Linking midwives and abortion in the Progressive Era

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During 1890-1920, physicians, public health workers, and reformers across the US debated the practice of abortion by midwives. The author traces the nature of the development of the intertwined campaigns against midwives and abortion in Chicago. In Chicago, nearly all midwives were foreign-born and practiced in immigrant neighborhoods. A debate which began in the medical profession became part of popular discourse and political action. As the medical story of midwives and abortion caught the attention of different groups, each gave the story its own emphasis. Nonetheless, all advanced the obstetricians' program to restrict midwives' practices. The combined campaign to control abortion and midwifery took the form of a classic Progressive Era reform movement: a coalition of private interest groups of the native-born, white middle class identified a problem, investigated and documented its extent, and mobilized to promote a state-sponsored solution. The problem of midwives and abortion tended to be located among the city's immigrant population. The author stresses that neither the perception that immigrant midwives posed a problem nor the tendency to link midwives with abortion was unique to Chicago physicians and reformers. The leaders of medicine and reform in Chicago not only advocated midwife regulations in their own city, but also held considerable influence in the shaping of national health policy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)569-598
Number of pages30
JournalBulletin of the history of medicine
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1995


  • midwives
  • physicians
  • abortion
  • midwifery
  • obstetrics
  • medical practice
  • womens health
  • political campaigns
  • progressive era
  • coroners

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Nursing
  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • History


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