Coat Hangers And ODs: Life Before Abortion Was Legal

The government didn't clamp down on a woman's right to choose until the 1880s, and by the 1950s and 1960s, abortion was about the most illegal it's ever been. By the time of Roe v. Wade in 1973, the laws were already loosening, and abortion was varying shades of "legal" in 17 states. Now, in 2017, the U.S. finds itself with a very anti-choice administration. In 2016, 19 states passed laws restricting abortion access to their women. We wanted to know what life looks like for women when abortion is illegal, so we sat down with two who received illegal abortions back in the 1950s and 60s. They've both spent years interviewing other survivors: Fran Johns wrote a book, and Dorothy Fadiman made an Oscar-nominated documentary. Here's what they told us...

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5
The "DIY Method" Of Abortion Is Absurdly Dangerous

Dorothy Fadiman had an abortion in 1962, while she was attending classes at Stanford University. It was very much illegal -- the abortion, not Stanford -- and it cost her 600 old-timey dollars (roughly $8,000 in modern money). It also left her hemorrhaging blood so badly that she had to seek emergency medical care. Prior to getting pregnant, Dorothy didn't even know abortion was "A Thing." When we asked her about the state of 1950s sex ed, she told us:

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"Basically it didn't exist, if anything they told us about our body parts but we didn't learn how not to get pregnant, if we did get pregnant, what if any choices we had..."


Education like this charmer from the 50s that literally doesn't mention sex once.

Birth control was pretty limited back then. And by "limited" we mean that Dorothy would've had to rob a pharmacy just to get a condom. See, at the time, "birth control for unmarried women was illegal. Only married women could get an IUD inserted. And men could buy condoms. But if a man didn't want to use a condom..."

Prior to her unplanned pregnancy, Dorothy wasn't what the kids call "woke." Almost no one was back then. "We were so un-liberated. We were not even aware of what our rights were, and that we had the ability to insist ... I didn't insist, I didn't know I had the right to insist that a man should wear a condom."

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A misconception that guys weren't exactly falling over themselves to correct.

Fran Johns had an illegal abortion in 1956. At the time, she also wasn't really aware of the concept of an abortion:

"It was something that never crossed my mind. Y'know, we didn't have sex education in schools and when I was growing up there was no such thing ... but when I found myself pregnant after a really not happy time, I just knew I couldn't carry a baby ... it was just beyond unthinkable. And, um, I couldn't tell anybody ... I had a sister who was just a year ahead of me in school and we were joined at the hip. I would not have told her. She died never knowing that story."

In our modern world, with condoms raining from the sky, and IUDs growing from every tree (Ed. Note: where do you live, author? It sounds terrifying.) Dorothy might not have gotten pregnant in the first place (free birth control is the easiest way to reduce abortion rates). But Fran's case is different. She was raped by her boss. He was an oil industry executive, and it happened at a fancy '50s-style party. It was the '50s. Everything was '50s-style.

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Everything except the idea that executives can get away with sexual assault, which is as timeless as the goddamn tides.

"The idea of rape was also something you would never never mention to your best friend. I know it happened all the time. It had to have been pretty common in those days. But you just didn't mention it. You didn't talk about it."

Fran panicked when she got pregnant, and her first instinct was a drug overdose. She decided to use paregoric, an opiate, to try and abort the baby.

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For context, that big red "X" on the label does not mean "safe."

"It was over the counter ... I mean, I gave my kids a tiny teaspoon of paregoric sometimes, as a sedative. I remember having it in the house. And so one of the old wives' tales was that would do it. There were several other things you drank. Mostly though, it was falling down or inserting things to try to precipitate the abortion."

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One woman Fran interviewed for her book had used boric acid to induce an abortion. She had to be hospitalized, and was rendered permanently sterile. The ol' "acid in the vagina" move was pretty common among young women in pre-Planned Parenthood days.

"I think that was fairly common, yes ... I think a lot of women did wind up sterile."

