Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Is Bill O'Reilly the next John Edward?

To make sense of the post title, you'll first need to know that John Edward is a charlatan who claims to be able to communicate with the dead. Now on to O'Reilly ...

Yesterday on the Radio Factor, Bill O'Reilly asserted that he knows "for a fact" that the Founding Fathers would consider abortion infanticide. This begs the question: what does O'Reilly think the word fact means? If it means what standard dictionaries define it as, then it is not a fact that the founders would consider abortion infanticide. If, however, you define fact as something believed by Bill O'Reilly to be true, then in that case it could be a "fact."

As far as I can tell, abortions were legal at the time of the nation's founding, and remained so well into the 19th century. Indeed, the History Channel notes that abortion "was not considered an offense in secular law until the 19th century." The review of When Abortion was a Crime in The Atlantic states

UNTIL the last third of the nineteenth century, when it was criminalized state by state across the land, abortion was legal before "quickening" (approximately the fourth month of pregnancy). Colonial home medical guides gave recipes for "bringing on the menses" with herbs that could be grown in one's garden or easily found in the woods. By the mid eighteenth century commercial preparations were so widely available that they had inspired their own euphemism ("taking the trade"). Unfortunately, these drugs were often fatal. The first statutes regulating abortion, passed in the 1820s and 1830s, were actually poison-control laws: the sale of commercial abortifacients was banned, but abortion per se was not. The laws made little difference. By the 1840s the abortion business -- including the sale of illegal drugs, which were widely advertised in the popular press -- was booming. The most famous practitioner, Madame Restell, openly provided abortion services for thirty-five years, with offices in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia and traveling salespeople touting her "Female Monthly Pills."

In one of the many curious twists that mark the history of abortion, the campaign to criminalize it was waged by the same professional group that, a century later, would play an important role in legalization: physicians.


Anonymous said...

I haven't seen or listened to O'Reilly's comments about this but could it be that although the Founding Father's considered abortion to be a form of infanticide they did not consider it to be illegal.

Kind of like not all homicides are murder.

Hume's Ghost said...

I don't know, maybe.

But O'Reilly is using the "fact" that the founders would consider abortion infanticide as a prop to justify his own anti-abortion views. Given that abortion criminalization wasn't an issue until the mid 19th century as an issue led by physicians who wanted to end a dangerous practice it seems a pretty big stretch to assert he knows as "fact" that they would agree with his own positions on abortion.

For example, if Thomas Jefferson thought it infanticide, he didn't mention it in his casual description of native American abortion practices in Notes on the State of Virginia (Query 6 if I recall correctly.)

Hume's Ghost said...


Another reason to transpose the views of the founders onto the current debate over abortion is dubious is that it's impossible to know how their views would be informed by the current state of what we know about human biology.

Given that many of the founders were scientific rationalists one might just as easily speculate that that would correlate today with those in the sciences who tend to be in favor of legalized abortion.

Humanist.Observer said...

Small correction, O'Reilly was already a charlatan, although of a different type, before he started encroaching on Edward's gig and chanelling the dead :)

But your post brings up a related issue that just drives me bannanas.

Righty commentators often talk as though "The Founding Fathers" were of some unitary mind of timeless and omnipotent wisdom. They were not. They had differing opinions that were a response to various factors of the time, which they argued over.