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Museum lecture highlights 'shame' of abortion in Victorian era
Supplied photo.

Julia Sacco

Special to The Lake Report

The first instalment in a new Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum virtual lecture series highlighted the turmoil that women and doctors faced over abortion more than a century ago.

“An Atrocious and Abominable Offense” was broadcast online last week and led by Amanda Balyk, who researched the subject while completing her master’s degree in history at Brock University.

Balyk took the audience through various cases reported in The Lancet medical journal between 1860 and 1870.

Each case highlighted the problems women and their doctors could face after having or conducting an abortion in that era, but not for the reasons one may expect.

Balyk made clear that doctors were “not interested in the morality of women receiving abortions,” but rather their “self-interest drew from the desire to protect their self-proclaimed honourable profession.”

“Between 1850 and 1870 mostly anonymous medical men used The Lancet to emphasize their anxieties around 'quack' medicine, untraditional medicine. That included abortions,” said Balyk.

“Physicians were concerned about the necessity for a register for identifying what they considered legitimate trade and practice. Newly registered physicians increasingly targeted those quacks, threatening their newfound legitimacies.”

As well, Balyk said during this era women did not necessarily feel shame or judgment from society for having an abortion, but rather were shamed by doctors writing in The Lancet.

She showed how shameful language was used by writers in The Lancet to gain control over so-called quack doctors. As well, the shaming often was used when abortion was conducted under certain circumstances, such as late in a pregnancy.

Balyk’s unique knowledge of the subject provided viewers with a new perspective on the history of abortion and perhaps changed the way some view its seemingly inherent taboo.

The next presentation in the series, highlighting the museum's War of 1812 collection, is Wednesday, Feb. 10. Anyone interested in attending can register via the events page at http://www.nhsm.ca/events/index.html.

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