Abortion Before Roe v Wade Risky Business

Donald Trump Handmaids Tale

I came late to the game watching Handmaid’s Tale, having only recently begun binging it. A totalitarian society that strips away a woman’s physical autonomy and reproductive rights in the former United States originally seemed too darkly dystopian for my tastes.

But now it feels as if the storylines are no longer confined to HULU- it is streaming free in real life in real time on CNN and ABC, The N.Y. Times and the Daily Beast. A 12-year-old girl raped by her uncle must bear the child to term- “Hallelujah,  Praise God” – or face prison time. Or a doctor who performs an abortion on a rape victim could receive 99 years imprisonment, longer than the actual rapist’s sentence.

How can this be in 2018? Who knew this cautionary tale would be the gospel for Alabama senators, now the latest state to morph into Gideon.

This is more than a warning shot. Trump’s America is waging a war on women and they won’t quit until Roe v Wade is overturned.

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 a crime? Those are the facts facing women in Alabama and Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio. With more to follow.

It is time to look back again at the realities of illegal abortion pre-Roe v Wade.

Controlling Women’s Bodies Risky Business

If some right-wing, white male Republicans have their way, every day in Alabama will be Throwback Thursday.

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.

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, 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 2019, 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, 2019. 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. Reblogged this on Rcooley123's Blog and commented:
    Donald Trump, his recent judicial appointees and the predominantly GOP men in charge of way too many state governments in this country are bound and determined to return us to a dystopian land while calling it Making America Great Again. The bill passed and signed into law in Alabama is the worst example of this. Sally Edelstein in her Envisioning The American Dream blog do an excellent job of explaining this. More reason (if more was needed) to send Trump and the men of his ilk packing at the earliest opportunity. – rjc

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Abortion Before Roe v Wade Risky Business | Rcooley123’s Blog | Ramblings of an Occupy Liberal

  3. Well done. The white men (and white female governor) of Alabama need to understand that they are not ending abortion they they are only endangering the lives of women they are sworn to represent. They are banning safety.

    “Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit can who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.” — The Handmaid’s Tale

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Reblogged this on The Secular Jurist and commented:
    MUST READ! The criminalization of abortion in America was a time of desperate back-alley operations, ruined lives, and ubiquitous suffering which society wanted kept locked-up in a closet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the reblog. This is truly a war on American women. The goal of all these anti-abortion campaigns is to overturn Roe V Wade. With today’s rightwing supreme court they may just succeed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That is their goal. However, in their zealousness to overturn Roe v. Wade, they risk triggering a massive public backlash which the conservative majority on the supreme court couldn’t ignore. Even televangelist Pat Robertson said that the new Alabama law “goes too far.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Never would I think there was an issue where I would find myself agreeing with Pat Robertson. However his point is the Alabama law is so restrictive they would be better served by a less severe law in trying to strike down Roe V Wade.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly, his point relates to the strategy of the anti-abortion movement, not its basic goals.


  5. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    GILEAD … is the USA!! Beware, beware … not back there again!! … ‘How can this be in 2018? Who knew this cautionary tale would be the gospel for Alabama senators, now the latest state to morph into Gideon. This is more than a warning shot. Drumpf’s America is waging a war on women and they won’t quit until Roe v Wade is overturned.’ … and it’s spreading like a fever!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a timely reminder that making abortion illegal doesn’t mean that all will be well.


  7. Reblogged this on silverapplequeen and commented:
    A very good read. Not to mention a scary one. This is what the anti-abortionists want the US to go back to. THEY TRULY HATE WOMEN.


  8. What scares me is the slippery slope (actually it’s a freaking cliff) of totality. I’ve read about women imprisoned in South American and Central American countries with some of the strictest abortion laws. the reason? Miscarriage. But the court didn’t believe they were miscarriages, thought they were actually carefully-planned abortions, and sent the women to jail according to abortion laws.

    Miscarriages happen quite a bit. How long would it be before some woman miscarries and is accused of getting an illegal abortion? Not only is she dealing from the pain of missing out on that possible-child if she wanted it, but she’s gonna lose her social life too with a jail term?

    Just government digging into a woman’s body any way they can. Shameful.


  9. There is a larger historical context, as is often the case. The feminist movement emerged during the American Revolution. It was snuffed out when counterrevolutionary forces prevailed. But in the early-to-mid 1800s, there was a major culture war with books and public lectures on sexuality. The 1830s and 1840s was also when vulcanized rubber and vaginal sponges came on the market. I discuss some of this in the following post:

    In early America, a large number of marriages came after pregnancy. And “Mohr estimates that in the period 1800-1830, perhaps one out of every twenty-five to thirty pregnancies was aborted. Between 1850 and 1860, he estimates, the ratio may have been one out of every five or six pregnancies. At mid-century, more than two hundred full-time abortionists reported worked in New York City” (Rickie Solinger, Pregnancy and Power, p. 61).

    This created a sense of crisis and led to a backlash. Highly restrictive laws were passed and enforced later in the 1800s. That was the first time abortions became restricted, as before then abortions had been considered a normal practice going back to the ancient world. Even hunter-gatherers were familiar with birth control, family planning, and abortifiacients. The issue was more about a modern need to control women and reinforce gender roles, specifically at a time when women were gaining greater freedom and entering colleges and the workforce.

    Even then, the political climate was maybe never as hostile as it is now. There were laws on the books, but they were rarely followed. Despite some states banning abortions, family doctors still freely did abortions, including rural doctors. Everyone knew this was going on and it was mostly left to local communities to do maintain their local norms. It rarely led to court cases or any form of punishment for doctors. And certainly women weren’t punished, as the laws didn’t hold them accountable in such cases.

    The sense of social and political oppression, as with so much else, worsened during the Cold War era following WWII. Many forms of social control became much more authoritarian. This was the same period of the rise of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, not to mention several government propaganda campaigns. And we can’t forget eugenics that, in the US, was still being practiced in some states into the late 20th century.


  10. armchairphilosophy374

    This is a great post, the anectode really brings home just how dangerous illegal abortions can be. However, I feel you may have got a couple of things wrong:

    Your arugment againsy abortion seems to be utilitarian. If abortions are legal, it increases overall happiness in the world as women don’t have to struggle financially with an unwanted child or physically from an underground abortion. However, this reasoning can justify some dangerous things.

    For example, imagine that four people were equal in every way except one- one of them was perfectly healthy, but the other three needed an organ transplant. Each of them required a different organ, and the healthy person had a perfect match. If we use utilitarian logic, killing the healthy person and harvesting his organs would increase overall happiness. If you’re against this, then you shouldn’t use this logic to justify abortion.

    I think that a better argument for abortion is to show that fetuses aren’t moral beings (ie things worthy of moral consideration), therefore abortion’s acceptable. I explain this in more detail in the article below. What do you think? http://armchairphilosophy.home.blog/2019/06/19/abortion-why-it-doesnt-matter-whether-the-foetus-is-alive/


  11. Thank you for posting this. In my circle (in Canada) we are in disbelief at what’s happening south of our border. Abortion is a decision that should be made between a woman, her partner and her doctor – not the state.


    • I can only imagine what others think about what is going on here. We ourselves are in deep disbelief. Fortunately, some states like NY have already made provisions to assure abortion is still available and safe in their states.

      Liked by 1 person

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