During the half-century from 1860 to 1910 in which America's rate of abortion declined sharply, The New York Times regularly reported on prominent physicians who did abortions. A story in 1884, "Two Physicians in Trouble," noted that two of the "best known physicians in Providence, R.I.," were on trial for abortion. A typical story in 1886, "DOCTOR INDICTED," detailed abortion charges against a highly regarded New Haven physician, Dr. Gallagher. A similar story about a well-connected doctor noted the abortion arrest of Philadelphia physician David Otway.
The Times often contrasted the power of abortionists with the powerlessness of unborn children and the vulnerability of their mothers. After the indictment of Newark physician Herman W. Gedicke in 1880, the Times noted that "the accused is wealthy and is a member of the board of Aldermen." Gedicke paid $2,000 to bribe the jury but ended up receiving a two-year sentence for criminal abortion in a verdict the judge called "a most signal triumph of the law over power and influence." Gedicke, though, later received a pardon.
Two other typical cases: One wealthy man, married to the daughter of a former New Jersey Supreme Court judge, paid his family doctor $2,000 to perform an abortion; another wealthy man seduced the daughter of a courthouse janitor and took her to Philadelphia for an abortion. The doctors were typically leading lights in their communities, not back-alley butchers. The Springfield Republican, in an editorial titled "Child Murder in Massachusetts," attacked "child-murdering" by "respectable physicians."
Most people today, though, think of abortionists during the decades of abortion illegality in a different way. A Lexis-Nexis check of The New York Times shows "back-alley" linked to "abortion" 155 times as in, "the threat of the back-alley abortionist with a coat hanger . . . the back-alley abortion era . . . specter of a return to back-alley abortions . . . drive women-as in the pre-Roe days-to risk their lives to end pregnancies with illegal back-alley abortions."
Abortion through the 1930s was terribly dangerous for women and fatal for their children-but not because of back-alley practice. The maternal danger came because of infections that could occur at the hands of careful practitioners and, before the creation of penicillin, the absence of ways to fight them (see sidebar). But it was during the antibiotics era from the 1940s onward that the possibility of maternal death, although decreasing, became a powerful propaganda tool for those in academia and the media who greased abortion attitudes in a way that made Roe v. Wade possible.
Phase one (1952-1962) of the selling of abortion featured academic conferences hosted by the American Psychiatric Association, Planned Parenthood, and other groups. Conference papers calling for "new, more liberal laws" made a popular impact when journalists wrote about this new, new thing in magazines such as Women's Home Companion, Reader's Digest, and Time. A typical magazine article proclaimed that abortion was "rampant" in the United States and that "eminent specialists" believed the only way to stop illegal abortion was to make it legal.
By stressing conferences and publications, abortion proponents dominated academic discourse and gained a beachhead in the popular press. A Newsweek article on abortion in 1960 emphasized the ideas of Planned Parenthood head Alan Guttmacher (also vice president of the American Eugenics Society), whom the magazine glorified as "a strong-faced outspoken crusader." The January 1960 Reader's Digest excerpted Guttmacher's book, Babies By Choice or By Chance.
Such reports laid the intellectual and cultural foundation for major changes in abortion laws. Those who wanted to portray abortion laws as cruel and unconscionable now had statistics, even though they were plucked from the air. Phase one culminated with a popular CBS television show in April 1962: An episode of The Defenders titled "The Benefactor" had an abortionist as the hero of the title. Since academic analysis had "proven" that millions of young women had had no choice but to head to the back alleys, the heroic, reputable doctor-abortionist was a "benefactor" who honorably put babies to death.
Phase two, from 1962 to 1972, began with a tragedy that launched hundreds of human-interest articles. Only three months after TV's "The Benefactor," the plight of Sherri Finkbine received-in Newsweek's words-"the full glare of national attention" and "dramatically posed the abortion dilemma for all to see." Finkbine, a minor Phoenix celebrity through her hosting of the popular children's program Romper Room, was having trouble sleeping during the first trimester of her pregnancy, so she took a tranquilizer her husband had picked up the summer before while on a trip to Europe.
On July 16, 1962, after reading a newspaper story about babies born in Europe with serious birth defects because their mothers had taken tranquilizers containing thalidomide, Sherri Finkbine called her doctor and asked about those pills she had taken. The doctor checked, found she had been unwittingly taking thalidomide, and then-in Finkbine's words-"showed us pictures in a British medical journal of children born to mothers who had used the drug-horrible pictures, the arms, legs, fingers and toes. He told us, these are not odds to gamble with."
The doctor, reinterpreting the Hippocratic Oath like a bookie, offered counseling that was clearly incomplete. Medical evidence available at the time indicated that about 50 percent to 80 percent of children born to mothers taking thalidomide during their first trimester were perfectly normal; others had only minor problems; others were without full arms or legs, yet with love did well. But Finkbine's doctor pulled out pictures and urged abortion. A committee of three doctors approved the abortion under an Arizona law that allowed for it in special circumstances.
Then the story went public, and hospital administrators who feared public criticism refused to allow the abortion to occur in their facilities. Finkbine began a worldwide search for another abortion venue and eventually chose Sweden. Meanwhile, the investment in scholarly conferences and people who could make a credible case to reporters was paying off for the pro-abortion side: Every day during late July and early August reporters interviewed pro-abortion "experts" and condemned anti-abortion positions as "cruel" and "heartless," and praised "more civilized" Sweden.
