On the surface, the circumstances surrounding these letters seem starkly different: In 1917, abortion and contraception were both illegal, and even sharing information about how to prevent pregnancy was considered a criminal act. In the 100 years that have passed since then, the feminist movement has made huge strides towards sexual and reproductive liberty; birth control was fully legalized in 1972, and abortion followed suit in 1973.But conservative politicians have worked tirelessly to attack and undermine these rights in recent years—passing legislation that shuttered hundreds of abortion providers throughout the South and Midwest, preventing low-income women from being able to afford abortion care, attempting to make contraception as expensive as possible, and waging constant legislative battle on Planned Parenthood. As a result, the right to choose is a right in name only for many women throughout the US, poor women and women of color in particular.Birth Control Review, published between 1917 and 1940, was edited by Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. Though she was openly opposed to abortion, Sanger would regularly print heart-wrenching correspondences from women suffering from unintended and unwanted pregnancies who thought she might be able to help them. Her goal in doing publishing these—which she referred to using epithets like "Letters from Harassed Mothers" and "Letters Showing the Dilemma Faced by Many Mothers"—was to highlight the moral imperative of legalizing birth control, which, she argued, could prevent such pregnancies and decrease the number of illegal abortions in the country.
During the first half of the 1900s, women contacted Sanger with similar concerns; many wondered how they'd be able to afford to feed more children and worried that their existing family members would suffer if they were forced to carry another pregnancy to term. "I would like to see my children have some education, but if we get some more it will be impossible," wrote one woman, in a letter printed in 1918. Another woman, writing in 1925, said she had five children. The youngest of these was just a few months old, and the mother was still recovering from that delivery.She was pregnant again, she confessed, and frightened: "I never dreamed of getting that way again. I am 41 years old."She added that her husband had gone to the doctor looking for a way to end her pregnancy to no avail, and she nervously asked whether there was anything she could do. "I don't do this to be mean. No mother loves her babies any more than I do," she said. "I don't believe in doing things like [getting an abortion], but in all conditions I honestly think it is best for my four-month-old baby… Sometimes I think I will end it all, and try not to on account of my baby and little girl and the rest of my four children."
I want desperately to be a good mother to the children I already have. I need an abortion. Please help me.
In April of 1923, a woman wrote to Birth Control Review, blithely referencing the routine way she had tried to terminate pregnancies on her own. "Every time I get that way, I always take everything I can to get out of it, and it never helps me any, only hurts my health," she said. A few months later, a woman shared a similar account, saying she had tried to prevent pregnancies by using "an antiseptic douche," but that had failed, so she began taking drugs recommended to her by a doctor to induce miscarriage: "I have been using [the drugs] since and fear it will kill me for I am getting weaker every day… I know I cannot live long, constantly taking these awful drugs."Several decades later, someone emailed Women on Web, describing her own regimen. "I tried taking parsley and vitamin C at 10 weeks, added dong quai and black cohosh a week later, trying an herbal abortion. It didn't work," she said. "I started punching myself in the stomach repeatedly for two days." That didn't work, either. She wondered what options she had left.Since the dawn of the reproductive rights movement, advocates have argued that forcing unwilling women into motherhood is dehumanizing, unconscionable, and unjust. In 1923, a woman from California described the effects of this type of reproductive oppression as she witnessed them on her own mother. Once "a person of refinement and culture," her mother, who had given birth nine times by the age of 45, had been reduced to "a human breeding machine," she said.
I'm feeling desperate and alone, and I know that time is of the essence. Please… is there anything you can do to help?
This week, a conservative lawmaker in Oklahoma referred to women in similar terms, while defending a widely maligned law that would require pregnant women to obtain written permission from their sex partners before getting abortions. "I understand that they feel like that is their body," he told the Intercept. "I'm like, hey, your body is your body and be responsible with it. But after you're irresponsible then don't claim, Well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you're the host, and you invited that in."Even after a century of progress, politicians are still trying to push policies that only recognize pregnant women as "hosts," as ambulatory wombs, as breeding machines. At what point will women be able to know with certainty—rather than just "feeling like"—their bodies are their own?