The Victorian-era abortion trial that rocked Toronto

1879, Emily Stowe was criminally charged with administering poisons to induce a miscarriage — the courtroom battle that followed was marked by sexism, hypocrisy, and gross incompetence
By Nate Hendley - Published on Jun 27, 2020
Portrait of Emily Stowe from The Canadian Magazine of Politics, Science Art and Literature, 1895. (Internet Archive)

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A century before the Supreme Court of Canada grappled with the issue of abortion legislation, a pioneering female physician was put through a high-profile trial in Toronto for allegedly administering drugs to induce a miscarriage. 

The physician was Emily Howard Stowe, born in 1831 in Norwich Township, Upper Canada. Her Quaker mother believed in educating girls — a radical notion for the time.

Emily Howard Jennings, as she was originally named, worked as a schoolteacher when she was a teenager, then became the first female school principal in pre-Confederation Canada. She married John Stowe in 1856 and raised a family. 

When her husband developed tuberculosis in 1863, Stowe decided to become a doctor. Turned down by the Toronto School of Medicine because of her gender, Stowe studied at New York Medical College for Women, which taught homeopathic medicine. After graduating, she opened an office in downtown Toronto in 1867. In the process, she became the first woman to openly practise medicine in the new nation of Canada (albeit, without an official licence). 

In 1870, Stowe and Jennie Kidd Trout were permitted to attend a course of lectures at the Toronto School of Medicine. Trout passed her matriculation exam and went on to become the first licensed female doctor in Canada. Stowe refused to take the written and oral-matriculation examination (possibly out of concerns about being ridiculed by hostile male examiners). So she went back to her practice and continued treating her mostly female clientele without a medical licence.

Stowe didn’t confine her ambitions just to medicine; in 1876, she co-founded the Toronto Women’s Literary Club (an early feminist organization).

The male-dominated Canadian medical establishment largely opposed female physicians. Medical journals of the day ran scathing editorials about women who wanted to become doctors.   

“As wives, mothers, sisters and dainty little housekeepers, we have the utmost love and respect for them; but we do not think the profession of medicine, as a rule, a fit place for them,” fulminated the Canada Lancet in 1871.

The editorial grudgingly conceded that female medical students shouldn’t be denied “any of the rights and privileges accorded to those of the sterner sex,” but male chauvinism remained strong.

The death of Sarah Ann Lovell on August 12, 1879, gave Stowe’s opponents an opening to attack her. A 19-year-old single female domestic servant, Lovell died unexpectedly at her mother’s Toronto home. Lovell seemed in good health and spirits, so an inquest was called and an autopsy performed. The post-mortem revealed that Lovell’s lungs were congested, that her was heart enlarged, and that she was five months pregnant.

Authorities discovered that Lovell had been a patient of Stowe. At the inquest, Stowe admitted that she had seen Lovell three months before the girl’s death. The doctor said that the servant girl had been clearly upset and that a physical examination had indicated she was pregnant. Lovell requested “something to prevent conception,” recalled Stowe.

It’s not clear whether Lovell was confused about medical terminology or was alluding to the concept of quickening (the moment when a pregnant woman can detect fetal movement, around the three- or four-month mark). Some Victorian-era doctors thought it permissible to terminate pregnancies prior to quickening. Federal law, however, was unequivocal; abortion was banned at all stages of pregnancy.

Stowe wrote a prescription for Lovell containing cantharides, myrrh, and hellebore—substances sometimes used to induce a miscarriage. The doctor insisted she had prescribed only a mild dose, essentially as a placebo, to get an annoying patient out of her office (“weak-minded” was one of the unflattering terms Stowe used to describe Lovell).

As her testimony revealed, the doctor’s disdain went further. Stowe informed Lovell’s employer about her condition and urged that the girl be fired. Although a strong advocate for women’s rights, Stowe was also something of a snob, and her feminism didn’t necessarily extend to solidarity with working-class servants. That said, she didn’t report Lovell to police for trying to obtain an illegal abortion. 

