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Tuesday, January 24, 2023

January 24, 2023: AbortionStudying: Sarah Grosvenor

[On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court released the Roe v. Wade decision. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that case and a handful of other histories and stories of abortion in the U.S., leading up to a weekend post on the current laws and debates.]

On two important contexts for a famous and tragic colonial case.

There aren’t very many 18th century American teenagers we know about at all, much less remember in any specific ways, and that’s doubly true for teenage girls. But Pomfret, Connecticut’s Sarah Grosvenor is an exception to that rule, thanks to her tragic death and the controversial court case that resulted from it. In 1742, the 19 year old Grosvenor was in a sexual relationship with a 27 year old local man, Amasa Sessions; Grosvenor became pregnant, Sessions apparently was not willing to get married or otherwise support the child, and Grosvenor pursued options through which to abort the pregnancy. After unsuccessfully trying to “take the trade” (an 18th century phrase for aborting through natural abortifacients), Grosvenor went to local Dr. John Hallowell to perform a surgical abortion. He did so, but about ten days later Grosvenor developed an infection and died. Three days after her death both Hallowell and Sessions were arrested for Grosvenor’s murder (as were Sarah’s sister Zerviah and stepmother Hannah were their role in securing Hallowell’s services); after a lengthy trial the women and Sessions were acquitted (perhaps out of sympathy for their having already lost Grosvenor) but Hallowell was convicted and sentenced to death (a fate from which he successfully fled).

As all those hyperlinked pieces and analyses illustrate, there are plenty of complexities and layers to each and every one of those stages and stories (and the excellent Unsung History podcast episode featuring historian Cornelia Dayton traces them all). But for this post as part of this week’s series, I want to focus on two contexts for the history of abortion in which Sarah Grosvenor serves as a compelling case study. The first is more obvious but certainly crucial: abortion has been part of American lives, families, and communities throughout our history. And not just part, but a multi-layered, familiar, and even commonplace part—when Grosvenor decided to abort, she was aware of the possibility of “taking the trade” and pursued it; and when that home remedy didn’t work, she and her family knew of Hallowell’s services and were able to reach out to him to perform that medical procedure. Of course that doctor and those family members alike were eventually charged with a crime, but I would argue that’s entirely due to Sarah’s tragic death—that is, to my mind the trial reveals less about abortion debates and more the inescapable fact that a mysterious death, even an accidental one, is likely to result in the possibility of criminal charges. Had the abortion gone smoothly, as we have to imagine many (likely the vast majority) did, neither the courts nor any of us would know about it.

The second context I want to consider here is far less obvious, and indeed represents an interpretative stretch on my part. But it seems to me that both the age difference between teenage Sarah and her lover Amasa and Amasa’s apparent refusal to marry Sarah make it at least possible that their relationship was less one of mutual love and more the kind of 18th century (and of course 21st century) story of predatory men and vulnerable young women that I discussed in this Saturday Evening Post Considering History column. I can’t pretend to know anything about Amasa, nor the specifics of the couple’s relationship. But what I do know is that neither sex and pregnancy overall nor abortion specifically have ever affected men and women equally, not at any point in American history and certainly not in our 21st century moment (about which more this coming weekend). Perhaps Amasa Sessions was as genuine as he could be in his affection for Sarah Grosvenor—but when Sarah became pregnant, Amasa could walk away and Sarah was left with the eternal and hugely fraught question of what to do, and what would happen when she did. That’s a fundamental imbalance that we can never ignore when we talk about the history of nor the present debates over abortion in America.

Next AbortionStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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