Remembering Abortion Before Roe v Wade

Vintage photo mother and daughter "Don't hide from your daughter these intimate Physical Facts"

Do we really want our daughters to return to a time when access to safe and effective birth control was difficult, those good old days when abortion was risky and unavailable? Those are the facts of defunding Planned Parenthood

Today on the 43rd anniversary of Roe V Wade and with the Supreme Court set to revisit  women’s fundamental right to access abortion in the Whole Woman’s Health v Cole Case, the most serious threat to abortion rights since 1992- its time to look back again at the realities of illegal abortion pre Roe v Wade.

Anniversary edition from the Vault:

Controlling Women’s Bodies Risky Business

If some right-wing fanatics have their way, every day will be Throwback Thursday if they stop government funding of Planned Parenthood.

Other than in the retro world of Republicans who seem nostalgic for those pre Roe V Wade days, there is nothing warm or fuzzy about a time when abortion was criminalized.

Do we really want our daughters to return to a time when access to safe and effective birth control – which reduces the number of unplanned pregnancies – was difficult?

To take us back to  the good old days when abortion was both risky business and a crime, defunding Planned Parenthood today would be criminal.

Since Republicans enjoy peddling falsehoods as facts, it only makes sense to present the facts through fiction.

Life Before Roe V Wade – The Good Old Days?

vintage photo frightened woman from True Romance

“There was a great nothingness…and then the flash of a terrible word….Abortion!” Vintage photo from “True Romance Magazine”

Once upon a time, women paid a steep price for illegal procedures.

The story of Jinx Malone is a cautionary tale.

It was 1953. The pill that would revolutionize birth control was 7 years in the future, and it would be a long 20 years before Roe v Wade would make abortion legal.

vintage photo woman crying

Poor Jinx was in a jam.

She faced a problem that many women faced. This wide-eyed single gal found herself pregnant with a heap o’ worries.

What could she do? With an unwanted pregnancy and few resources, the perky 20-year-old was left high and dry when her beau wouldn’t marry her. Dreamy Dick so suave and handsome was also a first-rate heel.

Vintage photo illustration "Real Romance" Magazine

Jinx couldn’t bear to tell her family so terrified and ashamed, she turned to her trusted family physician.

The doctor did not smile. Instead he looked sharply at Jinx. She was young and pretty but  looked defeated.

Doc Roberts wisely suggested she find a man to marry, if not the father then any man would do.

vintage photo wedding groom and bride

Without the possibility of a ring on her finger, the doc directed her to a discreet out-of-state home for the unwed mother where Jinx  could have her baby and put it up for adoption. It was a wrenching decision.

Termination was out of the question –  it was illegal.

Besides which, abortions were scary things.

When Abortion was a Crime

vintage true crime photos

The criminal racket of illegal abortionists kept the cops busy. Vintage true crime photos from “Headquarters Detective” Magazine

There were no shortage of cautionary tales and lurid exposes regularly published in magazines and newspapers condemning the flourishing criminal racket of abortionists. Stuff straight out of the police blotters with enough lurid grisly details to place fear in the hearts of any misguided women.

Just the Facts Mam’

Doc Roberts emphasized  the dangers of a criminal abortion something “no nice girl should ever consider.” With his medical expertise he explained “that it is simpler and less risky to deliver a baby by Caesarian operation than to perform a therapeutic abortion (which was the medical name for an abortion which is medically necessary to save a woman’s life and was legally permissible.) And in a criminal abortion, the risk is infinitely graver!”

“The criminal abortionist,” he continued, “does not have the time or interest in his patients welfare to study her records. He simply enters with his curelle and scrapes around till he finds the embryo. This might lead to a perforation through the uterine wall or the intestines might be damaged, accidents which leave the unlucky victim with a 50/50 chance.”

troubled woman in bed Vintage photo illustration "True Love and Romance " Magazine

Vintage photo illustration “True Love and Romance ” Magazine

She agonized over the alternatives.