During the last week of August the Gallup Poll for the first time included a question on abortion: Was Sherri Finkbine right to have had "this abortion operation"? Fifty-two percent of respondents said she had "done the right thing"; 32 percent felt she had done wrong. The majority supported a Romper Room lady who loved children and was the victim of "outdated ethics."
From 1962 through 1972 a full-court press sold abortion on both the front pages and the editorial pages of leading newspapers, at a time when those gazettes still had clout. The editorials were somber, while the news pages made abortion seem easy. By the end of the decade, with abortion legal in several states, the Omaha World-Herald was quoting "Betty" describing her abortion: "I had to stay quiet for 15 minutes. When I got up, I felt like a brand-new woman. I felt so happy." The Long Island Press quoted "Susan" telling the abortionist when the operation was over, "Oh, thank you, thank you." The reporter added, "Within the next half hour she will have some cookies and a soft drink in the recovery lounge, fill out a few forms, pay a fee of $200 and be on her way back home"-probably skipping, the article seemed to suggest.
Similarly, the Hartford Courant reported that abortion "is safe and usually without complications," and the Oregonian called abortion in Portland "a simple operation" that symbolizes "society's concern about overpopulation, pollution and survival." The San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed that "abortions can now be performed safely, efficiently, and economically," with "products of conception" quickly removed. The Chronicle told how a typical young woman "came back from the abortion smiling and saying, 'I feel fine,'" for the abortion "procedure is so simple and over so quickly that they [women having abortions] have no feelings of guilt."
Stories on abortion typically portrayed pro-abortionists as merciful and anti-abortionists as closed-minded. The Memphis Commercial Appeal, under a headline "Hand of Mercy Extends in Abortions," indicated that pro-abortionists counseling pregnant women were "answering these women's needs." The Houston Post quoted this line: "People say an aborted child might have grown up to be President. There's a better chance he would have grown up to be the one who shot the President." The article attacked anti-abortion laws "passed before women could vote, based on ideologies conceived by men."
Even when bombarded with such propaganda, Americans who had the chance to vote on abortion resisted. In 1972, although Detroit newspapers heavily supported a Michigan referendum to legalize abortion on demand through the first five months of pregnancy, 61 percent of Michigan voters said no. In North Dakota, 77 percent of voters turned down a similar referendum.
Overall, despite clever tactics, overwhelming press sentiment, and the support of powerful interests, pro-abortion forces by the end of 1972 had won unrestricted abortion in only four states, and legal abortion in hard cases-mothers' physical health, fetal deformity, and rape or incest-in 15 other states. Thirty-one states resisted any liberalization. A Gallup Poll in 1972 showed 66 percent of all Americans opposing elective abortion.
Phase three began in January, 1973, as the U.S. Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade mandated abortion anywhere without restriction during the first three months of pregnancy, abortion in hospitals without restriction during the next three months, and abortion in hospitals following paperwork during the final three months. Justice Harry Blackmun's decision ostensibly refused to declare when human life began, but in practice did exactly that, because hunters do not shoot at an object in the forest if it may be a human being.
The most influential U.S. newspapers all cheered. The New York Times called the decision "a major contribution to the preservation of individual liberties . . . it wisely avoids the quicksand of attempting a judicial pronouncement on when life begins." The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called the decision "remarkable for its common sense" and "its humaneness." The Christian Science Monitor applauded the willingness of seven out of the nine Supremes to "stretch the application of the 14th Amendment." The Des Moines Register said the Court's decision would end "emotion-charged hearings" on abortion.
The Milwaukee Journal declared that "policemen and judges" would no longer have to be concerned with the "distractive" issue. But 36 years later, the supposed distraction continues.
In 1962 Lucy Freeman dedicated her book The Abortionist to the women who are "maimed, or lose their lives at the hands of the unskilled, unqualified abortionist." In 1965 The New York Times stated that anti-abortion laws condemned women "to a barbaric, primitive, underworld of crude clandestine surgery, where their lives are in danger."
The guesstimate of "a million or more" illegal abortions committed each year, most of them "back-alley abortions," dominated the abortion debate during the 1960s. Illegality purportedly caused the deaths of 5,000 women each year (CBS Reports) or 10,000 (The Association of Women Physicians).
The 5,000-10,000 figure, first published in the 1930s, was probably inaccurate even then, but the advent of antibiotics reduced the maternal death rate enormously. Robert Hall, founder of the pro-abortion Association for the Study of Abortion, acknowledged in 1965 that the number of women dying during abortions could not be more than 500. The real number may have been half that.
Pointing that out should not minimize the tragedy of dead children and troubled moms. Any abortion is psychologically and spiritually hard for all but the most hardened. Having one illegally heightened the tension. Some 250 or 500 maternal deaths is certainly terrible. Still, that is not the wholesale slaughter that the 5,000-10,000 stat suggests.
Besides, while legal abortions are clearly unsafe for unborn children, they are not entirely safe for the mothers either. Thomas Hilgers and Dennis O'Hare found in 1981 that although "maternal deaths due to criminal abortion appear to be decreasing, they have been replaced, almost one for one, by maternal deaths due to legal abortion."