J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, May 07, 2022

A 1728 Cyclopaedia on “Abortion”

In the 1720s a British writer named Ephraim Chambers labored to create one of the first general reference books in English.

Chambers’s Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences made its two-volume debut in 1728. The University of Wisconsin shares complete scans here.

One of the early entries is the word “Abortion,” and it offers more evidence about how people of the eighteenth century viewed the termination of pregnancy. Chambers wrote:
ABORTION, in Medicine, an Immature Exclusion of the Foetus; or the Delivery of a Women with Child, before the legitimate Term; popularly call’d Miscarriage. . . .

This may happen at any time of Pregnancy; but if before the second Month after Conception, it is properly call’d a false Conception. . . .

The usual Causes of Abortion, are immoderate Evacuations, violent Motions, sudden Passions, Frights, &c. Other Causes are the largeness and heaviness of the Foetus, Irritations of the Womb, Relaxation of the Ligaments of the Placenta, Weakness, and want of Nourishment in the Foetus; excess of eating, long fasting or waking, the use of Busks for the Shape, offensive Smells, violent Purgatives; and, in the general, any thing that tends to promote the Menses.
That last item shows how people understood medicinal regimens to restore regular menstrual periods, as quoted yesterday, would also bring about abortions.

Indeed, while we treat miscarriage and abortion as separate categories, Chambers made no distinction between them. He didn’t dwell on whether an “abortion” was induced or natural. He did warn:
Abortion is dangerous where the Time of Pregnancy is far advanc’d so that the Foetus may be large, where the Cause is very violent, the Patient strongly convulsed, a large Hemorrhage precedes or ensues, the Foetus is putrify’d, &c.

Under other Circumstances it rarely proves mortal.
This Cyclopaedia entry says nothing about legal, ethical, or religious aspects of abortion or miscarriage.

Now Chambers also wrote, “We have instances of Abortions by the way of the Mouth, the Anus, the Navel, &c.” And “ABORTION [as a term] is also used where the Child dies in the Womb; tho it remain there many Years, or even as long as the Mother lives.” So I’m not saying Chambers and his contemporaries had a completely accurate understanding of pregnancy.

Soon after the Cyclopaedia appeared in London, the Philadelphia printer Samuel Keimer decided to run pieces of it in his new newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. Keimer worked alphabetically, so it wasn’t long before he reached the entry for “Abortion.”

TOMORROW: A famous Founder’s response.

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