Helpful friends suggested knitting needles, rubber tubes and caustic drinks like potassium permanganatea that could end a pregnancy but more than likely cause bleeding and burns.

vintage pulp photo illustration woman banging on walls

Desperate and demoralized, she drank paregoric, threw herself against her walls but stopped short of the coat hanger trick, all to no avail.

She ran out of options.

Vintage photos pulp romance magazines women

Finally in her despair she turned to her gal pal Madge. Worldly and wise in the way of men,  Madge discreetly gave her the address of a criminalist abortionist. Tucking it into her purse Jinx blushed deeply, hopefully no one would uncover this secret that could ruin her.

“It’s easy, hon!” reassured the other girl. “There’s nothing to it. Why I’ve had it done three times!” she boasted.

Jinx gulped at the cost. $200 was this file clerks entire months salary. But there was no other choice.

Dial A For Abortion

vintage photo illustrations file clerk and upset woman 1950s

Back in her apartment Jinx sat a card table and carefully added up the row of figures on the yellow sheet of paper in front of her.

Rent, food, clothes, car fare, magazines and cigarettes. No matter how she juggled ’em the figures always added up to more than her weekly paycheck from the agency where she was a file clerk. Caring for a baby was impossible.  She frowned and tapped the pencil against her teeth.

Vintage telephone womans hand picking up receiver

Dial A for Abortion. Image from Western Electric Ad 1949

Nervously she unfolded the crumpled paper with the number scribbled on it , picked up her phone and made the call.

Risky Business

vintage photo woman going into drs office

Now Jinks was waiting in a shabby darkened office. Two or three other women also waited, their eyes cast downward looking through tattered old magazines, or  staring at the grimy floor in silence, nervously smoking

The fee had been paid up front – five $50 dollar bills, more than she earned in a month.

The receptionist dressed in a nurses uniform found out by skillful questioning how much money Jinx had in her purse charging a higher sum than Jinx had expected.

Abortion rings were often organized as a business. The abortionist splits his proceeds with a contact man or business manager who got a fee for every woman he sends in. Druggists also received a fee for recommending women keeping a stream of patients moving quickly.

vintage photo concerned womans face

Jinx thought she was lucky to find a real doctor willing to perform the procedure.

Or so he claimed he was.

Tales of back alley abortions gave her the shivers. Unlike so many poor girls at least she wasn’t blindfolded and taken to a dingy apartment where a kitchen table lay in wait.

When Jinx was finally called into the operating room, she had not been especially frightened despite the sordid condition of the room. After all, hadn’t she been assured by Madge how safe it was, how easy? She wriggled out of her girdle and lay on the table.

If only she had read just one more of the articles warning a nice girl of the dangers that lay ahead, Jinx might have known that the surgeon’s mask worn by the abortionist served a double purpose. It gave him a professional appearance and it concealed his face so that she could not identify him if he were ever called to trial.

vintage photo frightened woman face

Jinx winced in pain.

The discomfort of the operation was unexpected. Little did she know the criminal abortionist uses only a light whiff of chloroform or often nothing.

Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry

The operation was soon over. The nurse helped Jinx off the table. She was permitted to lie down on a narrow cot. After 20 minutes the nurse brought in her hat and coat.

“Can’t I rest a little longer?” Jinx asked pleadingly.

The nurse would not permit it. The lone cot was needed by another women. And Jinx who should have rested with good nursing care for several days had to get up and find a taxi home.

Getting the woman out of his office as soon as possible was the “doctors”  priority. He is constantly afraid that she may die. If this happens he will deny that he performed the operation and won’t have to worry about being betrayed by any evidence of anesthetics.

How Lucky Can You Get?

vintage photo illustration woman 1950s

In spite of these circumstances, Jinx’s abortion was successful.

Our Jinx was one lucky lady, luckier than most for she did not bleed to death.

