Science  /  Book Review

Meet the Queen Bee of Victorian Abortionists

The notorious Madame Restell lived large and fearlessly in a century not so far, far away.

Madame Restell advertised not just her services but her belief in their necessity. Lifting passages from the social reformer Robert Dale Owen, she likened abortion and contraception to a lightning rod — an invention that was “unnatural,” perhaps, but sensible and lifesaving. She published letters from grateful clients, who proclaimed, “God bless you dear madam, you have taken off the primal curse denounced upon Mother Eve in Eden.”

This is unavoidably a one-sided story. However, the scale of the business suggests that Madame Restell’s methods, pharmaceutical or surgical, did work. It’s almost certain, too, that none of her patients died from her procedures, given how many people were eagerly waiting to prosecute. Yet it’s a history shrouded in secrecy. The few names of clients we do know come from her trials, and they demonstrate a cross-section of society. There’s the schoolgirl who thought her rich lover would marry her, keeping the faith through five abortions; several servants pregnant at their employers’ hands; and those who later died of unrelated medical issues traceable to male doctors who considered it effeminate to wash one’s hands between laying out a cadaver and delivering a baby. These were the men, Wright reminds us, who in the guise of “trained professionals” waged a campaign to take over the lucrative field of women’s health care, demonizing abortion and driving midwives out of business.

And what were the alternatives? Pious orphanages did not accept “foundlings,” the product of a live woman’s sin, so many were left in almshouses, where 90 percent (yes) would die. A strong cultural belief in hereditary criminality made adoption rare. The context helps explain, if not excuse, Madame Restell’s treatment of Mary Applegate, an unmarried woman who came to her to give birth in secret, whose baby was apparently passed off to a wet nurse and never found again. Despite a scandal, Madame Restell denied all responsibility. No doubt she assumed that Mary would come to accept, as so many thousands of other poor, desperate women did, that the loss was for the best. Mary, however, spent the rest of her life in a fruitless search for her lost daughter. Heartbreaking as it is, her story does not render Restell a monster, so much as a ruthless pragmatist. She was certainly guilty of believing she knew what was best for other women — making her not just ahead of her time, but markedly of it.

In 1848, Madame Restell finally lost a case and was sent to prison for a year, as women’s rights advocates formally launched their movement at Seneca Falls. Wright pauses to let us imagine what might have happened had the suffragists embraced this determined mistress of her own fate. Despite complex, broadly sympathetic attitudes to abortion, the leaders of the movement recoiled: With her fancy carriages, her jewels, her mansion and her impunity, Madame Restell was beyond the pale.