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