CSRI project examines early 20th century abortion trials

Jack Majerus ’19 is sorting through thousands of pages of old text for his historical sociology research project.

He’s looking to understand how 13 criminal trials from the early 20th century constructed the narratives of midwives and women who have received abortions.

“They are actually the only existing trials in New York City in that time period,” Majerus said. “So, we are very fortunate to have those. Essentially, we are just looking at those transcripts to get a sense of the strategic work at play, the accounts that were provided, and the narratives that were formed from those accounts.”

Jack is working with Professor of Sociology Tori Barnes-Brus, who will incorporate his findings into a bigger research project. She’s looking more broadly at what historical aspects of abortion and reproductive rights say about societal perceptions and respect of women.

“There’s this give and take between what we see as society at large and what happens in the courtroom—one is reflecting the other,” Barnes-Brus said. “There’s this back and forth between the both of them. Part of our question is ‘how does what happens in a courtroom, reflect society’s ideologies about gender?’

Majerus has discovered that—at a time when abortion was illegal—women’s stories were repressed during the trials.

“You tend to trust the documents that are right in front of you, but I think in numerous instances we found that sort of the questioning of attorneys has kind of inhibited midwives and aborting women’s ability to share their stories,” Majerus said.

As part of their Cornell Summer Research Institute project, the two also visited the Iowa Women’s Archives at the University of Iowa.

Watch their video story to learn more about their research: