After I left City of Detroit Receiving Hospital where the emergency room was inundated by young women very sick from botched criminal abortions, I was assigned to Forbes Air Force Base, Topeka, Kansas in 1953.
Abortion was not on my agenda. I only wanted to meet the wishes of the base commander, who told me, “If you and the pediatrician can keep the wives happy, it is much easier for the rest of us to keep the troops happy.”
But unwanted pregnancies and abortions do not leave obstetricians alone for long. Suddenly, I had a very ill young woman, victim of a criminal abortion, on my ward.
I treated her vigorously, her 106 degree fever subsided, and I figured it was in everyone’s best interest to put this clumsy, dangerous abortionist out of business. One such near-death patient was enough.
In the 1950s, all states had prohibitive abortion laws. Nearly all had been passed from 1850 to 1875. So-called (Anthony) Comstock laws were meant to stamp out forever obscenity, contraception and abortions, among other human transgressions.
Such laws were also supported by the then insecure, fledgling medical profession that did not want non-medical personnel doing abortions. Nor did they want to do them themselves. This attitude was to change among physicians in one fell swoop in the turbulent 1960s, and more conclusively by the Supreme Court January 22, 1973.
Before the 1860s, there were few state abortion laws. The courts pretty well followed old English common law which generally held abortion was a crime only after quickening--which is when the mother feels the baby moving and occurs at about 4-5 months gestation.
At Forbes, I carefully documented what the patient and family told me, writing first on my green scrubs, and later transcribing the damning information to progress notes.
I had met Shawnee County’s young district attorney at church. I called; he came. I can see Bob Brown, who had a lame leg, limping toward the ward bed to learn what I was disturbed about.
I had little idea what would happen. But they picked up the abortionist. I was not called to testify. She plead guilty, and was duly sentenced.
Sentenced to six months probation, and fined $250. She was paid $300 for the abortion. She got hundreds of dollars worth of advertising from newspaper articles.
So there you have it: for about a century, states had abortion laws adequate to keep physicians from doing abortions and losing their licenses, but not adequate to discourage anyone else who wanted to get into the abortion business.
Where were all the pro-lifers then? What were your parents and grandparents thinking about? One could say, abortion was simply out of sight and out of mind. But subsequent experiences lead me to believe “out of mind” does not quite ring true.
Jane and I went to an upscale party “in town.” I was identified as the base doctor who had turned the town abortionist over to law enforcement.
While everyone was courteous, I was given to understand that “every town needs a good abortionist,” and that I had put Topeka’s “good abortionist” in jeopardy.
When I began practice in Topeka a few months later I learned every doctor knew who did abortions, that they thought she usually did a pretty good job--and they willingly “cleaned up” the ones that went bad.
To my knowledge, no Topeka physician ever did an illegal abortion in the hospital or elsewhere. I neither did an abortion, or, straight-arrow (or intimidated) as I was, I never referred my distressed patients to the town’s “good abortionist.” They had to find out elsewhere.
Topeka’s good abortionist labored in the vineyards for many years--the friend and savior of “girls in trouble.” To my knowledge, she was never again slapped on the wrist by the state’s weak, ignored criminal penalty.
So, it can be generally said, for years there were abortion laws; but no one enforced them. Because Kansans, among others, did not respect such laws, and had their own occasional needs.
Dr. Roy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org