Via Wherethesilenceis.org


Yup, there was a time in America where a roach poison douche was preferable to a woman buying a condom.

Fran's home remedy didn't work, and Dorothy opted not to take the DIY route. But while she was interviewing women for her documentary, she ran into women who reported using...

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"A number of different herbs and substances, ranging from dangerous to effective. For example, pennyroyal, ginseng, linseed oil."

Most of that doesn't sound too bad, but pennyroyal can actually cause liver failure and "cardiovascular collapse" which sounds just as terrifying as it actually is. Good job, Medical Naming Conventions.

"Women would put themselves in scalding water or freezing water. They would consume the fungus ergot. And all of these things had dangers."

For example, ergot poisoning can cause gangrene and make your limbs rot off. And then, of course, there was the infamous coat hanger. Fran explained:

"The coat hanger was just easy, everybody had one and you could straighten it out. You thought you were going to puncture this embryo and what happened more often is you got yourself terribly infected or you punctured something else."

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There's a good reason these don't appear in too many operating rooms.

If the future does see more women lose abortion access, Fran and Dorothy both expect "home remedies" like these to be much more common than they were the last time around. Thanks to the internet, obviously. Fran said:

"I think the illegal abortionist may reappear on the national scene. but I think women may try to self-abort by getting drugs ... The problem there is that they have to be taken properly, and you can also do damage to yourself if they're not."

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One Dorothy thinks is a likely candidate is called Mifepristone, or RU-486. It's an actual abortion pill, and it requires no prescription to purchase. But it's not as desirable as the morning after pill, which actually stops ovulation and avoids the whole abortion thing. One problem:

"It requires at least theoretically a doctor's prescription. Now if a woman does not have access to a doctor, does not have the money for a doctor's visit ... she may try to order it online in different ways, and as I'm sure you know these things can always be managed."

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Buying shady online drugs maybe dangerous? The devil, you say!

RU-486 can be purchased off the Internet, but it's really the sort of thing you want to take the right way, with the advice of a doctor and not Google. People can die from this stuff. And in other countries that criminalize abortion, off-label use of mifepristone has become incredibly common. And remember what we said about home remedies. If abortion access keeps getting restricted, as Fran predicted:

"There will be online places that will offer abortifacients. And online, it doesn't mean it's any safer than it was before."

We've seen the internet. We work for the internet. We would not trust the internet with our bodies.

4
There Used To Be An Underground Abortion Railroad ... Run By The Clergy

To put it in terms we can understand: The religious right is the Death Star, and the Rebel base on Yavin IV is, like ... safe and legal abortion. In the modern U.S., abortion rights have no foe like organized (some) religion. But back before Roe v. Wade, organized religious people ran an underground abortion railroad.

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In case it's not obvious, the world has changed since the days when you could advertise cigarettes to kindergartners.
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Fran explained:

"A woman would go to her minister and say, I need help. And he ... would connect her with this group. They might give her the money to go on a bus and go to Canada ... or to Mexico, if they were in the south. And sometimes they would help her get a legal abortion in, say, New York where you could plead your case, you could go to a hospital and explain to a panel of 2-3 physicians why you needed to end this pregnancy ... so there were a variety of things that they did."

It's hard to imagine it now, but many of the priests and pastors of Dorothy and Fran's era were well aware of the carnage caused by dangerous home remedies and back alley abortionists. They knew that thousands of girls were dying and, as Dorothy explained:

"The clergy decided that what they would do is find people they trusted and they would then recommend women to these people. And the way they found they could be trusted is they were working with women who would go to these doctors and see if the facilities were clean, see if they could be trusted, see if they treated women respectfully, see if their fee ... was considered fair, and if the clergy found that women came back with reports that ... this person would be trusted, then they would send women to these individuals."

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Shit, how do we get that standard written into law?

