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The Road to Hitler Was Paved With Abortions

Cultures of Abortion in Weimar Germany

By Cornelie Usborne

Publisher: Berghahn Books

Pages: 284 pages

Price: $90

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

In her research for Cultures of Abortion, Cornelie Usborne examined literary works, movies, trial documents, medical records, social workers’ notes, police interviews, and newspapers from the years of the Weimar Republic, 1918-1933. She consulted archives both in Protestant Prussia and Saxony and in Catholic Bavaria and the Prussian Rhineland. Although she is pro-abortion and thinks reality is “socially constructed,” her research is valuable because it shows how the groundwork for Adolf Hitler’s eugenic-abortion policies was laid.

But even before abortion was an issue, contraception was “big business” in Germany prior to World War I, due to “Neomalthusian propaganda.” In 1913 Max Marcuse interviewed 100 women in Berlin and found that all but three used contraceptives — forty of them also admitted to having had “one or several abortions.” In 1914 Oskar Polano interviewed 500 women in Würzburg and found that 81 percent of the wives of civil servants and 72 percent of the wives of workers used contraceptives. No surprise then that in 1927 the law was changed to allow contraceptives to be advertised, though some of these, like the uterine coil, were also abortifacient.

A steep decline in the population was inevitable: those who married before 1905 averaged 4.7 children per family; those who married in 1925-1929, only two. The top civil servants who married before 1905 averaged 3.5 children; those who married in 1925-1929, only 1.6. In Protestant Ohren in 1910, 389 villagers had 86 children in school; in 1925, 382 villagers had only 36. Two million men had died in the trenches in World War I, yet in 1919 a feminist hailed the decline in the birthrate as “the greatest, non-violent revolution” achieved by women, one that gave them “control of life.” No wonder the Weimar Republic was distinguished by “the lowest birth rate in the Western world.” With this fall in birthrate came “a new hedonism in women’s sexuality.”

Contraception, of course, was not foolproof, so abortions multiplied and “official disapproval” of them faltered. In 1917 new guidelines set forth by the Reich Health Council allowed abortions “on the strictest health grounds,” only if approved by two doctors. In 1926 the law on abortions was mollified, and in 1927 the Supreme Court allowed doctors to perform “therapeutic” abortions. German law on abortion became “one of the most liberal in the world” because doctors could easily convince officials that any abortion was necessary for “health” reasons.

Men find it hard to look evil in the eye and call it by its true name. It was no different in early 20th-century Germany, where women spoke of the need to “curb coercive procreation” by legalizing abortion. Coercive here meant having to bear to term a child who was already in the womb. In 1908 the “bourgeois” Federation of German Women’s Organizations demanded repeal of the abortion clause, §218, so that every woman might be Herrin ihres Körpers, or master of her body. In this specious slogan the child in the womb was reduced to part of the mother’s body. Before World War I only elite women used this new­speak, but after the war ordinary women chimed in, as in a 1931 rally in which “many thousands of women were mobilized under the communist slogan Dein Körper gehört Dir! (Your body belongs to you!).” The year 1931 also saw the birth of the Committee of Self-Incrimination Against §218, which encouraged celebrities to come out and admit to having had, or having aided in, an abortion. Among those who came out was Albert Einstein.

Just as the pro-abortion camp today uses the deceptive word “choice” rather than “abortion,” so the Weimar culture of death had its own euphemisms to disguise the ugly, violent deed. “Lay abortionists” inundated the local press with ads about how they could help if a “period was disturbed.” Some presented themselves as “nature therapists” who gave “medicinal massages” and “herbal baths” for “blocked menses.” Women themselves spoke in police interviews of “unblocking the monthly flow,” of “a matter” that needed to be “removed,” and of “tipping out (ich kippe),” a phrase that evoked “cleansing the body of waste material.” In trial records, they claimed they had expelled not an unborn child, but merely a large “blood clot” the size of an “egg.” The midwife who performed abortions was often called Weise Frau, or wise woman, by her clients, while newspapers called her Engelmacherin, “a woman who produced angels.” Usborne complains of the anachronism of the latter term, since it was used “at a time when a human foetus was scientifically defined and had long since ceased to be a creature of God.” Since she imagines that reality is “socially constructed,” she doesn’t see that the truth — i.e., that each child is created by God — is the same for all ages.

