18th Century Dictionaries
Having identified the combination of “abortion” with verbs indicating human agency as communicating the concept of voluntary termination of pregnancy, we also investigated historical dictionaries and thesauruses looking for any other words or phrases used during or prior to the Founding Era to communicate this concept in the context of a right or privilege.
Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755, was widely read and influential in Founding Era America. Using the online edition, we looked at the following definitions:
Abortion. n.s. [abortio, Lat.]
1. The act of bringing forth untimely.
2. The produce of an untimely birth.
[example:] “His wife miscarried, but as the abortion proved only a female foetus, he comforted himself” (emphasis in original)
Abortment. n.s. [from abort.] The thing brought forth out of time; an untimely birth.
Conception. n.s. [conceptio, Latin.]
1. The act of conceiving, or quickening with pregnancy.
2. The state of being conceived.
3. Notion; idea; image in the mind.
4. Sentiments; purpose.
5. Apprehension; knowledge
6. Conceit; sentiment; pointed thought.
Fetus. n.s. [fœtus, Latin.] Any animal in embrio; any thing yet in the womb; any thing unborn.
[example:] “Nor are we at leisure to examine that paradox of Hippocrates, which some learned physicians have of late revived, that the fetus respires in the womb.” (emphasis in original)
Miscarriage. n.s. [mis and carriage.]
1. Unhappy event of our undertaking; failure; ill conduct.
2. Abortion; act of bringing forth before the time.
[example:] “There must be flying and death, as well as miscarriages and abortions; for there died many women with child.” (emphasis in original)
Womb. n.s. [wamba, Goth. wamb, Sax. wæmb, Islandick.]
1. The place of the fætus in the mother.
2. The place whence any thing is produced.
With guidance from Professor Pamela Brannon, law librarian at the Georgia State University College of Law, we also identified four additional 18th century dictionaries and found the following definitions:
John Cruso, A treasure of easy medicines, briefly comprehending approved and specific remedies for almost all disorders of the human body. Extracted from the most celebrated Writings both of the ancients and moderns, and Digested in Alphabetical Order. Licensed and Recommended by The Royal College of Physicians (1771)
Abortion, miscarriage, or untimely birth.
Steven Blankaart, The physical dictionary. Wherein the terms of anatomy, the names and causes of diseases, chyrurgical instruments, and their use are accurately describ'd. Also The Names and Virtues of Medicinal Plants, Minerals, Stones, Gums, Salts, Earths, &c. And the Method of choosing the best Drugs: The Terms of Chymistry, and of the Apothecaries Art; and the various Forms of Medicines, and the ways of Compounding them (London 1702)
Abortus, an Untimely Birth or Miscarriage; which happens through divers Causes, Inward and Outward
Ablotica, Medicines which cause Abortion, as are all Diureticks
Apophthora, an Abortion, or birth of a Foetus before its due time
Citrea malus, a Citron tree, … the Seeds … cause Abortion
Cuticula, … it is not condensed by Cold; for I have often shewn [shown] it in Abortions
Echotica, Medicines which cause Abortion
Felix, Fern, the Roots of Male-Fern is reckon’d injurious to Women, occasions Barrenness, and causes Abortion.
Edward Phillips, The new world of words, or, A universal English dictionary containing the proper significations and derivations of all words from other languages ... as now made use of in our English tongue. Together with definitions of all those terms that conduce to the understanding of any of the arts or sciences ... : to which is added the interpretations of proper names ... and likewise the geographical descriptions of the chief countries and cities in the world ... A work very necessary for strangers, as well as our own countrymen, to the right understanding of what they discourse, write, or read. (London 1700)
Abortion, (‘Lat.) miscarrying in Women, or the Birth of a Child so long before its time, that it is in nor capacity to live
Abortive, an Epithete given to any design or Purpose that miscarries
John Cowell, The interpreter of words and terms, used either in the common or statute laws of this realm, and in tenures and jocular customs : with an appendix, containing the ancient names of places in England, very necessary for the use of all young students, that converse with ancient deeds, charters, &c. / first publish'd by the learned Dr. Cowel, in the year c1607 ; and continu'd by Tho. Manley of the Middle Temple, Esq., to the year 1684 ; now further augmented and improv'd [by White Kennett] by the addition of many thousand words, as are found in our histories, antiquities, cartularies, rolls, registers, and other manuscript records, not hitherto explain'd in any dictionary. (London 1701).
Nothing for “abortion” or variations
We also looked at The Historical Thesaurus of English, described as “a unique resource charting the development of meaning in the huge and varied vocabulary of English … [consisting of almost] every recorded word in English from early medieval times to the present day, all arranged into detailed hierarchies of meaning.”
