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For Ben Franklin, abortion was basic arithmetic

EMILY FENG, HOST:

Bear with me as we go back in time, way back to Philadelphia in 1748. Benjamin Franklin put quill to paper that year, so to speak, adapting a popular British math textbook for the American colonies. He told readers his goal was to update the book with matters, quote, "more immediately useful to Americans." Among those matters, the founding father added a clear and easy-to-follow guide for an at-home abortion drawn from a medical pamphlet written by a doctor in Virginia. So how does that square with a leaked Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, specifically the contention that, quote, "a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation's histories and traditions"?

Molly Farrell studies early American literature as an associate professor at the Ohio State University, which means she knows a lot about the nation's histories and traditions. She wrote about Franklin's abortion how-to for Slate and joins us now. Welcome, Molly.

MOLLY FARRELL: Thanks, Emily. It's great to be here.

FENG: Start by telling us a little bit about the original version of this textbook, which was called "The Instructor." What was in this book, and what was its purpose?

FARRELL: So "The Instructor" was by George Fisher, who is a pseudonym. We don't know who wrote it. It was a really popular catch-all manual published in London. I believe it went through eight or nine editions in London. And you could learn to read on it. It had the alphabet in it. It had basic arithmetic, recipes. And it had a how-to book on farriery, which is the care for horses' hooves.

So books were expensive at the time. And if you just had money to buy one or two books in your home, the Bible and maybe something else, this would be a great reference manual.

FENG: And Franklin saw this as useful for an American audience, but he wanted to make it more relevant for the colonies. What changes did he make to this textbook?

FARRELL: Yes. So he called it "The American Instructor." In the arithmetic section and the word problems, he changed the place names - made them Boston and Jamaica instead of London and Flanders. He added a little section on colonial history. And then the biggest change you can see from the title page is that he swapped out the big section on farriery and a medical textbook that was from London, and he inserted it with a Virginia medical handbook from 1734 called "Every Man His Own Doctor: The Poor Planter's Physician."

FENG: And what was in that section of the book?

FARRELL: So that's what I was most interested in. So I don't know if you grew up with these. You'd have a book around that just had, like, home remedies. You don't need to call your doctor for this. You can take care of it yourself. So I was looking at all the different entries in there, and there was one that was pretty long and pretty obvious. And it was called "For The Suppression Of The Courses." And I was reading this, and it comes right after entries for fever or dropsy. So those are - the entries were listed as problems that need to be solved. So fever, here's how to solve it. Gleet or gout, here's how to solve it. Suppression of the courses, here's how to solve it. And the word courses, from about the 15th to the 19th century - I looked in the dictionary - it means menses. So it means your period. So that's a missed period.

So I thought, OK, how do you solve the problem of a missed period? And it says this is a common complaint among unmarried women that they miss their period. And then it starts to prescribe basically all of the best-known herbal abortifacients and contraceptives that were circulating at the time. It's just sort of a greatest hits of what 18th-century herbalists would have given a woman who wanted to end a pregnancy early in her pregnancy. And that's what, by the way, this abortifacient recipe would really be for was really early. It talks about, like, make sure you start to take it a week before you expect to be out of order. So take it before you've even missed that period, and it will be most effective. So it's very explicit, very detailed, also very accurate for the time in terms of what was known at the time for how to end a pregnancy pretty early on.

And then at the end, it just really comes out swinging and lets you know this is definitely related to sex 'cause it says, you know, also women - you know, in order to prevent this complaint at the end - so prevention for next time - don't long for pretty fellows or any other trash whatsoever.

FENG: You write in your article for Slate that Ben Franklin's instructions for an at-home abortion were actually taken from a medical pamphlet that was written by someone else. That seems to suggest that this knowledge was quite common. How much other documentation out there do we have from this time about abortion?

FARRELL: That's a good question. I mean, so, you know, if you kind of were in the market in Philadelphia and some women were chatting, what were they talking about? And particularly when you think about herbal remedies and herbal remedies for, as it says, female infirmities in the book, that's going to be something that's even less likely to enter into print because we have - midwives are taking care of that. Women's literacy rates were lower. They're not writing medical textbooks, but they have all this knowledge.

So what John Tennant did, this Virginia handbook - he tried to make it a really American herbal. And one way that typically that was done was stealing herbal knowledge from indigenous people in Virginia and from enslaved Africans. A lot of early American scientists, that's where they got their knowledge, and then they put it into print and called it their own.

What's interesting about what Franklin did is that he made sure to find a very American and actually very detailed, very accurate, according to the time, and very explicit herbal remedy and then promote it. You know, he was platforming it, basically. He circulated it loudly. He appended it into a volume that he was saying, this is basically all the knowledge that every American should know. And you should know your reading. And you should know your writing. And you should know home remedies that include how to have an abortion if you need to.

FENG: If this knowledge about the, quote, "suppression of the courses" back then was just as commonplace then as learning how to add or to spell, then how was abortion conceptualized? Was it considered taboo?

FARRELL: Clearly for Benjamin Franklin, one of the architects of our nation, and for the people that bought his book, which went through reprintings all the way throughout the 18th century, "The American Instructor" was hugely popular. It was absolutely not taboo. This was not banned. We don't even have any records of people objecting to this. It didn't really bother anybody that a typical instructional manual could include material like this, could include - address explicitly to a female audience, making sure they had all the herbals available to them that their local midwife might have as well and just putting that right into print. It just wasn't something to be remarked upon. It was just a part of everyday life.

FENG: These days, people who oppose abortion will talk about the rights of the fetus. Was that part of the public conversation at the time Ben Franklin was adapting this textbook?

FARRELL: I really haven't seen much of that at all. I mean, there's certainly concerns about women's sexual behavior. There's certainly concerns about morality and immorality and also whether or not that women would try to conceal what happens.

It's really about regulation of women. And that, I think, we can trace all the way right up to today and really see this attack on abortion rights as completely contiguous with that. It goes under the guise of supposedly protecting embryos and fetuses. But what happens is that it really damages and threatens women's health and constrains the lives of anyone who could become pregnant.

FENG: Molly Farrell is an associate professor of English at the Ohio State University. Thank you.

FARRELL: Thank you so much, Emily.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIMPLY THREE'S "RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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