Utilizing the resources at the Diethelm Library, this exhibit examines the history of abortion methods and publications, with a focus on the widespread access and variety of procedures for abortion before the American Civil War. The collections at the library are primarily from Europe and America, which is reflected in the exhibit. As these sources show, access to abortion has not increased linearly over time, but instead has fluctuated, with more restrictions seen during the late 19th and early 20th century compared to the medieval and early modern European eras. As can be seen in the variety of texts used, the issue of abortion was taken up by medical doctors, sexologists, and even psychiatrists.
Based on the following texts, abortion during this time period in Europe and America was not necessarily censured or restricted as it is currently. As Lydia Harris states, “Unfortunately, the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of women—as well as the subjugation of their reproductive rights—is not a medieval anomaly that modern feminists may proudly call a thing of the past.” (134).
The history of abortion was central to the June 2022 Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which overturned the right to abortion in America previously established by Roe v. Wade. Justice Samuel Alito used a text by Matthew Hale to state that “an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973." But as this exhibit shows, the majority of the texts in the Diethelm Library document the broad availability to and a variety of methods for abortion before the American Civil War.