Granted, the clergy who did this weren't exactly stuffy old priests. Take Reverend Howard Moody, who created the Clergy Consultation Service in 1967, starting with a group of 20 ministers and rabbis that helped women secure abortions. Moody got his start in activism handing out cookies to prostitutes, and moved to the underground abortion railroad in 1957. Later in life, Moody wound up providing outreach to AIDS patients. His activism helped inspire the creation of similar clerical groups who, all told, helped at least 20,000 women receive safe abortions.

But remember that 200,000 is the low end annual estimate for illegal abortions at the time. The underground abortion railroad helped 10 percent of those women, and that's not nothing -- but leaving 90 percent of women "just wingin' it" isn't exactly a record our country should be proud of.

3
You Had To Worry About The Doctor As Much As The Procedure

Dorothy got a relatively "good" illegal abortion, which means "she didn't die." It was still terrible: She was blindfolded through the whole process, and afterwards, "I began to hemorrhage and ended up on the intensive care ward of Stanford hospital with a fever of 105 and septicemia." Fran's abortion also led to days of bleeding, but it was still relatively good.

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Pictured: relatively "bad."

"He was in it for the money. But he apparently was at least careful enough that I didn't wind up with sepsis."

Her abortion provider didn't blindfold her for the procedure, but he did spend hours driving around like a movie spy in order to throw off any potential tail.

"Back-alley abortionists were subject to prosecution, were often prosecuted ... so it was understandable that the guy I encountered was being extremely cautious."

In all her interviews with survivors of illegal abortions, as well as with some doctors who treated women that didn't survive theirs, Fran found that the primary deciding factor between a "good" underground abortion and a "bad" one was plain ol' money.

"It was an economic issue. Among women with money, it would be a lot easier to find some sympathetic doctor who was taking risks by performing abortions. Or who would do it in a hospital and write it up as an appendectomy. But that was an upper class thing. It was, you had to know somebody and you had to be fairly enlightened. I was not enlightened. I didn't know anybody."

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Specifically, you had to know Benjamin Franklin.

If you were a poor, pregnant girl in pre-Roe v. Wade America:

"I would say there was slim to no chance that you would find, say, a compassionate physician who was doing it in a hospital."

Not only did poor women have higher odds of dying during the procedure, they also risked being raped by their abortionist. Sometimes a blowjob might earn you a partial refund, other times the perpetrator was just secure in the knowledge that any woman who turned him in would not only be admitting to a crime but also ruining her reputation.

Fran noted:

"Several women did tell me stories, way way after the fact. None of them have reported it. Probably half a dozen women told me stories of being assaulted. And none had tried to do anything about it."

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Again, smeared over the whole nuclear family values of the '50s was a pretty thick veneer of rape.

We'll never have any kind of statistics for how many back alley abortionists were rapists, how many were decent people providing a service, and how many were just purely incompetent. But the widely and fatally varying quality in practitioners meant...

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2
Volunteers Created Huge, Illegal Charities To Help Women In Need

From 1969 until Roe v. Wade in 1973, a group of women in Chicago ran a feminist abortion "referral and counseling center." They collectively called themselves Jane. Fran explained:

"They stood on street corners and held out brochures, and they taught each other how to perform abortions, and they did it in very safe circumstances ... and they didn't have a clinic, or anything. They used apartments. And so I'm thinking the apartment was probably just donated. And I think there was very little cost involved. I don't think there was any financial structure, at least, not that I know of."

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Clandestine social services doesn't exactly seem like the best career for raking in the big bucks.

Dorothy told us about another volunteer who was basically a one-person abortion network. His name is Doctor Curtis Boyd. She called him "one of the most humane, most successful doctors" of the era. He performed thousands of abortions, and he's still alive today. Dorothy interviewed him decades ago for her documentary, and gave us permission to use his quotes. They give an insight into just how frightening it was to be a good doctor trying to provide abortion services back then.

"I knew that I could lose my medical license, I knew that I could go to prison. And just as I had to ... to trust these women, who came to me, not to bring charges against me which could put me in prison, they had to trust me. They came by bus, by train, by car, and they had to trust that they were going to leave there ... um ... intact and alive."

