The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Texas’s restrictive new abortion law eerily echoes the witch hunts of centuries ago

Allowing people to accuse anyone of abetting abortion will resurrect a bad chapter from our past.

Abortion rights demonstrators, including Jaylene Solache of Dallas, right, rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington on March 4, 2020. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

In Texas, one of the nation’s most restrictive laws will take effect in September, banning abortions at as early as six weeks of pregnancy and allowing any private citizen to sue doctors, health providers, insurance companies and anyone else appearing to help a woman obtain an abortion.

This law has been hailed by proponents as one with novel legal provisions. But bans on abortion are nothing new, and in targeting people who aid women in getting them, these 21st-century laws circle back to an ominous past when abortion providers were subjected to religious witch hunts — the first in recorded history.

Five hundred years ago in Europe, witchcraft was a front-and-center topic. Once dismissed as an unsavory pagan holdover from primitive peoples, by 1480, witches were branded as heretics for making deliberate pacts with the Devil. As the most fatal pandemic in history, the Black Death, was finally ending and married people were expected to claim God’s favor by multiplying and replenishing the Earth with children, abortion providers became accused witches. They died at the stake after being sentenced by local judges working in tandem with religious tribunals.

Aborting was not an issue of liberty or necessarily a private matter in Early Modern Europe. It was considered a blasphemous act performed by witches who wanted to deliberately offend God. While a woman whose pregnancy did not end in full-term birth was pegged as spiritually weak — a victim of someone else’s sorcery — her midwife, her husband’s lover, a widowed neighbor or an uncouth kitchen maid could become suddenly suspect and trigger a witch hunt. Witches were seen as handmaidens of the devil engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to end human life, and they had to be rooted out.

In the 1480s, the idea that abortion was an affront to God’s plan, but should be stopped in civil court proceedings, began to take hold through the work of German inquisitor Heirich Kramer. Kramer faced skepticism from theologians who argued that abortion was a spiritual issue, not one for consideration by secular judges. Still, he plowed forward, eventually earning the support of Pope Innocent VIII, who ensured that anyone opposing witch hunts was excommunicated and tried for heresy.

In 1486, as state judicial systems in continental Europe gained power while working intimately with the Catholic Church, Kramer published his ecclesiastical manual, “The Malleus Maleficarum.” The handbook was meant to streamline legal and investigative procedures for witch hunters. It covered not only abortion, but also infertility, male impotence, stillbirth and other situations involving botched or delayed human procreation.

Any attempt to interrupt live births, “The Malleus” explained, was the Devil’s work, with witches doing his bidding in the human world. Any neighbor, acquaintance or spouse could approach a cleric and open a case against anyone else. Kramer urged priests to investigate accusations all the way to capital punishment in state courts — which religious courts could not mete out. The practicality of “The Malleus” made it influential across Europe for more than 200 years.

In 1692, religious witch-hunting crossed the Atlantic. During the Salem witch trials — which ended with 20 people prosecuted and hanged as witches, in a town of 550 — neighbors randomly accused each other of making pacts with devils.

Yet the hysteria was unrelated to abortion. The “Malleus Maleficarum” had not been published in English and the Puritans did not hold procreation as especially sacred. They believed Satan targeted the free will of the faithful, not their fecundity. Early New England midwives freely prescribed cures for “the obstruction of menstruation” and early terminations of pregnancy did not raise any flags.

By the Enlightenment, religious witch-hunting let up on both sides of the Atlantic. The dawn of science brought fresh explanations of how the universe worked, as rational thinking prevailed in Europe and the United States. Witchcraft was left to the superstitious past.

Abortion became legal until a woman felt the first fetal movement, a moment known as quickening. Herbal abortifacients such as savin, pennyroyal and ergot continued to be commonly used to restore menstruation after conception, and no jurisdiction enacted antiabortion statutes in the United States before 1821.

But as the birthrate of White Protestant middle-class women plummeted by the late 19th century, abortion came under new scrutiny. Nativists warned that the birthrates of German peasants, Irish Catholic immigrants, newly emancipated Black Southerners, Indigenous peoples and former Mexicans and Chinese immigrants would soon outpace that of White Protestants.

To prevent that from happening, Horatio Robinson Storer, a physician, launched a campaign to criminalize abortion for the first time in the United States. He wanted to force White Protestants to compete with “alien” population growth. Storer teamed up with a fervent moralist, Postmaster General Anthony Comstock, to help pass the Comstock Act in 1873, which criminalized the transportation, selling, lending or gifting of contraceptive or abortifacient herbal concoctions, as well as devices such as pessaries. Even doctors educating patients on family planning could be found to violate federal obscenity laws.

The Comstock Law set the stage for two very different legal landscapes regarding abortion in Europe vs. the United States. In parts of Europe — Poland, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland — abortion was legalized in the 1930s as it became harder to raise children during the global Great Depression. But by the 1940s in the United States, as the economy experienced a wartime boom, the use of any medium — other than the rhythm method or abstinence — to curtail fertility was prohibited in many states for being immoral. Physicians became the new “witches,” hunted out and prosecuted for aiding and abetting the crime. In Illinois, clinics providing abortions were raided and upended by police. Women having abortions and the doctors who performed them were indicted.

In 1960, Connecticut still banned doctors from prescribing and talking to women about contraception.

Yet moral prudery and state encroachment on pregnancy were losing favor in the United States when, in 1965, in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court affirmed the right to privacy within marriage as “older than the Bill of Rights.” Soon after, even the most reticent states gave physicians the right to prescribe popular new birth control pills or other safe and legal methods of stopping conception for married women.

As European states continued to liberalize their abortion laws, and the United Kingdom passed the Abortion Act of 1967, American feminists argued for women’s right to decide whether to bear a child free from government intrusion. In 1973, the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade affirmed that the right to privacy was “broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether to terminate her pregnancy.” The court extended the right to choose abortion until the fetus was viable outside of the womb in the third trimester, and providers were free to practice medicine to help them. Nineteen years later, the court reaffirmed the basic right to an abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, adding that defining “one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of life” is at the heart of freedom and had to be protected.

Yet a more organized antiabortion movement sprung up in the wake of Roe and has continually labored to limit abortion rights and to persuade the court to limit or overturn Roe and Casey. These antiabortion crusaders, usually inspired by their religious beliefs, see life beginning at conception.

Today, abortion providers are again being targeted for interfering with God’s blessing of fertility. Starting in September, the new Texas law deputizes ordinary citizens — ex-boyfriends, pastors, religious or political activists — to walk into secular courts and sue providers suspected of performing abortions. Best friends, parents and even Uber drivers could also be hauled into civil courts as suspected accomplices, just as those accused of witchcraft were in 15th-century Europe. When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed this law that could trigger a modern-day witch hunt, he cited a religious reason for doing so: “Our creator endowed us with the right to life.”

In October, when the Supreme Court reconsiders a women’s right to choose in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the justices will weigh the validity of laws like that in Texas. Ten states — Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee — have trigger laws in place to immediately outlaw all abortions and prosecute those who help women obtain them if the court overturns Roe and Casey. These legal provisions would resurrect the wretched past of witch hunts in court, all in the name of religious belief and political gain.