A portrait of American statesman, writer, and scientist Benjamin Franklin, circa 1750. Hulton Archive/Getty Images Hide caption
Hulton Archives/Getty Images
Hulton Archives/Getty Images
Benjamin Franklin is revered throughout history for his fixation on inventing practical ways to make everyday life easier. A prolific inventor and author, he spent his life crafting and writing to share his knowledge with the masses.
One of the more surprising areas Franklin sought to demystify for the average American? abortions at home.
Molly Farrell is an associate professor of English at Ohio State University studying early American literature. She recently penned a Slate article that suggests Franklin’s role in facilitating home abortions began with a popular British math textbook.
The textbook, entitled The Instructor and written by George Fisher, who Farrell says was a pseudonym, was a general handbook containing much useful information for the average person. It had the alphabet, math, recipes and farrier (which was hoof care for horses). Books were very expensive in those days, and a general handbook like this was a practical choice for many families.
Franklin recognized the value of this book and decided to create an updated version for US residents, telling readers that his goal was to make the text “more immediately useful to Americans.” This included updating the city names, adding colonial history, and other minor changes.
But, as Farrell describes, the most significant change in the book was the replacement of a section containing a London medical textbook with a 1734 Virginia medical manual entitled Every Man His Own Doctor: The Poor Planter’s Physician.
This medical manual contained home remedies for a variety of ailments that people could use to treat their minor illnesses, such as fever or gout, at home. One entry, however, was “for suppressing courses,” which Farrell discovered meant absent menstruation.
“[The book] starting prescribing basically all of the best-known herbal abortifacients and contraceptives that were in circulation at the time,” Farrell said early on.”
“It’s very explicit, very detailed, [and] also very accurate for the time in terms of what was known… how to terminate a pregnancy fairly early.”
The inclusion of this information in a widely used guide to everyday life is relevant to today’s heated debate about access to abortion and contraception in the United States. In particular, the leaked Supreme Court opinion that Roe v. Wade would tip, stating that “an abortion right is not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and tradition.”
Farrell said the book was very popular, and she found no evidence to object to the section’s inclusion.
“It didn’t really bother anyone that a typical owner’s manual might contain such material,” she said. “It just wasn’t anything special. It was just a part of everyday life.”
This interview was produced for radio by Megan Lim and edited by Sarah Handel. It was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo.