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. Continue reading