Don’t Think The Bad Old Days Before Roe versus Wade Can’t Come Back Again

By Donald A. Collins | 18 November 2012
Church and State

(Credit: Shutterstock / Salon)

CNN on November 13, 2008 aired a 2 hour special called “Escape from Jonestown” which graphically reminded us of the history of religious fervor gone insane. One could plausibly argue that the abortion debate contains qualities which remind us constantly of the folly of assuming nothing like the Jonestown suicide/murders of over 900 people could happen again.

On November 18, 1978, 909 Americans were led to their death by the Rev. Jim Jones in a mass murder-suicide pact in a South American jungle. Only 33 people survived. CNN special correspondent Soledad O’Brien reported on their untold stories in “CNN Presents: Escape from Jonestown.” Listening to the gripping accounts of few survivors we learn that most now eschew organized religion and found their lives changed forever.

This web site has courageously featured op ed pieces about the repeated attacks on women’s reproductive rights by the top officials in the Roman Catholic Church. I have contributed some of them.

Having worked for the often violent issue of reproductive choice for 40 years, it becomes very frightening to me to find such adverse anti abortion ardor rising again and again, not only from Catholic zealots, but from the leaders and laity of other religious sects, often conservatives who rant about too much government, but pine to put prohibitive rules against women in the most private place in their lives. More on my personal part in this abortion battle follows below.

When I mention to friends and family what I perceive as a real threat, the possible overturn or further serious dilution of access to safe, early abortion in the USA, greatly backed and assisted by the power of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, I often get looks of disbelief or comments such as “Well, Catholic women certainly aren’t listening to that advice.” Or “After what those pedophile priests did to children, Catholic power is certainly diminished.”

While these points may well be correct, a November 4, 2012 article in the NY Times Magazine entitled “Lifer” told of the tremendous influence the Americans United For Life (AUL) has had in crippling, curbing and making more difficult the often onerous, expensive and emotional task women have in obtaining an abortion. You can find my comments on “Lifer” here.

Back in the bad old days before January 1973 when Roe versus Wade was decided by the US Supreme Court, the obtaining of a safe abortion was reserved for those who could afford it. Since many could not, many died or were maimed by poor practitioners. Unfortunately, the rights of Roe have since been successfully undermined by the AUL with continuing help from Catholic leaders.

In Pittsburgh, which has slightly over 300,000 residents, 60% have a religious affiliation and of those citizens over 38% are Catholics, twice the national average of 19%. When abortion became legal there, I was on the board of a clinic which offered early abortions with several men and women who made it happen. One of my colleagues was Patricia G. Miller.

In 1993, Pat Miller’s book, “The Worst of Times” described in down to earth factual reality the horrors faced by pre Roe vs Wade Pittsburgh area women. In a January 1993 NY Times book review by Le Anne Schreiber entitled “What Kind of Abortions Do We Want?” gave us its powerful flavor:

TWENTY years ago this week, the United States Supreme Court ruled that women have a constitutional right to abortion, for any reason, during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. Although that ruling has been much assailed, and has recently seemed a one-justice appointment from being overturned, the arrival of a President in Washington committed to abortion rights probably means that Roe v. Wade will live to see at least a 25th anniversary.

Keeping abortion legal, however, is not the same as keeping it available. Access to abortion services depends not only on judges but also on doctors, who can choose not to perform them, and on elected officials, who can choose not to devote public funds to them. In principle, the medical community overwhelmingly favors abortion rights, but in practice, so few doctors perform abortions that according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 83 percent of the nation’s counties have no known abortion provider.

The 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, on Jan. 22, provides the backdrop for the publication of the three books reviewed here — two that favor the right to abortion and one that opposes it — but the authors are concerned not so much with the ruling itself as with the underlying medical and social realities of abortion.

Anyone who has or presumes the power to affect a woman’s access to safe, legal abortions should read Patricia G. Miller’s book, “The Worst of Times.” In fact, anyone who even ventures an opinion on abortion should reckon with what this book so vividly conveys — “what life was like for women in this country in the days before Roe v. Wade.”

Ms. Miller, a lawyer who specializes in matrimonial law, wants her readers to understand that “the real public policy question is not whether we will have abortions but what kind of abortions we will have.” To that end, she interviewed about 50 people, mostly from the Pittsburgh area, who had firsthand experience of illegal abortions — including women who obtained them, midwives and even one auto mechanic who performed them, doctors who witnessed the results in emergency rooms and the children of women who died from them.