Deceptive language about abortion was also used in the Weimar Republic by communist and socialist novelists, poets, dramatists, and filmmakers, all of whom advocated “medical, social and/or eugenic abortion.” They claimed it was unjust that surgical abortions were available to the rich but not to the poor, who had to turn “to risky self-help or to dangerous back-street abortionists,” and they drew a picture of the “dejected proletarian woman” who preferred death to an “unwanted pregnancy.” The communist party line was that the female worker had a right to an abortion because she had to combine the two roles of producer and reproducer in “an uncaring capitalist system.”

The prime example of the New Woman as abortionist is Dr. Hope Bridges Adams Lehman, the Munich gynecologist who was tried in 1915 on 27 counts of criminal abortion. Born near London, she came to Germany at age 18, studied medicine in Leipzig and Bern, and became an ideological feminist. In 1896 she published the bestseller Women’s Book, in which she called birth control and abortion “a woman’s right.” In that same year she moved to Munich with her second husband to practice in the heart of Catholic Bavaria. It’s astonishing to learn that she had “a very extensive abortion practice” there for twelve or more years, and that she performed those abortions publicly in the operating theater of a municipal hospital run by the Red Cross. She even kept careful records of them in her diary. In 1913 alone she performed 127 abortions out of 259 operations, charging only the 30 marks paid by the health insurance. At the time, abortion was a crime equivalent to murder under the law, yet the staff of a major hospital was evidently com­plicit in her crimes. Despite the mountain of evidence against her, including her own testimony that she believed every woman should have access to abortion till the end of the fifth month, Lehman was acquitted. In fact, the new, more accommodating guidelines of 1917 were the result of her acquittal.

But wait: Here again we are faced with the rampant lies that always surround abortion. Usborne admits that an “extraordinary” side of Lehman’s practice “was not mentioned by the judge when he quashed the investigation in September 1915: it is also curiously downplayed by her recent biographer.” The fact is, Lehman used to sterilize many of her clients without their consent. Us­borne asks in dismay, “Why did this celebrated feminist and friend of the poor” take “the opportunity of a general anesthetic to sterilize many of her patients?” In just six months in 1914, she sterilized 19 of the 27 women she assisted in abortion without telling them. Even worse, at a time when tubal ligation was widely practiced and less risky, she sterilized her clients by hysterectomy. Police interviews reveal that her patients were not informed even after these radical surgeries (one came back asking for a contraceptive device). Lehman claimed she acted solely for the health of her clients, but Usborne has the “impression” that she used this extraordinary form of sterilization to prevent “the birth of ‘dysgenic’ children.” For Lehman, an “indication” for hysterectomy was “intelligence deficit,” which was then thought to be hereditary. One married woman whom she sterilized was 23 and had one child, while another was a childless actress of 28. Usborne sees it as a paradox that “a feminist and socialist” who worked for “women’s rights” should have disregarded “the very bodily autonomy which feminist abortion campaigners fought for.” No, there’s no apparent contradiction here. Usborne can’t see that Lehman was already playing God when she killed more than a thousand babies in the womb and that those hysterectomies were just a slight expansion of her godlike role.

Lehman was not alone: sterilizations were likewise brought about by the “well-known feminist doctors Lotte Fink and Hertha Riese” at the Frankfurt League for the Protection of Motherhood (some “protection”!). One-third of the women they sent to Frankfurt University Hospital for abortions were sterilized at their recommendation — 435 women in five years. It is not known if they consented.

Another example of the lies surrounding abortion, even back then, is the case of Dr. Karl Hartmann, who was brought to trial for abortion malpractice in 1921. He had passed himself off as a gynecologist so he could profit from abortions, but was qualified only for general practice. He killed one woman and gravely damaged another by perforating the uterus with his probe. Even so, he did not come to trial because four professors of medicine testified that such injuries were “not uncommon” in abortions. In 1922 Hartmann was a speaker at a mass rally organized by communists in Munich for “women who do not want to be mothers.”