All that happened to our gal Jinx was that she developed septicemia or blood poisoning caused by the good doctors  unclean instruments. Along with her monthly salary, she paid for her abortion with weeks of serious illness and months of semi invalidism.

Nobody knows how many girls like Jinx there were. According to one 1950’s article that exposed the abortion industry: “Some experts think half a million criminal abortions are perfumed each year. Others think it’s a million…A John Hopkins gynecologist believes that 1 out of every 50 women pays for a criminal abortion with her life.”

But Wait There’s More

vintage photo illustration worried woman kneeling man in chair

But the story told is still not completely told for the tragic effects of illegal abortion may not develop until a long time later.

Girls like Jinx’s friend Madge who boasted of her 3 successful abortions would not find out for years the price they have to pay.

Sterility was not uncommon. According to reports presented at a conference at the N.Y. Academy of Medicine in the 1950s, over 50,000 women become sterile every year as a result of criminal abortions.

Dangerous  Alternatives

vintage photos of women from pulp magazines

And there were other dangerous forms other than abortion to rid yourself of pregnancy.

Drugs taken by mouth were sometimes recommended by dishonest druggists. Some of these drugs contained phosphorous which could be fatal. Others contained lead.

If they were strong enough to cause an abortion then they were  nearly always poisonous. If they did not actually cause death they will would wreck the health of any woman rash enough to take it.

Pastes and fluids injected into the uterus also took a grim death toll.

Trust Your Friendly Neighborhood Druggist

One girl Jinx knew asked her neighborhood druggist for the address of a criminal abortionist.

He told her that for $10 he could sell her something “just as good and twice as safe.” The tube of paste he sold her was labeled with an impressive medical name and with it came directions for injecting it into the uterus.

The girl used the paste according to directions and waited for the results. Next day she was admitted into a major N.Y. hospital coughing a blood stained fluid and suffering from severe shock.

vintage photo illustration funeral and hearse

Vintage photo ” Daring Detective” Magazine

High Cost

The toll the nations abortion laws took on women’s health before Roe v Wade were substantial.

Although that has changed, the removal of Planned Parenthood and or stricter abortion laws could herald the return to a system in which safe abortion was available to some Americans but out of reach of many in need. Poorer women and their families are always  disproportionately impacted.

In 2015, women are having abortions. Don’t we want to make sure they have a safe place to have one?

Good health care and control over ones body is a woman’s birthright.

And that’s no fiction.

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



  1. sdaven5191

    Thank you for coming out with the disturbing truth and pulling no punches in doing so. The GOP members who have “visions of 1950’s sugarplums dancing in their heads” have absolutely no idea of the real circumstances of life in that time. It’s all out of 50’s TV sitcoms which also had no reality involved – just wishful thinking that all the problems of the real world didn’t intrude on their idyllic existence, and the few minor ones that did were all wrapped up neatly and tied with pretty ribbons inside their thirty minute time limit.

    The life they envision never existed in the real world. Anything approaching it only lasted a very few years, and things continued to change, to metamorphosize, to evolve, to progress. Not to stay languid, to remain stuck in one place without growing and moving forward. Nothing living remains unchanged in form or substance for long.

    And that is as it was in the 50’s. The fifties were poluted with racism, ageism, sexism, and a few other unpleasant “ism’s” that made life in this country less than idylic for most of society. There were always the privileged few – we have always had them – who don’t want things to change, less they lose their privileged status in the world, or, having seen it shift and change to benefit others, want to move it backwards again to take back what they can of that status they feel they lost. That’s the GOP OF TODAY.

    Not since the Southern Strategy have we seen a GOP of any benevolence, or of any consideration for the little guy, for the underdog. And until we can rid them of those mentally-challenged, thoughtless, cruel, selfish individuals who think they can rule by force of will, will we see any beneficial changes in that group.

