Greed Has Always Driven the Abortion Industry 

For more than a century, abortion has created tremendous wealth for providers in the United States. That continues today as yet another shocking video has been released showing a top Planned Parenthood official discussing the sale of body parts of unborn children.  And, although this news does not seem to disturb many on the pro-choice side, there was a time when most believed that ending the life of the unborn child was “so egregious an offense against nature” that it deserved the harshest penalties. It was an era when even the New York Times found the practice so abhorrent that their editorial staff responded to the 1878 death of Madame Restell, an infamous abortionist, with the statement that her passing was “a fitting end to an odious career.”

Madame Restell’s death occurred during a time when she held sway over New York City’s abortion industry—owning a network of abortion parlors throughout the city that stretched from her primary facility in a house on Chambers Street all the way across the River to Hoboken.  She was joined in New York City’s burgeoning abortion business by dozens of other abortionists who were luridly described in New York’s National Police Gazette as “fiends who have made a business of professional murder and who have reaped the bloody harvest in quenching the immortal spark in thousands of the unborn.”

The practice of abortion has always been lucrative, and Restell was just the first to parlay the provision of abortion services into a personal fortune of more than a million dollars and a lavish Fifth Avenue brownstone described in the tabloids of the day as the “Mansion Built on Baby Skulls.” She shared the abortion profession with her husband, Charles Lohman, an ex-printer who took the name Mauriceau and advertised himself as a “doctor,” advocating early abortion with “potions and powders” as the “safest” alternative.  Lohman specialized in creating abortifacients, which he sold for exorbitant prices. In the extensively researched Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America, author Marvin Olasky writes that “Mauriceau was a brazen Barnum with an audacious sales technique.”

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lohmanmansionIn addition to her husband’s “medicinals,” designed to eliminate the developing fetus, Restell specialized in late-term abortion. Advertising herself as “a female physician and professor of midwifery” in the daily newspapers, the self-taught Restell was able to corner the growing abortion market by developing what some authors have suggested were friendly relationships with the police and New York City politicians. While the delivery of abortion services was only a misdemeanor offense in the early nineteenth century, growing numbers of patient deaths moved New York legislators to add statutes in 1845 that mandated severe penalties if the procedure was performed after the quickening of the fetus. As a late-term abortion provider, Restell often found herself on the wrong side of that law—especially when her female patients died, as often happened—not surprisingly, considering the fact that she had no formal training as a physician, midwife, or medical professional. But the ever-resourceful abortionist always managed to find a way to escape without serious or lasting consequences. Even when arrested and sentenced to a one-year term on Blackwell’s Island in the East River, Restell was able to use her financial resources and political connections to purchase excellent accommodations in prison—bringing her own featherbed, carpeting, and easy chairs into the prison suite. Visiting hours were altered so that her husband was able to visit at will and remain alone with her as long as he wished.

So successful was Restell at evading the law that within a short time the National Police Gazette reported that the abortion law actually had the effect of “sweeping every rival from her path, as she remained mistress paramount in the scheme of practical destruction.”  With the competition at bay, Restell ruled New York City’s abortion empire. Even though the New York newspapers decried the practice of abortion and Madame Restell in particular, there was much money in the industry and sharing some of the profits with those who could help expand the abortion business bought the cooperation of police and politicians. To attempt to confront the culture of bribery and extortion that surrounded abortion at the time, Olasky points out that New York Times editor Louis Jennings used his newspaper to begin an anti-abortion crusade. Beginning with a Biblically referenced editorial entitled “The Least of These Little Ones,” Jennings complained that the “perpetration of infant murder … is rank and smells to heaven. Why is there no hint of its punishment?”

Jennings saw the need to mobilize the public and tried to do that by attempting to expose the corruption, and publishing stories of abortion cases gone terribly wrong. Focusing on abortions that ended with the deaths of the mothers, the Times complained about the “extreme rarity of trials” for abortion deaths in this City. Abortionists, the Times reported, “have openly carried on their infamous practice in this City to a frightful extent, and have laughed at the defeat of respectable citizens who have vainly attempted to prosecute them.” By 1878, it seemed that nothing could stop Madame Restell and her sphere of influence over the abortion industry in New York City.  Yet, Restell’s empire fell later that same year when she was yet again arrested following a confrontation with Anthony Comstock, the celebrated anti-vice crusader. Olasky reports that after a brief stint in the Tombs, she once again posted bail and returned home to her mansion on Fifth Avenue. Making her way upstairs, Madame Restell calmly settled back into a warm bath and slit her own throat.  While her death may have been, as the New York Times suggested, a “fitting end” to her abortion empire, it was just the beginning of an industry that continues today to provide great profits to those involved.

The 1960s ushered in a new era in abortion—and abortion profits. Entrepreneur Larry Lader partnered with his friend and Greenwich Village neighbor, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a gynecologist and abortion provider in New York City, to become the true leaders of this new movement for New York and for the nation. For Lader, the abortion issue was indeed about money, and both he and Nathanson became very wealthy from the profits. But he also had a non-monetary motive. Lader, who had worked with Vito Marcantonio, the only Communist ever to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, was a progressive feminist and a great admirer of Margaret Sanger, the founder of the American Birth Control League, the precursor of Planned Parenthood. Writing about these early days of abortion in New York City in The Hand of God, Bernard Nathanson describes Lader as being “obsessed” with abortion.  Like Restell, Lader and Nathanson were effective lobbyists for the pre-Roe abortion industry.

And, as in the Restell era, lawmakers prefer the public remained ignorant of the possible crimes that take place in abortion clinics. In New York City, tanning salons are inspected more regularly than abortion facilities.  The New York Post reported that “eight of the city’s 25 abortion providing clinics were never inspected over the 2000-12 span, five were inspected just once, and eight were inspected only twice or three times—meaning once every four or six years. A total of just 45 inspections were conducted at all 25 facilities during the 12-year period.”  Restaurants in the City are inspected every year and graded, and tanning salons undergo inspections at least once every other year.

Earlier this year, Illinois Right To Life issued a report pointing out that 63 percent of licensed Illinois women’s clinics have not received a health and sanitary inspection for up to three and a half years.  The report also reveals that “40 percent of the clinics licensed between 2000 and 2014 went without health inspections for 14 to 17 years. It adds that the state’s five Planned Parenthood clinics that perform abortions are not licensed and consequently did not receive any health and sanitary inspections between 2000 and 2014.

Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortionist who was finally found guilty of the murder of three newborn children and the negligent death of one patient—had never been discovered by the Pennsylvania Department of Health because his clinic had been inspected only “sporadically” from 1978 to 1993, and never again until complaints motivated an inspection in 2010. Gosnell had been charged with eight counts of murder including seven babies who were born alive and then killed with scissors. Prosecutors said that he made millions of dollars over 20 years, performing as many illegal, late term abortions as he could. According to the Susan B. Anthony website, the reason for this is that “officials concluded that inspections would be ‘putting a barrier up’ to women seeking abortions.” This is a typical response from the abortion industry but the continued exposure of the horrific practices of this industry through the release of these undercover videos will make it impossible for lawmakers to continue to look the other way—no matter how much they are paid to do so.

  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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