Pro-Choice Book Club: Abortion In the Days Before Roe

For as long as people have been practicing medicine, rudimentary as it might have been for most of history, people have been performing abortions. In the United States, abortion was outlawed in the mid-1800s, the reason being that the procedure was too dangerous; before then it had been legal until quickening. This rationale dissolved as techniques improved and the procedure, when performed in sterile settings by a knowledgeable practitioner, became safer than childbirth itself, and abortion was legalized with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. For the century or so during which abortion was prohibited, women continued to seek them out. We’ve all heard the horror stories about the injuries and deaths that could result from illegal abortions. This image was widespread during those years as well, which makes it all the more telling that women still sought illegal abortions — a woman’s need to control her own destiny could outweigh a genuine fear of death.

The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law by Rickie Solinger (1996) tells the story of Ruth Barnett, an abortionist in the Pacific Northwest who practiced from 1918 to 1968. Barnett’s success as an abortionist — she served tens of thousands of patients and never lost a single one — stands in stark contrast to the caricature of the back-alley butcher. Although incompetent, sloppy, and predatory abortionists did exist in the pre-Roe years, there were many, like Barnett, whose skilled work ensured that some women could obtain safe, albeit illegal, abortions.

Although illegal, abortion was tolerated throughout the Great Depression and the WWII years; after the Second World War, however, pro-natalist pressures collided with a nationwide fear of crime. Mayors from city to city were elected on anti-crime platforms and soon police across the country were cracking down on the underworld, doing their best to abolish “vices” in the form of gambling, prostitution, and abortion.

Barnett initially operated in a clean, lavish, and huge clinic, but as abortion was driven ever further underground in the 1950s and ’60s, she ended up performing the procedure in her laundry room. She was arrested and jailed numerous times, and finally died just a few years before the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized her life’s work. The Abortionist offers not only a multidimensional, warts-and-all profile of its subject, but tells the story within the larger context of the history of law enforcement and women’s place in a paternalistic and patriarchal society.

Picking up approximately where Solinger’s book leaves off is Laura Kaplan’s The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service (1995). “Jane” was a feminist collective operating in Chicago from 1969 until abortion’s legalization in 1973. Starting out as a referral service that connected women with abortionists, Jane sorted the skilled and humane abortionists from the unskilled and inhumane abortionists. Some practitioners, while competent, might engage in humiliating or exploitative practices, such as tying women’s legs to bedposts in lieu of providing stirrups, or demanding sexual favors in addition to payment. Such abortionists were screened out, and Jane eventually came to rely on one practitioner in particular, who not only had the skills but whose bedside manner put patients at ease. With him, Jane could negotiate lower prices for cash-strapped clients — and eventually, they convinced him to train a few of Jane’s members to perform abortions. Once enough of them had the skills, they were able to transform Jane into an all-female venture, providing abortions on a sliding scale and opening access to women from across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Jane was a site of enlightenment for many women, from teenagers to housewives. Even their male abortionist — who initially believed that “abortions were like mink coats: lots of women wanted them, but not everyone could afford one” — had his consciousness raised when he realized the role that class played in access to safe abortions. As Jane’s prices dropped and he saw more lower-income women, he noticed that many of them weren’t receiving any medical care. He bought the group a teaching microscope and taught them how to perform Pap smears. Eventually, Jane became a provider of basic gynecological care and sex education.

Jane conducted a study to gauge the quality of care offered by their group. An independent gynecologist performed post-abortion exams on their clients and determined that their work was on par with the legal abortions performed in New York. Such evidence convinced many doctors that one did not need to be a physician to perform safe abortions. Indeed, one provision of the Abortion Omnibus Bill signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer last year barred non-physicians (specially trained nurse practitioners) from performing abortions — a move that is not in the interest of women’s safety but is intended to restrict access to abortion.

Although Kaplan is not the most polished writer, the story she tells is engaging. The personality clashes and complicated group dynamics that constantly threatened to destroy Jane were tempered by the members’ overwhelming commitment to their mission: to give women control over their destinies.

While both authors spotlight competent abortionists who practiced before Roe, neither overlooks the tremendous hardships criminalization imposed on women — or the life-or-death situations they faced because of it. We must learn about the period before Roe, because we could easily find ourselves back there.