The coroner’s jury mulled things over, then declared that Lovell had died “by means of an irritant poison taken by herself or at the hands of others unknown to the jury for the purpose of procuring an abortion,” reported the Globe on August 28, 1879.

Jurors didn’t specifically blame Stowe, but no matter; two weeks after the inquest ended, she was criminally charged with administering poisons to Lovell to induce a miscarriage. Stowe pled not guilty to the charges on September 11, 1879. She posted bail (set at $8,000), and a trial commenced later that month. She faced a possible life sentence if convicted.

The trial was held in an atmosphere of sexism and hypocrisy. Abortion was a crime and birth control hard to come by, but Canadian drug stores routinely stocked medicines designed to cause miscarriages. To skirt the law, drug makers claimed their products helped women cope with “suppressed” or “obstructed” menstruation (code for unwanted pregnancies). With names such as Sir James Clarke’s Female Pills and Dr. Gordon’s Pearls of Health, some of these medicines were effective, others dangerous.

Major newspapers carried ads for these drugs and for their providers. A June 27, 1860, advertisement for Sir James Clarke’s Female Pills in the Globe described the medicine as “a sure and safe remedy for female difficulties and obstructions, from any cause whatever … It will, in a short time, bring on the monthly period with regularity.” A September 22, 1898, ad in the Evening Star promoted the services of a downtown Toronto doctor who specialized in “diseases of women” including “painful, profuse or suppressed menstruation.”

At trial, several male physicians testified that Stowe’s low-dose prescription would have been sufficient to induce a miscarriage and spoke dismissively about her medical skills. Prosecution witness Cornelius James Philbrick (who helped perform Lovell’s autopsy) was chided by presiding Judge Kenneth Mackenzie for being outrageously sexist: the judge took offence when Philbrick said the defendant was “a fool for speaking so much about the matter.”

The prosecution wasn’t helped by the incompetence of some of its witnesses. Coroner John McConnell, who presided over the inquest, admitted that he had lost the empty bottle that had contained Lovell’s medicine and made only very rough notes during the inquest proceedings.   

Stowe’s lawyers offered a simple defence: under the law, their client hadn’t “administered” anything but merely provided a prescription. It was up to the patient whether to fill it. Stowe hadn’t directed Lovell to a pharmacy or openly told her that the medicine would cause a miscarriage, said her lawyers.

The defence also pointed out that witnesses had seen Lovell taking medicine shortly after visiting Stowe. If the prescription had caused Lovell’s death, why did it take three months to kill her?

After hearing all this, Judge Mackenzie concluded there was no legal case against Stowe. He told the jury to acquit the doctor, and she was discharged in late September 1879.

While victorious, Stowe never showed much interest in fighting for reproductive rights for women. 

“What evidence remains suggests that Dr. Stowe believed in sexual abstinence except for procreative purposes,” notes Constance B. Backhouse in a 1991 article in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History.

The same year Stowe went on trial, her daughter, Augusta was admitted to the Toronto School of Medicine at Victoria College in Cobourg. Augusta graduated in 1883, becoming the first woman to graduate from a Canadian medical college.

As for Lovell, in a March 1992 article from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, J. Duffin puts forward a new hypothesis about her death. Lovell, she suggests, likely “died of a sudden onset of heart failure and pulmonary edema, possibly after a massive embolism or rupture of a valve brought on by strenuous exertion and hormonal changes.” 

Stowe herself finally received an official medical licence in 1880 and continued to advance feminist causes for decades to come. Her criminal case was largely forgotten.

When she died on April 30, 1903, Stowe’s obituary in the Globe called her “a pioneer in the cause of the emancipation of women in the Province” and compared her to American suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. There was no mention of her notorious abortion trial in Toronto.

Sources: The fall 1991 edition of the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History; the February 1, 1871, edition of The Canada Lancet; the March 15, 1992, edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal; the September 22, 1898, edition of the Evening Star; the June 27, 1860, August 18, 1879, September 12, 1879, September 24, 1879, November 23, 1889, May 13, 1902, April 7, 1903 and May 1, 1903, edition of the Globe. ​​​​​​​

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