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Life Story: Asenath Smith (1774-1848)

The Woman Behind the First U.S. Abortion Law

The story of the woman whose experiences inspired the nation’s first abortion law.

Content Warning: This life story addresses abuse and bodily violation during early medical procedure.

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Every person who shall, wilfully and maliciously, administer to, or cause to be administered to, or taken by, any person or persons, any deadly poison, or other noxious and destructive substance, with an intention him, her or them, thereby to murder, or thereby to cause or procure the miscarriage of any woman, then being quick with child, and shall be thereof duly convicted, shall suffer imprisonment, in new-gate prison, during his natural life, or for such other term as the court having cognizance of the offence shall determine.

Connecticut State Statutes Crimes and Punishment Act, 1821, sect. 14. Connecticut Legislature.

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Asenath Caroline Smith was born in 1797. She grew up on a prosperous farm in the town of Griswold, Connecticut. Like many young women in early America, Asenath and her younger sister Maria attended school as children so that they would be ready for their lives as Republican mothers.

Asenath was about 20 years old when she met Ammi Rogers. Ammi was a Yale University-educated preacher who had been banned from the Episcopal Church because he constantly challenged church leaders. Asenath and Ammi lived at the peak of the Second Great Awakening, a period of intense religious fervor that lasted from the 1790s to the 1840s. Preachers without churches traveled from town to town giving sermons. If they were particularly gifted speakers, these preachers could gain followers and fortune. Ammi was widely acknowledged to be a very talented preacher. The crowds at his public sermons regularly numbered in the hundreds. He was a local celebrity of the time.

Asenath met Ammi when he was called to her home to pray with her dying grandmother. Soon afterward the two began a sexual relationship. Asenath’s family was aware of the relationship, but they were not particularly bothered. It was not unusual for couples of their social standing to have sex before marriage. Families looked the other way so long as they believed marriage would be the outcome. While Ammi was in town preaching, Asenath’s grandfather let him stay in their home.

The poison Ammi gave Asenath to end the pregnancy did not work, so he used a tool to physically disrupt her pregnancy, causing her extreme pain.

In the fall of 1817, Asenath learned she was pregnant and shared the news with Ammi. Asenath likely expected that Ammi would marry her. But Ammi knew that even if they married immediately, the baby would be born before their nine-month wedding anniversary. He worried that their premarital sexual relationship would damage his reputation and career. Instead, he offered to help Asenath abort the pregnancy and then promised to marry her.

Asenath agreed to the plan. She and Ammi retreated to her bedroom and did not come out for four days. On the third day, Asenath’s mother and sister heard her scream and demanded to know what was happening. Ammi answered that Asenath was fine and told them not to worry. The truth was that the poison Ammi gave Asenath to end the pregnancy did not work, so he used a tool to physically disrupt her pregnancy, causing her extreme pain. On the fourth day, Ammi left Asenath to go preach in a neighboring town. While he was away, Asenath fell violently ill. She refused to see a doctor, asking only for Ammi. Her mother and sister got a doctor when her symptoms worsened. The doctor quickly realized that Asenath was in labor. Five days after her mother heard her scream, in the presence of her mother, sister, and the local doctor, Asenath delivered a stillborn baby.

News of the birth and Ammi’s role in it spread quickly. In late 1817, a respected member of the community asked the Connecticut District Attorney to investigate the incident. The District Attorney interviewed Asenath, who told him the whole story. Her family confirmed that she was telling the truth. The District Attorney was appalled by Ammi’s actions and decided to bring him to trial. 

Ammi vehemently denied that he played any part in Asenath’s pregnancy or abortion. He managed to delay the trial for two years while he gathered witnesses for his trial. During that time, Ammi kidnapped Asenath and her sister. He isolated them from their community and convinced them that he was the only person they could rely on. He told them that if they testified against him, they would lose all the love and support they had in the world. When the trial finally began in the fall of 1820, Asenath refused to testify against Ammi. But her sister had come to feel very differently. She provided chilling details about the preacher, his relationship with Asenath, and how he manipulated Asenath into lying for him. Asenath’s grandfather also testified that he knew the couple had been sleeping together before the abortion. He admitted that he allowed the relationship to continue because he fully expected they would marry. Ammi’s witnesses could not offer much of a defense, and by the end of his trial, his lawyer seemed to regret defending him.

The jury was outraged that a religious leader had convinced a woman to kill her unborn child to hide the evidence of his misbehavior. However, there was no law against abortion in the United States. In fact, advice on how to end unwanted pregnancies appeared in common medical books at the time. People also knew that midwives could help women end unwanted pregnancies. Aborting a pregnancy was generally treated as a private matter. But, in this case, a man aborted a pregnancy to escape responsibility for his actions. Since they could not convict him for the abortion, the jury convicted Ammi of sexual assault. He was sentenced to only two years in prison. 

The Connecticut legislature acted quickly to make sure actions like Ammi’s would be illegal in the future. On May 22, 1821, they passed a new Crimes and Punishment Act that included a section called “Administering Poison with an Intent to Murder, or Cause Miscarriage.” The law made it a crime for a person to give a woman something that would end a pregnancy. The fact that the law punished the person who gave the poison, and not the pregnant woman, is significant. The legislature wanted to prevent other men from using abortion to cover their misbehavior. It is also significant that the law targeted poison, and not tools used to disrupt pregnancies, even though Ammi used both. Historians think this may have been because male doctors used tools to end pregnancies, while midwives used poisons. This meant the new law could be used to limit the power of midwives.

Asenath disappears from the public record shortly after the trial ended. But her brief relationship with Ammi spurred widespread interest in determining the legality of abortion. Within 20 years, ten other states passed laws based on Connecticut’s example. Ammi’s trial was cited in the landmark Supreme Court case on abortion laws. Today, every state has a law governing abortion, all of which can be traced back to this scandalous relationship in a small Connecticut town.

Vocabulary

  • abortion: The deliberate termination of a pregnancy.
  • District Attorney: A person who works for the government and brings criminals to trial.
  • Episcopal Church: A Christian religious community developed from the traditions of the Church of England.
  • midwives: Women skilled in delivering babies and caring for pregnant and post-partum women.
  • miscarriage: The spontaneous end of pregnancy before 20 weeks.
  • preacher: A person who gives speeches on religious topics.

Discussion Questions

  • What does Asenath Smith’s story reveal about attitudes towards sex, marriage, and family planning in early America?
  • Why did the Connecticut District Attorney take Ammi Rogers to trial? Why did the jury convict him even though there was no law against abortion?
  • How does the aftermath of this trial still affect U.S. women today?
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Suggested Activities

  • Teach this life story together with Fighting for Healthy Women and Families and Privacy and Pregnancy for a larger lesson about the history of abortion in the United States. Then ask your students to research the current laws governing abortion in their state. How has the law changed since 1817? What, if anything, has stayed the same? What does this teach us about the evolution of beliefs about this topic?
  • Combine this life story with Seduction Suits and Novel for a New Era for a larger lesson about Federal period attitudes towards sex and the consequences for women.
  • To learn more about women’s health in early America, see Diary of a Midwife.

Themes

AMERICAN CULTURE

Source Notes
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