Abortion In Context: What Was The Fate Of An Unwanted Or Orphaned Child In The Nineteenth Century?

2717 words - 11 pages

Abortion in context: What was the fate of an unwanted or orphaned child in the nineteenth century?

For as much as has been written about the crime of abortion and infanticide, equally much as been said against forced maternity, marital rape, and woman’s lack of control over her own body, all circumstances resulting in unwanted pregnancy and unwanted children. Such circumstances all stemmed from unique family, social, or health issues, with no one cause resulting in the abandonment of a child. A lack of knowledge about both sanitation and about women’s health resulted in the deaths of mothers during birth. General poverty and migration from farms to city centers made large families more ...view middle of the document...

Such a model of short-term care followed by adoption, apprenticeship, or indentured servitude became the standard for dealing with orphaned children. The development of specific orphanages or child asylums, however, did not come until later in the nineteenth century. Orphaned children were first treated in almshouses, first established in Philadelphia in 1731 (7). Poorhouses, workhouses, and almshouses, all essentially the same institution, housed both adults and children without homes. Residents were seen as nearly free sources of labor, working in sweatshops or nearby mines in the case of several British poorhouses (5).

Before a child could be put into work or service, s/he had to survive through infancy. Half of all poor children in London were thought to die in their first year (6). Dr. Anna Dinsmore, part of Sororis, a New York City women’s club, formed a committee for investigating the conditions of almshouses and children’s hospitals, and published the results in an 1869 edition of The Revolution: “Two or three years ago [1966/1967] 90 to 95 percent of their entire number of infants (averaging, I believe, some 360 in the wards,) died in their first year, but this excessive mortality has been materially lessened by the employment of some fifty wet-nurses. In the year 1867 the rate of mortality had decreased 70 percent” (3). In 1868, Harper’s Weekly reported that eighty of every hundred infants placed in public almshouses die “within a short time.” In the same February 8th article, a lying-in hospital for unmarried women, run by Catharine D. Putnam was slandered for spoon-feeding abandoned infants, thought to cause a higher chance of infant death. The article makes no disguise at hiding a comparison between Putnam’s hospital and the occurrence of infanticide:

The cook testified that Mrs. Putnam advertised children for adoption, and kept them until they were adopted, and that there was a death in the house every two months. That is, Mrs. Putnam keeps a lying-in retreat for mothers who wish to abandon their offspring, and Mrs. Putnam disposes of them. If there are no applicants for adoption the fate of the infants may be surmised (4).

Within the pages of The Revolution, the almshouses of Massachusetts were exposed as having a similar mortality rate: “ninety per cent of infants in those institutions die before they reach the end of their first year!” reported F.B. Sanborn, Secretary of the Board of State Charities. Cared for by “pauper nurses,” unwanted infants had little chance for survival in the almshouse, with Sanborn writing for the establishment of separate foundling hospitals and the enlargement of facilities for mothers and children in current almshouses (1). In response to this March 28, 1868 article, F.B. Sanborn later wrote to The Revolution, seeking to contextualize the inciting statistic by explaining that the 80-90% of deaths come primarily from foundling infants, those completely abandoned by parents, and often in poor...

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