Usborne reveals that surgical abortions in the Weimar years were not necessarily safer for women than those done by “quacks”: In 1921 an anonymous collection of cases from university maternity hospitals was published in which hundreds of women were said to have died from medical abortions performed by gynecologists under the 1917 guidelines. Yet when such doctors came to trial, they were usually acquitted, or when found guilty their sentences were laughably mild. One doctor stood trial for seven commercial abortions, two of which ended in death, and he was acquitted, though five women testified he was known to perform abortions for money and one doctor accused him of malpractice. Another doctor was convicted of manslaughter in two abortions but received a sentence of three months’ imprisonment, a far cry from the 15 years maximum the law prescribed before 1926.

Usborne’s theme is that “lay abortionists” were demonized by doctors in a “campaign to medicalize birth control and abortion.” She thinks these “lay abortionists” — who might be midwives, pharmacists, masseurs, fortune-tellers, or nature therapists — had a good “safety” record. Of course, she ignores the 100 percent death rate for the children in the womb! The Berlin pharmacist and socialist Heiser, tried in 1927 and convicted for 300 criminal abortions, boasted that he had performed 11,000 such abortions. And the case of the abortionist Frau Martha Spitzer demonstrates the extent to which “alternative medicine, superstition, active witchcraft (as well as abortion) was practiced in a working-class community at a time of arguably the first modern welfare state in history.” Spitzer carried an image of Lucifer in a silk purse for protection.

By 1920 the film industry was the third largest industry in the Republic, and daily moviegoers numbered about a million. Movies about abortion produced before 1933 predictably stressed the “social inequality of access to medical abortion,” as for example the 1926 movie Kreuz­zug des Weibes (“Women’s Crusade”) that focused on the anti-abortion law §218 and was the eighth most popular film of the season. The 1929 play Cyankali §218, written by the socialist Fried­rich Wolf, was supposedly a docu­drama about abortion intended to rouse the audience for mass protests. Yet it was based on a lie: The play pretended that the draconian penalties of the 1871 law against abortion were still in effect when in fact they had been changed by the 1917 guidelines, the 1926 law, and the 1927 Supreme Court ruling. In the play, too, the midwife’s use of potassium cyanide for the fatal abortion was unrealistic because the use of that drug did not appear in a single court case. Nor is there any evidence for the allegation in the play that 10,000 women died annually from “back-street abortions.” Despite these blatant lies, the playwright made a pretense of authenticity by quoting details from abortion trials in 1929 in Berlin and Swabia. Filmed in 1930, Cyankali §218 was used by socialists and communists in their election campaigns.

Another play about abortion touring Germany was staged like a trial, with the audience put in the dock for tolerating the anti-abortion law. But again, this drama was based on a lie, for though it pretended to realism, it used the outdated penalties of the 1871 law to inflame the audience. Usborne wonders about the legitimacy of such “artistic license.” She also reports on the “storm” of political protest that erupted against §218 right after the papal encyclical Casti Connubii came out on New Year’s Eve 1930.

What conclusions might be drawn from the massive evidence Usborne assembles in this book? First, one might conclude that where contraception is rife there will also be the widespread practice of abortion and a growing pressure for its full legalization from the parties of the Left (the communists and socialists in the Weimar Republic). It is crucial, then, to oppose the contraceptive mentality that makes abortion inevitable, and to propagate the Catholic view of marriage, procreation, and natural family planning.

Second, one might conclude that the road to Hitler was paved with abortions. The Weimar Republic was a society committing suicide in slow motion. It could neither stop the killing of its unborn children nor control the degrading hedonism that accompanied this practice. In retrospect, one might call Weimar a very weak form of the culture of death, a preview of what now prevails in much of the Western world. It was so weak it easily caved in when confronted with a fiercer form of that same culture. For even under the Nazis the slaughter of the unborn continued. Hitler was gung-ho for eugenic abortion, and while he made abortion virtually inaccessible for German women of supposedly superior “stock,” he legalized it and sometimes made it (along with sterilization) compulsory for women of what he called “inferior races.” Thus did an enervated society cave in to a mad tyrant. Thus did Weimar’s “cultures of abortion” usher in the Holocaust. Perhaps we should take warning.

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