Angus McLaren




Angus McLaren, author of “Illegal Operations: Women, Doctors, and Abortion” demonstrates the life of an abortionist in the late 1800’s to the mid 1900’s. McLaren explains a series of affairs in detail with many different abortionists. Since abortion was illegal at the time, many women consulted midwives, or took the procedure of abortion among themselves, this at times resulted in their death.

The articles purpose is to use legal sources to explore the decision to abort while the state, and the professions took a serious interest in the fertility control decisions of women. What is being argued is the fate of women burdened with unwanted pregnancies whose well-being was placed at risk by the law.

Midwives, herbalists, and masseuses performed most abortions. Therefore, most of these people were convicted. Most women supported other abortionists, but in some cases women would accuse others of aborting or attempting to abort. McLaren argues that abortions came only to the attention of authorities when something went wrong. This supports her feelings that women’s well-being was jeopardized around this particular time, especially poor, or single women. For example, single, or poor women were reported more often than private patients by hospital staff. McLaren also mentions that women were not given the opportunity to abort properly by professionals and therefore conducted their own operations, or visit a midwife, or herbalists.

McLaren accuses doctors of neglecting women who wanted to abort because of the responsibility that came with the operation. All doctors couldn’t legally perform the operation; other professionals and the law would accuse them heavily. That’s why McLaren makes it clear that doctors, regardless of their moral beliefs, wouldn’t risk performing the operation because it might tarnish their reputation. Because methods of contraception were expensive and not readily accessible, many pregnancies were unwanted. Therefore women used these excuses as their defence.

It is clear by reviewing the article that the author is very much concerned with the well-being of women at this particular time. She mentions that some “doctors showed themselves more interested in protecting themselves than in caring for their patient.” McLaren also goes into detail with examples to show how the doctors would threaten their patients. Like for instance, Stewart Murrow threatened his dying patient Jennie Young that he would not treat her for septic poisoning if she didn’t name the person who performed the operation. Another case is the Sarah Robins affair where she was stimulated with drugs so as to declare the person who performed the operation. Some doctors saw themselves as the authorities. If a woman were dying in a hospital as the result of a bungled abortion, a statement was taken if only to protect the doctor and the hospital staff. This is why McLaren feels it wasn’t fair for women that doctors were too concerned for their reputation rather than the women who needed their help. McLaren also argues that methods of contraception were very expensive, for example the condom.

The author supports her argument by providing a detailed description of factual cases that occurred during the mid 1800’s to mid 1900’s. However, the author fails to focus on why the pregnancies were “unwanted.” Sure methods of contraception were not easily accessible, so in turn more pregnancies were unwanted. Of course we see that doesn’t apply to today. Today, contraception is very much encouraged, but the numbers of unwanted pregnancies still continue to grow. So the idea that contraception is not accessible is no real excuse. McLaren also uses the phrase “burdened with unwanted pregnancies” a little too loosely. McLaren fails to understand that the women put these burdens on themselves, therefore affecting their own well-being. So one can easily argue that if you don’t have any self-respect why should others respect you. Another factor that I feel was ignored was that women were well aware of the consequences that followed abortion or the attempt to abort, so if you’re aware of the consequences of your own actions, you hold complete responsibility. The impression you get from reading this article is that women irresponsibly got pregnant without any regard for the consequences, then took matters into their own hands, and finally had no choice but to see a professional.

The problem with the author’s argument is that the