The Good Doctor: Horatio Robinson Storer

When the Supreme Court struck down all state laws restricting abortion in Roe v. Wade, the justices were undoing the work of a group of courageous physicians who had helped enact the laws a century earlier.  The leading force in this movement was Dr. Horatio Robinson Storer, an energetic young obstetrician from Boston.

Until the mid-nineteenth century abortion was generally banned after “quickening”—the time when a mother could feel movement in her womb.  However, as physicians learned more about fetal development, they recognized that life begins at conception and called for stricter laws against abortion.  In 1855, Dr. David Humphreys Storer, a professor at Harvard Medical School, delivered a highly publicized address, calling for a ban on abortion at all stages of pregnancy unless the mother’s life were in danger.

The senior Storer’s lecture prompted his son Horatio into action.  A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Horatio was actively involved in the newly-formed American Medical Association (AMA).  In 1857 he asked the AMA to take up the issue and in 1859 a committee that he led issued a report at the AMA annual meeting.  Storer and the other committee members urged their fellow doctors to do everything in their power to educate the general public about when fetal life begins.  They also encouraged their colleagues to press their state legislators to enact stricter laws against abortion and to impose stiffer penalties on abortionists.  The AMA delegates unanimously approved the Storer report and many doctors returned to their home states and lobbied their representatives.

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In the aftermath of the meeting, dozens of states passed new laws.  Some states dropped any reference to “quickening” so that abortions at any stage of pregnancy would be illegal unless performed to save the life of the mother.  Some states outlawed advertisements for abortifacient drugs while others increased the penalties levied on abortionists.  While many doctors across the country were involved in this crusade, no one played as great a role as Horatio Storer.  During the 1860s, Storer served a term as vice-president of the AMA and produced three influential books on abortion.  Two were aimed at a general audience: Is It I? A Book for Every Man (1867) and Why Not? A Book for Every Woman (1866).  The third was a scholarly work, Criminal Abortion: Its Nature, Its Evidence, Its Law (1868),  written with a Boston attorney, Franklin Fiske Heard.

In the early 1870s, Storer became gravely ill; Storer’s biographer, Frederick Dyer, thinks that he contracted an infection while performing surgery.  Five years later, he still had not fully recovered so he decided to move to Newport, Rhode Island, hoping that its sea breezes and salt water would prove restorative.  He gained some strength in Newport but never felt strong enough to return to his medical career.  Consequently, Storer devoted his remaining energies to other causes and for the most part left the abortion campaign to other doctors.

Storer quickly became one of Newport’s most civic-minded residents.  He served as an advisor to the local hospital and helped to establish a Sanitary Protection Association to make sure that drinking water was clean.  He gave lectures to the Newport Historical Society and served as that organization’s treasurer.  He wrote letters to the city’s newspapers when he thought key issues were at stake.  For example, when a Newport theater planned to show The Birth of a Nation, Storer denounced the film as racist and hate-filled.

Much of his time was devoted to assisting the Church.  Born into a Unitarian family, Storer had converted to Episcopalianism in 1869 after encountering the dynamic preaching of the Reverend Phillips Brooks.  A decade later he had converted to Catholicism, probably in part because of the influence of his devoutly Catholic wife, Frances.  Storer surely had other reasons to convert as well.  He had long admired the Catholic Church for its clear teaching on abortion and had been associated with the Franciscan Hospital for Women in Boston in the 1860s.  He also was friendly with Bishop John Fitzpatrick of Boston and corresponded often with Bishop Francis Chatard of Indianapolis, who had trained to be a doctor before studying for the priesthood.

In the 1880s, Newport’s one Catholic church, St. Mary’s, was split in two and Storer was named a trustee of the new parish, St. Joseph’s.  He helped to establish a grammar school and a high school for St. Joseph’s and he presided over the parish’s total abstinence society for many years.  Working with his daughter Agnes, Storer helped to build up the Catholic infrastructure of Newport in other ways as well.  They established a retreat center on the grounds of an old estate; they set up a convalescent home for women and they turned over one of their own properties to the sisters who operated the schools in St. Joseph’s parish.

From time to time, Storer also spoke out about abortion.  In the late 1890s, he gave scholarly lectures claiming that more needed to be done to curb abortion in America.  While numerous laws had been passed, Storer believed that illegal abortions were still fairly widespread.  He was convinced that doctors needed to renew their efforts to defend the unborn.  One California Jesuit sent Storer an effusive note after reading his lectures:  “May you have a crown in heaven for the noble stand you have always taken in defence of the defenceless—and may I be there to see!”

Although never robust after his illness, Storer outlived all of his classmates from Harvard’s Class of 1850.  In 1922, Storer, age 92, was the oldest living Harvard graduate and was thus invited to lead the procession at the Harvard graduation.  Storer wisely declined the offer, knowing that he was too frail to attempt it.  He died later in the year and his funeral was held at St. Joseph’s, the church that he had helped to establish forty years earlier.  Obituaries appeared for Dr. Storer in many publications, including Ave Maria, which was published out of the University of Notre Dame.  The author lauded Storer for “taking up a crusade for the protection of unborn children…His work in this regard came at a time when it was sadly needed…It awakened a genuine sense of honor among the better class of physicians, and accomplished an immense amount of good.”

Almost a century has passed since Storer’s death, and Americans again are in desperate needof good doctors like him to awaken us to the sacredness of unborn life.


  • John F. Quinn

    John F. Quinn is Professor of History at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of Father Matthew’s Crusade: Temperance in Nineteenth Century Ireland and Irish-America (2002). He earned his doctorate in history from the University of Notre Dame in 1992.

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