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And this brings us to our last ugly, but necessary point. It's extraordinary that all of Dr. Boyd's thousands of patients went home intact and alive, because across the rest of the country...

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1
The Death Toll Was Astonishing, And Might Be Again

Neither Dorothy nor Fran had what you'd call a best-case scenario underground abortion. But they also both survived: That alone puts them in the "lucky" group. Dorothy interviewed one Doctor Paulsen, who treated a lot of the worst-case scenarios. He gives us a hint about how bad it could get:

"I heard about these two coeds at Stanford who went to Tijuana and obtained illegal abortions. The first was a girl who came back with a fulminating septicemia and who subsequently died. The second came back and had a severe infection of her reproductive organs, and it was necessary to do a hysterectomy, which rendered her sterile, of course."

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You don't go get illegal surgery in 1950s Tijuana because you had a lot of better options.

Dorothy also interviewed a woman named Freddie, whose sister died of a botched abortion. But she didn't learn that for years:

"At the time of my sister's death, I was told she died in childbirth, but that didn't make any sense. Then I was told it was a miscarriage, that she bled to death. The story came to me in bits and pieces over many years."

Needless to say, it's not a fun story. There are no dancing bears, no singing chipmunks -- probably not even a charming animal sidekick.

Freddie's sister Lola had gotten pregnant in spite of her IUD, which put her in something of a Catch-22. If she gave birth with an IUD, the baby might come out deformed. If she had it removed, it might cause a miscarriage. She decided on removing the IUD and went to her doctor, but...

"He said, 'I'm sorry, I have consulted with colleagues, and I cannot do anything that could implicate me in an illegal act.'"

Remember: She wasn't seeking an outright abortion. The doctor was saying that if he'd merely removed the IUD and Lola had miscarried because of it, it could lead to criminal charges. So Lola told him she'd just try to remove the IUD herself. For a rough idea of how that would go, imagine yanking this out of your genitalia:

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Health care choices shouldn't include rejected Saw ideas.

And yet Lola's doctor was actually all about this: if she hurt herself ripping out her IUD and induced a miscarriage, he could treat her for that without risking charges himself.

Here's what Freddie recalled Lola saying the doctor told her: "All right, well I tell you what to do, I'll tell you how to do it, and when you're in the process of miscarriage, you can call me, you can go to the hospital, and then I'll be able to help you without jeopardizing my own position."

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Though it kinda seems like advising a patient to induce a medical emergency at home should qualify.
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But removing her IUD didn't work. So Lola got desperate and tried something terrifying:

"She purchased a couple of tubes, plastic tubes, and what she was told to do was insert these tubes into the cervix, and blow air into the cervix, and that would cause her to abort. So she filed a sharp point, and had punctured a vein, and got air into her bloodstream."

She died.

Today, an estimated 68,000 women worldwide die each year from botched abortions. In 2012, a year after passing a new law that closed 82 abortion clinics, Texas saw pregnancy-related deaths double. Georgia leads the nation in pregnancy-related deaths, and it just happens to be a state where 58 percent of women live without access to abortion clinics. At least 46 new anti-abortion laws have been put in front of various state legislatures this year. You get the implication.

And now, to prevent you from death-spiraling into an inescapable swamp of sadness: Here's a bird that loves knocking over cups.

The author would like to request that you consider making a donation to Planned Parenthood. They could really use it.

Behind every awful movie is the idea for a good one. Old man Indiana Jones discovers aliens. Good in theory, bad in practice. Batman fights Superman. So simple, but so bad. Are there good translations of these movies hidden within the stinking turds that saw the light of day? Jack O'Brien hosts Soren Bowie, Daniel O'Brien, and Katie Willert of 'After Hours' on our next live podcast to find an answer as they discuss their ideal versions of flops, reboots, and remakes. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased here!

For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Bizarre True Stories From My Job At Planned Parenthood and 5 Things You Learn Escorting Women Into An Abortion Clinic.

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