    They claim to be pro-LIFE. They are NOT. They are pro-BIRTH only. As long as it’s a fetus, an unborn being, then it must be protected at all costs, right down to the mother’s life. But, once born, do they work to feed, house, provide medical care for, clothe or educate those born to an under privileged existence? NO. Because that would require some expenditure of what they have adopted as their sacred trust – TAX MONEY – and that they cannot abide!

    I *have never*, and as long as they stay the way they are, I *will never* vote for any Republican. To do so would be to go against everything I live and breathe for, everything I believe. And that would be like dying to me. I refuse to do it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pierre Lagacé

    Thanks for posting this.
    My mother had an abortion in the 1940s. At least one that I know of.
    My wife told me when my mother became delirious in 1977 and talked about it.
    That’s when I found out.
    She left this earth in 1989.
    I hope there’s a heaven because she had been in hell most of her adult life.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. I am so sorry for the pain your mother must have experienced, both emotionally and physically. Even under the best of circumstances, an abortion leaves its psychic scars. To have subjected so many women to medical horror stories that haunted them their whole lives is criminal.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Brock Buildersteel

    We were upon the other end of the spectrum of the reality of abortion Hell. We were in love, had been dating all year, I was in my senior year, dating a young women that was 18, (younger than myself) we rented an apartment together, I was working a very dangerous hard labor job in a glass factory from midnight until 8:00 am. Then I had a mad rush across town on the freeways of So; -Cali; and I was in High school until 3:00 pm. my girlfriend (We) became pregnant, my controlling parents already hated my girlfriend, and they got really ugly very fast. For many weeks they were coming down hard upon us, pressuring her to have an abortion, and that’s an understatement.

    They used the abortion clinic like a weapon, weeks and weeks of their threats and hell. Then they pulled the ‘Statutory Rape card. They threatened to throw her into Jail because I was under age, and only by a few weeks. She went in to the clinic and it messed us both up seriously upon a emotional health level, and for a long, long time. We packed, I quit High school, my full time job, and we left the state, moved to Northern Idaho, got pregnant and had our first baby daughter, then got married and had a second baby daughter. But our first baby was murdered by two very ugly people, my Parents.

    We can argue that the clinic provided a safe place for a forced abortion. If abortions were illegal and that clinic was not there, it would have not been a fetus murdered. It was a fetus, a part of us both, it was murdered and it deeply scared us for life.

    But I stand behind that if Abortions were still illegal back in 1978, it never would have happened and the Abortion clinics need to be shut down as they are used as weapons.


    • D

      Brock, I’m so sorry that this happened to you and your wife. I’m glad that you were able to get away from the parents and start a new life together.

      I realize it’s been a year since your comment. I’m asking you to consider something. If the parents were as horrible as you say, I doubt they would have stopped if there were no safe and legal abortion. They sound exactly like the type to drag her to a back alley abortionist, or to kick her in the stomach themselves. The consequences described above are what she (and you) would have had to face. Make no mistake. Those people would not have stopped because it was “illegal.”

      It’s quite possible that your wife is alive (and was able to bear children!) *because* her abortion was legal and safe.

      Forced abortions are as horrible as forced pregnancies. Both are a violation of the body and spirit. And you are absolutely right…the parents are the murderers. The clinic was simply their tool. If a safe way to exert force had not been available, they would likely have caused her to bleed to death…then you would have lost your first child AND your wife.

      I rarely post in online discussions, certainly this is a first outside of Facebook and imdb. But this is something that resonates so strongly with me…and your story is so moving.

      Again, I’m so sorry that you had this painful experience. No one should have to face such treatment from their family.

      Thank you for sharing your story. I now have a better understanding why some people campaign so strongly against legal abortion. But please consider that the legal clinics are not at fault. They only make it safer and less traumatic to do what people are already set on doing.


  5. Brock Buildersteel

    Ops I meant she was older than myself.


  6. Excellent article. The consequences were real. I knew two women who had abortions and were made sterile. One was my great aunt, the other was a family friend. The risks were high.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Abortion Rights – Driving Ms. Crazy | Envisioning The American Dream

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