Eliza Bisbee Duffey

Early feminist Eliza Bisbee Duffey, writing about abortion in “The Limitation of Offspring” chapter of her 1876 book The Relations of the Sexes:

Abortion, intentionally accomplished, is criminal in the first degree, and should be regarded as murder. Yet women have been taught to look lightly on this offence, and to consider it perfectly justifiable up to the period of quickening. “The embryo has no life before that period,” they will say in justification of the act. I have even heard a woman, who acknowledged to several successful abortions, accomplished by her own hands upon herself, say, “Why, there is no harm in it, any more than in drowning a blind kitten. It is nothing better than a kitten, before it is born.” I was a young girl myself when I heard this, and I accepted the statement as a true one. Nor did I dream of questioning it, until, in later years, I became thoroughly acquainted with sexual physiology, and comprehended the wonderful economy of nature in the generation and development of the human germ.

The act of abortion which I had hitherto regarded as a trivial thing, at once became in my eyes the grossest misdemeanor — nay, the most aggravated crime. Being guided by this experience, I judge that this offence is perpetrated by women who are totally ignorant of the laws of their being. Consequently, the surest preventative against this crime will be a thorough teaching to women, even before marriage, of the physiology, hygiene, duties and obligations of maternity….

From the moment of conception, the embryo is a living thing, leading a distinct, separate existence from the mother, though closely bound to her…. From almost the earliest stage, the form of the future being is indicated, and it has separate heart-beats, distinctly perceptible through the intervening tissues of the mother’s body, which cover it. It is a human being to all intents and purposes. The period called quickening1is a merely fictitious period, which does not indicate the first motion of the embryo. These first motions are not usually detected… until they have acquired considerable force.

Nature has put this little creature — this small man or woman, as yet all undeveloped — in a place of seeming security, and has placed every guard around it to keep it safely until the hour shall come when it is fully prepared to make a complete change in its mode of existence. If by intent or accident it is disturbed before that period, the whole of nature’s plans are thwarted, and nothing is in readiness…. Natural parturationmay have its perils, but unnatural parturation slays its hundreds where that slays one. Yet young married women consider [induced] miscarriage a trifling affair!

But no; I must not be too hard upon all these unwomanly women. Their ignorance must be held responsible for their sins. And men must share the responsibility too….

Then the laws which are already upon our statute books should be strictly enforced…. And husbands and seducers should be made to share the punishment as accessories to the crime….

Like Sarah Norton, little is known about the life of Eliza Bisbee Duffey beyond her writings, which focus on the education of women.

As the excerpts at the beginning of this article show, Duffey’s concern for women’s education extended beyond the question of formal schooling. Like other feminists of the time, she believed women also deserve “a thorough acquaintanceship with the organs and functions of their own bodies, in order that they may guard against disease and suffering in themselves and that they may bring forth healthy children.” Her books, What Women Should Know (1873) and The Relations of the Sexes (1876), were devoted to this purpose.

Women who wrote to The Revolution likewise believed that education regarding sexual physiology would help deter abortion. Upon hearing an educational lecture by Dr. Anna Densmore, a teacher wrote:

Dr. Densmore demonstrated to us fully and clearly that the fulfillment of life processes were going on from the very beginning of embryonic development…. And that even before the mother could assure herself that she was to wear the crown of maternity by realizing the movements of the child, that the educated ear of the physician could often distinguish the beating of its heart. These are the facts that women need to know.

“Eliza Bisbee Duffey makes a feminist case against abortion and, by encouraging the education of women, lays the foundation for Feminists for Life’s modern-day College Outreach Program,” said FFL President Serrin Foster.

By Cat Clark

Related article

“Herstory: Sarah F. Norton and Eliza Bisbee Duffey” by Mary Krane Derr
The American Feminist Fall 1999: Back on Campus, pg. 20


The Revolution (suffragist newspaper, New York, 1868)

  1. In the past, some people believed that fetal life began when a mother first detected movement. This moment was called “quickening.”
  2. “Natural paturation” refers to giving birth. “Unnatural parturation” refers to abortion.