The stories told here span a period of 40 years, from 1929 to 1970. While one might expect numbing repetition, one is made privy instead to an astounding variety and complexity of experience. Ms. Miller is an excellent interviewer, and what emerges most strongly is the tremendous particularity of both the circumstances that led women to seek illegal abortions and of the consequences that followed.

One woman, now 74, remembers how her life changed one day in 1932 when her mother inexplicably died. She herself was 12 years old, the eldest of six children who were subsequently dispersed among relatives, orphanages and, in her case, a boarding school that turned out to be “a correctional school for bad girls.” It took 50 years for some of her siblings to find one another again, and, she adds, “some of us have never been found.”

A man interviewed by Ms. Miller recalls that in 1962, when he was 4 years old, his 24-year-old mother died and his father told him ulcers caused her death. Since the boy himself developed ulcers, he lived with a constant dread of sudden death until he was 18 and his older sister told him the truth.

There are no firm data on the death rate from illegal abortions, but life-threatening infections from abortions performed under nonsterile conditions were sufficiently common before Roe v. Wade that most large public hospitals had septic abortion wards. One of the doctors Ms. Miller interviewed says that as late as 1968, D.C. General Hospital typically kept 15 to 20 women in such a unit. “They were among the sickest people I have ever seen — before or since,” he recalls, “as sick as people can get and still survive.”

Firsthand experience of the septic ward motivated some doctors to risk their licenses by performing illegal abortions for their private patients, but most women had to place themselves, often literally blindfolded, in the hands of strangers whose competence was utterly unknown. It appears from the interviews that black women fared slightly better than white women, because they shared information more openly. The white women interviewed here, who often assumed that no one they knew had ever sought an abortion, took their risks in terrifying isolation.

How alone were women who sought illegal abortions? There are no reliable statistics about abortion in pre-Roe America, but in his 1955 survey of female sexual behavior, Alfred Kinsey reported that 22 percent of his married respondents said they had had at least one abortion. Ms. Miller reports that illegal abortion in the 1960’s was estimated to be the third largest moneymaker for organized crime, exceeded only by narcotics and gambling.

In “Abortion Rites,” Marvin Olasky, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, studies abortion in 18th- and 19th-century America from an anti-abortion perspective. Yet like Ms. Miller he concludes that anyone who believes abortion was uncommon in pre-Roe America is ignoring history. Extrapolating from what is known about birth rates and illegitimacy, contraceptive use and its effectiveness in 19th-century America, Mr. Olasky estimates that there were roughly 160,000 abortions in 1860, which, he says, “given U.S. population growth, is virtually the equivalent of our current annual figure of 1.6 million abortions.”

Mr. Olasky’s estimate is in line with that of James C. Mohr, whose 1978 book “Abortion in America” is the authoritative history of the subject, often cited in court cases. But in most other respects, “Abortion Rites” is an extended argument against Mr. Mohr’s conclusion that abortion was widely accepted in the mid-19th century not just as the last resort of the desperate, but also as a morally neutral form of family limitation used by married, white, Protestant, middle- and upper-class women.

Mr. Olasky’s most convincing argument against this line concerns the moral, as distinct from the legal, status of abortion before “quickening” — the point, usually in mid-pregnancy, when fetal movement becomes perceptible. Until 1860, when the fledgling American Medical Association launched a vigorous and moralistic anti-abortion campaign, there were no state laws against abortion before quickening. But, Mr. Olasky argues, since there was then no sure means of determining pregnancy before quickening, there was no means of proving the intent to abort. Thus the legality of abortions before quickening reflected a practical evidentiary problem, not a moral acceptance of abortion in the earlier stages of pregnancy.

Far less convincing is Mr. Olasky’s contention that abortion was almost exclusively the recourse of three marginal groups of women: unmarried victims of seduction, prostitutes and, beginning in 1840, “spiritists,” whom the author loosely defines as followers of a radical theology that exalted unbridled self-gratification and free love. Mr. Olasky attributes the well-documented increase in abortion among married women in the mid-19th century to the emergence of this fringe movement. He inadvertently undermines his case, however, when in the process of discussing the A.M.A.’s campaign against abortion, he documents the doctors’ frustration with mainstream Protestant clergy who remained silent on the issue for fear of denouncing a practice common to their own congregations. Mr. Olasky often marshals his information for questionable conclusions, but what he uncovers about early American sexual mores and practices is nonetheless fascinating.

