How a sensational sex scandal led to the nation’s first abortion law 200 years ago


By Gillian Brockell | The Washington Post

He was a Connecticut preacher with a reputation for seducing female congregants. She was a young woman who fell under his spell and wound up pregnant. Two hundred years before Alabama effectively banned abortion this week, the scandal surrounding their relationship led to the nation’s first abortion law.

Like the new Alabama statute, which would sentence abortion providers to up to 99 years in prison, the Connecticut law passed in 1821 sought to punish people who provided women with abortion-inducing medicines.

It was a “direct response” to the sex scandal involving Ammi Rogers and Asenath Smith, says law professor Lolita Buckner Inniss, who has studied the case extensively for an upcoming review in the UCLA Women’s Law Journal.

Rogers was an Episcopalian preacher who had been controversial since his days at Yale in the 1790s. According to his memoir, religious leaders didn’t like him because he supported separation of church and state. And despite being banned from ministry in his home state of Connecticut, he had a loyal following.

“Just like there are ministers now in the contemporary world who have this huge popular following, and they dress well, and people, especially women, love them,” Inniss told The Washington Post. “That’s who Ammi Rogers was.”

And Rogers loved those women right back, getting involved with young female congregants throughout his career. Around 1817, when Rogers was approaching 50, he turned his attention toward Asenath Smith, the granddaughter of a dying woman to whose bedside he was called.

Although prosecutors later depicted her as a teenager, census records indicate she was about 21 when her sexual relationship with Rogers began. Smith and the other women in her family were also “independent, intelligent, bright, probably pretty well-educated, fairly autonomous,” Inniss said. “Certainly people had been whispering about the Smith household before this even happened.”

At the time, “a huge number” of brides in New England were already pregnant when they married, Inniss said, and it was “fairly typical” for parents and grandparents to ignore premarital sex if nuptials were expected, as was the case with Smith and Rogers.

But then he reneged.

According to trial transcripts, when the young woman became pregnant, Rogers told her they couldn’t marry unless she terminated her pregnancy. A baby born less than nine months after a marriage might be ignored in most cases, but for a man of his renown (and reputation), it wouldn’t go unnoticed.

First, he procured medicine for her that was supposed to induce abortion. It didn’t work. She continued to feel the fetus’s movements – known then as “quickening” – which generally starts in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy.

Next, he acquired a “tool” to induce a mechanical abortion. Despite causing bleeding, that didn’t appear to work either. So he fled.

Soon afterward, Smith’s family called a physician. She complained of intense pain and subsequently delivered a stillborn child. The doctor later testified that he could not say for certain the attempted abortions caused the stillbirth.

Rogers was investigated, arrested and put on trial in 1820, an …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Politics

      

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