Under “abortion” two terms are listed as appearing as early as the Founding Era, both referring to an aborted fetus:
Under “miscarriage” seven terms are listed as appearing as early as the Founding Era (excluding four words from Old English):
Noah Webster published first truly American dictionary in 1806, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, containing the following definitions:
Abortion, Abortment, n. a miscarriage in women
Abortive, a., untimely, unsuccessful; n, a vellum
Abortiveness, n. the state of being abortive
Miscarriage, n., an abortion, failure, defeat, fault
Miscarry, v. i., to have an abortion, fail, miss, err
The following words appeared in the above definitions and/or synonyms at least once, but do not appear in COFEA:
The following appearing in the above definitions and/or synonyms at least once also appear in COFEA but examining each context of usage we did not find any occurrences that referred to voluntary termination of pregnancy:
“foetus” appears 268 times in COFEA, which is too many examples for a manual examination of each occurrence. Instead we searched among the top 100 collocates looking for words that might indicate termination of pregnancy. We found “expelled”, “extracted,” “destroy” and “injected” and then searched for every used of “foetus” within six words of any of these verbs or their variations.
“injected” produced no examples relating to voluntary termination of a pregnancy
“expelled” produced no examples relating to voluntary termination of a pregnancy
“extracted” produced no examples relating to voluntary termination of a pregnancy
“destroy” produced two examples of pregnancy terminated through human agency
-Hamilton in his Outline of the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, see note 31 in text, describes a medical procedure called “embryotomy,” used when there is no reasonable prospect of delivering the foetus alive and it must be destroyed to preserve the mother’s life.
-William Smith in The History of the province of New York from the first discovery to the year 1732 ( ), that Native Americans are “very lascivious, and that the women, to avoid reproach, frequently destroy the foetus in the womb.”
We then searched COFEA for “embryotomy” and found two additional occurrences, both also in Outline of the Theory and Practice of Midwifery, in which Hamilton referred to the “horid [sic] operation of embryotomy” and the “dreadful operation of embryotomy.”
None of these examples found by investigating the use of “destroy” with “foetus” supports a claim that the “right to abortion” was “deeply rooted in the history and traditions of the American people”
womb appears 792 times which is too many examples for a manual examination of each occurrence. Instead we searched among the top 100 collocates looking for words that might indicate termination of pregnancy. We found “died,” “buried,” “embryo” and “foetus” and then searched for every occurrence of “womb” within six words of any of these words or their variations.
died produced no examples relating to voluntary termination of a pregnancy
buried produced no examples relating to voluntary termination of a pregnancy
foetus provided the statement that Native American women “frequently destroy foetus in the womb”
embryo in combination with womb produced one example relating to voluntary termination of pregnancy, from Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous feminist text, A vindication of the rights of woman: with strictures on political and moral subjects 243 (see note 51 in text). The phrase “destroy the embryo in the womb” appears in a chapter entitled, “Morality Undermined by Sexual Notions of the Importance of a Good Reputation.” The full context is: “all the causes of female weakness, as well as depravity, which I have already enlarged on, branch out of one grand cause—want of chastity in men. … To satisfy this genus of men, women are made systematically voluptuous, and though they may not all carry their libertinism to the same height, yet this heartless intercourse with the sex, which they allow themselves, depraves both sexes, because the taste of men is vitiated; and women, of all classes, naturally square their behaviour to gratify the taste by which they obtain pleasure and power. Women becoming, consequently, weaker, in mind and body, than they ought to be, were one of the grand ends of their being taken into the account, that of bearing and nursing children, have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and sacrificing to lasciviousness the parental affection, that ennobles instinct, either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born.”
This statement does not support a claim that the “right to abortion” was “deeply rooted in the history and traditions of the American people”
Both “abortive” and “abortiveness” are captured by these collocation searches:
abort* within 6 words of right*
abort* within 6 words of privilege*
These searches produced no instances of either “abortive” or “abortiveness” being used in a context of right or privilege.
Both “miscarry” and “miscarriage” are captured by these collocation searches:
miscarr* within 6 words of right*
miscarr* within 6 words of privilege*
These searches produced no instances of “miscarry/miscarried/miscarrying” or “miscarriage” being used in a context of right or privilege.
“untimely birth” gets 18 hits in COFEA. Two hits link “untimely birth” with abort*
-- St. Paul “considered himself as an abortive, or an untimely birth , as the least of the apostles”
-- “governments , like the human body , have had their growth , perfection and decay : but ours , like an untimely birth , suffered an abortion before it was in maturity fit to come into the world”
None of the hits appear in a context referring to voluntary termination of pregnancy
“Untimely birth” does not collocate with right or privilege.
In reference to “pregnancy” we used the following searches:
To look for variations of “terminate pregnancy”
preg* within 6 words of terminat*
We found no occurrences.
To look for variations of “end pregnancy”
preg* within 6 words of end*
We found no occurrences of “end pregnancy” or variations thereof.