Whether viewed from an anti-abortion or abortion rights perspective, there is one incontrovertible fact of abortion in America: for more than a century, American women’s access to safe abortions has been controlled by doctors and legislators. In defiance of that pattern, Rebecca Chalker, an abortion counselor and the author of a number of popular medical books, and Carol Downer, a lawyer and the executive director of the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers, have issued a declaration of independence. In part, “A Woman’s Book of Choices” is a consumer’s guide to conventional abortion options, a print hot line in a time of Government-ordered gag rules. But it is also an outline for a more radical agenda, a program to foster the knowledge and skills that would permit women without medical credentials to terminate early pregnancies safely.

The book includes a how-to, but not a do-it-yourself, manual for a technique called menstrual extraction that requires the assistance of at least two experienced people. In effect, it is a low-budget, low-tech version of the suction method practiced in medical clinics. The safety of the technique depends on the skill of the practitioner, the sterility of the equipment and the ready availability of medical backup should complications arise — all of which are hard to guarantee in a nonlicensed situation. As yet, the legal status of menstrual extraction is untested. But if there’s a legal challenge, the authors suggest, an argument could be made that the procedure is a “home health-care technique,” and therefore does not require a license. Furthermore, since by most state laws people without medical credentials cannot make a medical diagnosis of pregnancy, practitioners can also claim the modern equivalent of the “quickening” defense. How can one prove a firm intent to abort without firm knowledge of pregnancy?

“A Woman’s Book of Choices” is, above all, a sign of the times — a warning sign. When so few doctors perform abortions, when so few medical schools teach the techniques, when so many states seek to impose so many restrictions, women reluctantly begin to take risks that other people call choices. Roe v. Wade may be alive, but it is not very well.

Authors and women spoke truths from the book’s fly leaf:

“This is, quite simply, the most gripping, realistic account of the abortion issue ever put between the covers of a book. My own experiences in searching for a safe procedure, pre Roe v Wade, came flooding back as I read the testimony of Laura, Marilyn, Dr. Edith, Fay and others. Dr. Spencer had temporarily shut down his Ashland (Pittsburgh) clinic when I needed him , a woman in Harlem told me over the phone that I wouldn’t like her “ packing” method, a shadowy doctor in Baltimore experimenting with a saline solution might have killed me if I’d let him proceed. I was lucky. I ended up going to medical clinics in Cuba and Puerto Rico during the sixties for my safe abortions. That’s why I am alive today. Patricia Miller has done a great, humanitarian service in reminding us of the way it was.
—Susan Brownmiller

“The personal testimonies in this book are carefully rendered and heartbreaking and true, stories to raise awareness and anger, and most of all—if we hope to learn from our mistakes–they are stories to remember.”
—Barbara Kingsolver

“I grew up on stories of girls who ruined themselves, rolling down stairs, jumping off roofs, swallowing quinine and cooking in overheated baths, a cousin who went to school one Spring day in a winter coat and bled to death at her desk—stories that girls have not been told in two decades. Patricia Miller has given flesh and faces to those stories, real stories of real people, heartbreaking, powerful and now and then inspiring. Nothing I have read in years has moved me as deeply as this extraordinary document.”
—Dorothy Allison

Inside the flyleaf, we read about specifics:

Laura: “My whole body was twitching, I remember thinking, at nineteen, this linoleum is the last thing I’m ever going to see, because I’m dying.”

Marilyn: “Let me tell you about my pretty, wonderful talented mother. She died from an illegal abortion when she was thirty four and I was six.”

Bruce: “I really don’t remember much about the first illegal abortion I did, because I was drunk when I did it.”

Coroner Fred: “The dead women we saw had either bled to death or they had died from overwhelming infections. Most of them were in their teens or twenties. I don’t recall too many older than that. The deaths stopped overnight in 1973.”

The fly leaf inside left continues:

“All the oceans of verbiage and tons of newsprint on the subjet of abortion boil down to one simple question. That question is not whether we will have abortions, but what kind of abortions will we have. It is a question framed in stark human terms in Patricia Miller’s “The Worst of Times”, which introduces us the dozens of ordinary Americans who have had first hand experience with illegal abortion; women who survived the pain, humiliation, shame and terror; motherless children of women who died; doctors who treated the terrible consequences of botched abortions; the abortionists themselves—barbers, midwives, mechanics, and the cops, coroners, and DA’s charged with upholding the law.”

On the right inside fly leaf:

“Abortion is a complex issue, but it is not an issue that exists abstractly in the eyes of ethicists or theologians. It is an issue that exists in the flesh—in the flesh of women with complicated lives and large responsibilities and a whole web of personal familial and moral concerns. As “The Worst of Times” makes powerfully and painfully clear, it is a question that women must be allowed to answer for themselves.”

