It is with shadowed hearts that we reflect on today’s news. Crowning a series of virulent anti-abortion bills passed by state legislatures and signed into law by state governors, Alabama has passed what is considered to be the most restrictive legislation concerning abortion since Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Alabama’s bill, along with similar laws recently passed in Georgia and Ohio, has the explicit intent of overturning Roe v. Wade and once again criminalizing abortion in America. But the story does not end here.
As Rickie Solinger shows in The Abortionist: A Woman against the Law (originally published in paperback by UC Press in 1996, and coming in an updated, 25th anniversary edition October 2019), there have always been men and women who will take bold action in the face and in defiance of overwhelming cruelty. Theirs are the stories we must remember in these times, and theirs are the legacies we must do justice. The following is an excerpt from The Abortionist.
The fact was, the climate in Portland that sanctioned Ruth Barnett’s arrest in 1951 prevailed around the country. In cities everywhere, politicians and police exploited the power of the exposé, the fear of a corrosive enemy within, and the widespread desire to enforce maternity in order to fuel the postwar crackdown on abortionists and on women who persisted in seeking abortions. It seemed that abortion was acceptable, albeit illegal, when people were standing on breadlines or when husbands were being shipped out to man the infantry lines and might never return. But abortion was quite another thing when the United States was glowing triumphant, the land of plenty. Under these conditions, abortions were unnecessary. They were unbecoming and unacceptable.
Looking back across the postwar landscape, one notices a marked elevation in the number of abortion trials in the decades just before Roe v. Wade. But a second look reveals that, relative to the vast number of illegal abortions performed in that era (estimates range from two hundred thousand to over one million a year), the number of practitioners prosecuted and the number of women forced to appear as witnesses against their abortionists in court was still tiny. No doubt the fact that women likely to seek abortions (or likely to be exposed in a raid) were from every socioeconomic group, were from every racial group, were pubescent to menopausal meant that, unlike participants in other criminal activities (but rather like some Prohibition era imbibers), they were not always so easily cast as the malefactors one loved to hate. In other words, many D.A.’s and police departments continued to leave abortionists alone out of a distaste for embroiling their otherwise respectable and ordinary female clients in public scandal. Moreover, many men, including powerful ones, continued to have a stake in the termination of many pregnancies and did not want to see all the abortionists run out of town, either before or during the crackdown time.
It was mostly in places like Portland (and Los Angeles, over and over again) that the authorities, needing to bolster their public image, perceived abortion busts and abortion trials as a valid ticket to that end. But what does stand out, alongside the elevated, if still modest, rate of arrests and the sensationalism in which anti-abortion activity was couched, was the special vulnerability of lay female practitioners, no matter that the violations committed by other abortionists, including male doctors, were exactly the same.
Carlson Wade, a chronicler of abortion activities in the postwar era, cited a situation in Iowa to make the same point. Two cases were brought before a court in that state. “In one abortion the defendant was a physician, offering proof that it was necessary. The court agreed with the physician and the case was dropped. In the second abortion case the [female] defendant was not a physician. While the conditions in favor of abortion were almost identical in both cases, the court filed suit against the second person and offered this reason: The defendant was not a member of the medical profession and has no right to practice medicine and no presumption is indulged under such circumstances that the act was performed in good faith and for a legitimate purpose.’ ” Wade remarked, “From the above it is clear that in many prosecutions, the court is primarily interested in who performed the operation, rather than why it was done.”
Rickie Solinger is a historian and curator and the author or editor of many books about reproductive politics, including Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade and, with Loretta Ross, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction.