Thursday, December 01, 2011

“Back Alley Abortions”: America Before The “Roe v. Wade” Decision

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the dangerous conditions faced by women seeking to terminate their pregnancies before the “Roe v. Wade” decision and the impact of that controversial 1973 Supreme Court decision.

Feminists in the 1960s argued that because women lacked political power, they had lost control of their own bodies. Abortion was a felony in 49 states and the District of Columbia as of 1967. Abortion was allowed in some states in a narrow range of exceptional cases, with 42 states allowing the procedure to save the life of the mother. In other states, doctors could perform abortions to prevent “serious permanent bodily injury” or harm to the woman’s health. Mississippi was the only state to allow abortion for rape victims or in cases of incest.

The procedure had continued with surprising frequency in spite of the ban. At a 1955 Planned Parenthood Conference, zoologist, researcher author Alfred Kinsey, based on his extensive interviews with Americans about their sexual habits, estimated that between 200,000 and 1.2 million abortions took place a year in the United States. In spite of its frequency and widespread acceptance in the medical community, their underground nature often made abortions dangerous.

Dr. Mildred Hanson recalled one incident during her childhood involving an illegal abortion. "In 1935, when I was 11 years old, my mother left our Wisconsin house on a bitter February night and dashed to the farm next door to help an ailing woman who'd had an illegal abortion,” Hanson told an interviewer. “ Our neighbor was writhing in pain so severe that she was having convulsions and was chewing her lip raw. It took her two days to die of blood poisoning. She left six children behind - and left me with firsthand knowledge of the injustice of illegal abortion.”

In some cases, desperate women performed abortions on themselves, inserting sharp objects in their cervix to induce a miscarriage or douching themselves with bleach. By the 1960s, momentum was on the side of abortion law reformers, with the American Law Institute promoting a “model law” for states that would allow abortion to protect the life or health of the woman, in cases of rape or incest or if the fetus showed severe abnormalities.

As journalists James Risen and Judy L. Thomas noted in their book "Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War," the abortion controversy gained a human face because of an Arizona woman named Sherri Chessen Finkbine. The mother of four and the host of the Phoenix version of the children’s television program 'Romper Room,' the pregnant Finkbine suffered high blood pressure and took high doses of thalidomide, which had been widely prescribed around the world as a cure for morning sickness. Her husband had obtained the drug in Europe, where reports surfaced of thousands of badly deformed babies, with facial malformations, lacking arms and legs, heart defects and often suffering mental impairment born to women who had taken the drug. Finkbine’s doctor warned her that she faced a great risk of having a highly deformed child.

Her doctor said she would have to get approval from a three-doctor medical board at Phoenix’s Good Samaritan Hospital before she could have an abortion. Arizona state law allowed abortion only to save the mother’s life, but doctors sometimes interpreted the statute broadly. Worried that other women might take the drug, Finkbine called the Arizona Republic newspaper and agreed to be interviewed only if her identity was protected. After the story was published, hospital administrators worried about being prosecuted, and cancelled the hearing on whether the abortion could take place.

Finkbine sued and her name was now on the public record and her picture was soon in newspapers and on TVs across the country. Finkbine started getting death threats in the mail. “”We received pictures of me from the paper, and there’d be an ice pick or a dagger with blood spewing,” she said later. “We’d receive manure in the mail. I was called a baby killer . . . and a murderess . . . We had to change our phone number dozens of times.”

Finkbine realized that her case had become too controversial for her to receive permission for an abortion in Arizona or elsewhere in the United States. She flew to Sweden where she had to be certified as mentally ill before she could have the abortion. “The doctor told her that the thirteen-week-old fetus had been so severely deformed that it would have never survived,” Risen and Thomas wrote. When the Finkbines returned to Arizona, the FBI had to escort their children to school. “I never got to do 'Romper Room' again,” Finkbine later said. “I was told by the vice president of the NBC affiliate that I was unfit to handle children.” Most Americans did not agree with the TV executive. A Gallup Poll revealed that half of all respondents thought that Finkbine had done the right thing and only 32 percent opposed her actions. The Finkbine case galvanized forces lobbying for more liberal abortion laws.


By 1967, the American Law Institute’s “model law” for abortion began to become law in several states. In 1967, Colorado passed a law based on the model legislation, quickly followed by North Carolina. Such reforms received the endorsement of the American Baptist Convention and the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates shortly thereafter. A poll taken by Modern Medicine revealed that almost 87 percent of American doctors supported liberalizing abortion laws. This information helped persuade the California legislature, which passed a more permissible abortion law signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan, later touted as a hero by the anti-abortion movement. By 1969, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, New Mexico, and Oregon had all passed reform laws.

As Echols noted, these reform laws were still a hardship because women would still have to submit their cases to “punitive therapeutic abortion committees [that] put women through intense and often moralizing inquiries to determine whether their abortion request was truly justified on ‘health grounds.” The new California and Colorado laws would allow abortions only on an inpatient basis, which made the procedure more expensive. Women lacking money and connections to private doctors still had to turn to so-called back alley abortions. Women desperate to end their pregnancies living in states with tight restrictions began to travel to states with looser laws to get the procedure done.

In the early 1970s, Norma McCorvey, described by Risen and Thomas as a “street smart high school dropout, a drug user, a lesbian and a victim of abusive men and neglectful parents” was in Dallas, pregnant a third time after giving up one child for adoption and having another taken away by her mother. McCorvey did not want to deliver another child but was turned down by a doctor who told her abortion was illegal in Texas. She tried to end the pregnancy herself using a home remedy of peanuts and castor oil, a concoction that only succeeded in making her ill.

McCorvey went to an illegal clinic in Dallas. “Nobody was there,” she said later. “It was an old dentist office. Then I saw dried blood everywhere and smelled this awful smell.” Dallas police had shut down the clinic just before McCorvey’s visit. She fled the scene and agreed to talk to two lawyers she had been told were seeking to challenge the Texas anti-abortion law. Those lawyers, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, filed a class action suit against Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade claiming that the Texas anti-abortion law, which allowed the procedure only to save the patient’s life, violated the constitutional right of privacy.

The case worked its way up to the United States Supreme Court, which on January 22, 1973, ruled in Roe v. Wade by a 7-2 margin, that the Constitutional right to privacy was “broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy” during the first two trimesters (or first six months.) Judge Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion, held that a woman had an unqualified right to an abortion in the first trimester, and the states could only require the abortion be carried out by a qualified person. The states could only regulate the practice to protect the life and health of the mother in the second trimester. In the final trimester, Blackmun wrote for the court, the fetus is viable (able to survive outside its mother’s body) in the final trimester and that the states could regulate or even ban the practice at that point. Strict abortion laws in Texas and most other states were overturned.

Abortions became much more common after the "Roe" decision. The Alan Guttmacher Institute estimated that by the end of 1973, the first year of legal abortions nationwide, almost 745,000 abortions were performed in the United States for women between the ages of 15 and 44, the number going up to 1 million the following year. For the rest of the decade, the Catholic Church represented the only major institution opposing Roe. The Bishops’ Conference and Catholic-supported anti-abortion groups chose an incremental path of lobbying Congress for tighter restrictions and campaigning for anti-abortion candidates for president who might appoint judges who would reverse "Roe." For some Catholics who saw abortion as the murder of the unborn, this approach was tantamount to standing by and doing nothing while innocents were murdered.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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