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When Abortion Was a Crime

When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973

Leslie J. Reagan
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 400
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    When Abortion Was a Crime
    Book Description:

    As we approach the 30th anniversary ofRoe v. Wade, it's crucial to look back to the time when abortion was illegal. Leslie Reagan traces the practice and policing of abortion, which although illegal was nonetheless widely available, but always with threats for both doctor and patient. In a time when many young women don't even know that there was a period when abortion was a crime, this work offers chilling and vital lessons of importance to everyone. The linking of the words "abortion" and "crime" emphasizes the difficult and painful history that is the focus of Leslie J. Reagan's important book. Her study is the first to examine the entire period during which abortion was illegal in the United States, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and ending withRoe v. Wadein 1973. Although illegal, millions of abortions were provided during these years to women of every class, race, and marital status. The experiences and perspectives of these women, as well as their physicians and midwives, are movingly portrayed here. Reagan traces the practice and policing of abortion. While abortions have been typically portrayed as grim "back alley" operations, she finds that abortion providers often practiced openly and safely. Moreover, numerous physicians performed abortions, despite prohibitions by the state and the American Medical Association. Women often found cooperative practioners, but prosecution, public humiliation, loss of privacy, and inferior medical care were a constant threat. Reagan's analysis of previously untapped sources, including inquest records and trial transcripts, shows the fragility of patient rights and raises provocative questions about the relationship between medicine and law. With the right to abortion again under attack in the United States, this book offers vital lessons for every American concerned with health care, civil liberties, and personal and sexual freedom.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92206-8
    Subjects: Health Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    There would be no history of illegal abortion to tell without the continuing demand for abortion from women, regardless of law. Generations of women persisted in controlling their reproduction through abortion and made abortion an issue for legal and medical authorities. Those women, their lives, and their perspectives are central in this book. Their demand for abortions, generally hidden from public view and rarely spoken of in public, transformed medical practice and law over the course of the twentieth century.

    This book analyzes the triangle of interactions among the medical profession, state authorities, and women in the practice, policing, and...

  6. CHAPTER 1 An Open Secret
    (pp. 19-45)

    Her period was late. She had two children, one sixteen years old, one six. She was thirty-four. Frances Collins knew she was pregnant. She told her husband she had “missed.” This had happened before and she had taken care of it before. Mrs. Collins talked to a “lady friend” about her problem. Her friend suggested Dr. Warner: “Go over and see him,” she said, “he might be able to fix you up.” In the first days of April in 1920, Mrs. Collins went to Dr. Warner's office on the West side of Chicago to have “her womb opened up,” something,...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Private Practices
    (pp. 46-79)

    “I can not take your case,” Dr. E. W. Edwards told the nervous young woman seated in his office. “But,” he added, “I have given your friend the address of a physician I can recommend for that. I know him to be safe or I would not send you to him.” He comforted the woman by patting her hand and gave her and the young man with her Dr. John B. Chaffee’s address. It was 1888, and the couple had approached a physician near Chicago’s Opera House in search of an abortion. They followed his directions to 527 State Street,...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Antiabortion Campaigns, Private and Public
    (pp. 80-112)

    “A generation ago,” Dr. Joseph Taber Johnson recalled, the AMA had crusaded against abortion and succeeded in winning new laws against it, but that campaign had failed to convince women of the immorality of abortion. Dr. Johnson encouraged his colleagues at the June 7, 1895, meeting of the Washington, D.C., Obstetrical and Gynecological Society to join a new crusade against abortion. “Abortion is now fully as frequent as it ever was in this country,” Johnson reported. Furthermore, he told them, “it is alarmingly on the increase; not only is this believed to be true of the cities, but the remotest...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Interrogations and Investigations
    (pp. 113-131)

    In March 1916, Mrs. Carolina Petrovitis, a Lithuanian immigrant to Chicago and mother of two small children, was in terrible pain following her abortion when her friends called in Dr. Kahn.¹ The doctor asked her, “Who did it for you[?]” He “coaxed” her to answer, then told her, “if you won[’]t tell me what was done to you I can't handle your case.” When Petrovitis finally revealed that a midwife had performed an abortion, Dr. Maurice Kahn called for an ambulance, sent her to a hospital, told the hospital physician of the situation, and suggested he “communicate with the Coroner’s...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Expansion and Specialization
    (pp. 132-159)

    “My husband has been out of work for over six months and no help is in sight,” wrote one mother to Margaret Sanger and the American Birth Control League; “I can’t afford more children.” Every year she performed two abortions upon herself, and she reported, “I have just now gotten up from an abortion and I don’t want to repeat it again.”¹ The disaster of the Great Depression touched all aspects of women’s lives, including the most intimate ones, and brought about a new high in the incidence of abortion. As jobs evaporated and wages fell, families found themselves living...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Raids and Rules
    (pp. 160-192)

    In August 1940, Chicago police raided the Gabler-Marrin abortion clinic on 190 North State Street. Police arrested Mrs. Ada Martin, the clinic’s new owner; her receptionist, Josephine Kuder; and, as Capt. Thomas Duffy put it, “four girls who were in the office for surgical attention.” That raid failed to close Martin’s office. Six months later, eighteen police officers again raided the clinic on the morning of February 7, 1941. As Martin later described the events in court, Capt. Duffy entered the office and demanded of her, “Where is your customers?” Then the police “started moving couches and tables and going...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Repercussions
    (pp. 193-215)

    “There is . . . more difficulty in locating abortionists today than there used to be,” reported Dr. Alfred Kinsey, director of the Institute for Sex Research in Indiana. “The laws have made it more difficult . . . to find a physician who will perform it, and that has raised the cost of abortions.”¹ Abortions became harder to obtain, more expensive, and more dangerous as a result of the new repression as hospitals cut access to legal therapeutic abortion and the state shut down established clinics. Accounts of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 196os feature a new level...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Radicalization of Reform
    (pp. 216-245)

    The suppression of abortion in the decades immediately precedingRoe v. Wadewas unique in the history of abortion. That repressive system, and its deadly results, played a crucial role in producing a movement to legalize abortion. The abortion rights movement arose out of the deteriorating conditions of abortion and the frustrations of both women and physicians. As part of their campaign to liberalize state laws, reformers exposed the new and devastating conditions of abortion as intolerable and discriminatory. The social movement to decriminalize abortion drew upon and brought into the open a longstanding acceptance of abortion.

    Explanations for the...

  14. Epilogue: Post-Roe, Post-Casey
    (pp. 246-254)

    The legalization of abortion brought immediate benefits to women. Open access to legal abortion replaced the world of illegal abortion. AfterRoe v. Wade,women in the United States could look in a phone book tor a physician-abortionist. Abortion clinics made the procedure widely available.¹ State and federal programs extended coverage of abortion to low-income women. Legal, safe abortions became accessible to women across class and race, rather than the privilege of a few. In Chicago, two abortion clinics opened and Cook County Hospital and a handful of other hospitals began providing a small number of abortions. The publication of...

  15. Note on Sources
    (pp. 255-257)
  16. Abbreviations
    (pp. 258-258)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 259-342)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 343-366)
  19. Index
    (pp. 367-387)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 388-388)