisfied his lust on her, yet he indea[v]oured to hinder conception.”4 Since any attempt to hinder conception was condemned, it would be natural to assume that abortion at any stage was considered wrong.
This evidence is admittedly scanty, and perhaps someone will point me to more sources on how the Plymouth Colony viewed and handled abortion. It’s also important to remember that just because one Pilgrim thought a certain way does not mean that all of them agreed with him. But what I have seen so far leads me to conclude that the Pilgrims were not in favor of abortion.
1. John Yang, “Exploring the complicated history of abortion in the United States,” PBS News Hour. May 6, 2022. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/exploring-the-complicated-history-of-abortion-in-the-united-states.
2. Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood by Michele Goodwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020). On Google Books..
3. OPP, vol. 2, p. 325.
4. OPP, vol. 1, p. 417.