Other reviewers on Amazon were equally impressed. Comments were very favorable. For example, one said, “if only men had babies then there would be no debate. Abortion would be completely legal and we could discuss other important matters.”

Another noted, “Read this book and understand why some believe there can be no going back to pre-Roe v. Wade.”

One pointed out that “Abortion kills embryos. Illegal abortion kills women and embryos. Which is worse? The stories from this book show how women’s deaths from illegal abortions reverberate throughout society.”

I especially liked this one: “Every American, and especially every legislator, should read this book. It is a collection of stories, most told in the first person, of lives affected by illegal abortion: a county coroner, an abortionist, a police officer, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a husband, a child. And of course the women survivors themselves, who were maimed, traumatized, raped, left near death, treated with disgust and revulsion, or abandoned and deserted.”

Good advice to family and friends but fruitless to try to change AUL types: “Read this book, then pass it on to your boyfriend or your sister, to a friend or to someone you meet at the grocery store. Give a copy to the sidewalk harasser at your local women’s health center. Send a copy to your federal representative and your state assembly person. Leave a copy in hotel rooms and coffee houses. Abortion has been legal for 24 years in this country. Only a single generation of women has grown up not knowing the horrors of illegal abortion. We must never go back.”

Now the time since R vs W will be 40 years come January 2013—How long, how long!

A Pittsburgh area coroner: “The deaths [from botched abortion attempts] stopped overnight in 1973 [when abortion was legalized], and I never saw another abortion death in all the 18 years after that until I retired. That ought to tell people something about keeping abortion legal.”

One reviewer said: “My connection to this book is a personal one. My mother-in-law (under the pseudonym “Dr. Edith” in the book) is, at the present age of 94, one of the few remaining obstetrician/gynecologists living who practiced both before and after Roe v. Wade. After her retirement from the practice of medicine, she was active on speakers’ bureau lists for Planned Parenthood, and would tell stories from her experience such as the one in the book. I have heard her tell many more stories of the patients she encountered in her practice who presented with the after-effects of illegal abortion attempts. In this day and age of the conservative-stacked Supreme Court, when the legislature is attempting to get part or all of Roe v. Wade repealed, this book is a “must-read” for every woman (and every man who is connected to a woman who can bear children!)

World wide there are well over 40 million abortions a year. Do we seek to have all abortions done safely or would it okay to kill 70 thousand women and maim another 5 million women?

Pat Miller has given us eloquent histories from the bad old days in the most effective, graphic manner possible. Her book is out of print, but fortunately others such as N4CM continue to repeat the message to the new generations coming along, not only here but around the world.

Jonestown reminds us that people can be manipulated by zealots to subscribe with their lives to beliefs which can only be viewed as utterly mad. On November 13, 1978, over 900 people died in that remote South American jungle settlement, but we can project the millions of deaths of women as the result of the religious zealotry of many sects who have led their parishioners into ideological cul-de-sacs which allow no humane conclusions and drive some to positions which can only be described as insane. Shame on those who would so pervert our blessed human options for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Let me end on a positive note. As I have learned first hand in my extensive international travels, health providers are now increasingly able to offer women chemical means of inducing early abortions, thus removing the power of interdiction by anyone those crazed anti choice advocates can influence to enact misguided, vicious anti choice legislation which interferes with the ultimate privacy so fortunately offered by the US Supreme Court in 1973.

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.
Patricia G. Miller has had a distinguished career as a partner in a major Pittsburgh law firm, subsequently went on to work in the field of domestic relations and is now a judge in Pittsburgh. A long time abortion activist she spearheaded the passage of America’s first liberal abortion law in Colorado in 1967. In 1993 she had her book, “The Worst of Times: Illegal Abortion–Survivors, Practitioners, Coroners, Cops, and Children of Women Who Died Talk About Its Horrors”, published by Harper Collins. ISBN 0-06-019034-5.

Back in 1991, the NGO Don Collins founded in 1976, International Services Assistance Fund (ISAF), co-produced a TV quality 22-minute film called “Whose Choice?” which Ted Turner arranged to broadcast on September 21, 1992 in prime time on his then independent Turner Broadcast System (TBS). Other outlets such as PBS and several of its affiliates Collins and his colleagues contacted then refused to run it because of its forthright treatment of the abortion issue, arguing for all women’s right to choose not to have a baby. ISAF has made a new edition of that DVD. The purpose for reissuing this 3rd version of “Whose Choice?” was simply to show the historical urgency that attended those times, still blocked and attacked over 40 years after the Roe v Wade decision in 1973. This video is available for public viewing for the first time.

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