- Cultures of Abortion in Weimar Germany
Cornelie Usborne presents this book as the companion volume to her 1992 monograph, The Politics of the Body in Weimar Germany. Expanding on her initial focus on political discourses, Usborne now moves into the realm of culture. She explores both popular representations of abortion and the “hidden practices and private encounters” of aborting women themselves (p. 3). With inspiration from Alltagsgeschichte (history of the everyday) and body history, Usborne presents a fascinating collection of stories about how abortion was practiced in both rural and urban, medicalized and folk-healing contexts. Although not without its frustrations, this book will be of interest to all those working in fields related to the social, cultural, and medical history of reproduction.
Usborne argues that the “technological determinism” of arguments by Edward Shorter and others has misled us by obscuring the shortcomings and self-serving motivations of academic medicine while underestimating the skill of lay practitioners. She begins by tracking the glorification of doctors and the vilification of back-street abortionists in plays, films, novels, and even advertisements. Usborne argues that both images are misleading. This book is an explicit attempt to “challenge the hegemony of academic medical thinking and the positivist heritage we have internalized for so long” (p. 15). This demythologization of the distinction between “real” doctors and “quacks” is a fundamental strength of this book, since we rarely see the two so directly juxtaposed. Usborne does provide us with enough evidence to believe that both the safety of medical abortion and the danger of lay abortion have been exaggerated for this period. As she repeatedly points out, historians have been too likely to assume rather than actually prove the superiority of university-based medical ideas and practices over folk, naturopathic and other lay techniques. But in this book Usborne simply makes the opposite assumption without clearly proving her case. Eschewing statistical analysis and explicitly rejecting “the tradition of social-science history” (p. 21), she overstates her case.
Usborne describes a few atrocious cases of medical malpractice in order to demonstrate that “not only general practitioners but also eminent gynaecologists” in the Weimar Republic displayed a “glaring lack of skills in abortion techniques” (p. 69). Even skilled doctors, she argues, often acted unethically. She relates, for example, the abortion trial in Munich of Dr. Hope Bridges Adams Lehmann, who operated skillfully but also sterilized many women without their informed consent. Usborne admits that lay practitioners also caused physical and (especially in the case of rape) emotional harm. But she concentrates on the cases of particularly skilled, respected, and ethical lay practitioners. She devotes an entire chapter to a village woman in Hessen who stood trial in 1924 for performing hundreds of extremely hygienic and safe abortions with the help of her husband. This woman’s success does justify Usborne’s call that we rethink our understanding of lay abortion as a primarily urban, extremely dangerous, and socially vilified phenomenon. We might even agree with her that the women seeking these abortions displayed [End Page 309] agency and rebellion in the way in which they willfully conflated folk and “modern” understandings of reproduction and stood by their actions in their statements to police. Incredibly valuable in itself, this case study cannot, however, prove that quacks’ general reputation for performing unsafe abortions was undeserved. A far more convincing approach would have been to harness the evidence that is presented here by arguing that a lack of training, fear of prosecution, and the absence of ethical oversight left room for unscrupulous and unskilled practice within both medical and lay groups. The book would also have profited from some more careful editing. Problems of organization and word usage (“procure,” for instance, is not a synonym for “perform”) distract and frustrate.
Nevertheless, this book performs several valuable services. It brings us far closer to the actual experiences of Weimar women who underwent abortions than we have ever been before, it usefully questions our tendency to...