Providing Abortion Before Roe: Part 1
The following interview is a very important piece of history. When Paul Krassner first published it in the June, 1962 edition of his underground newspaper, The Realist, the Roe v. Wade decision was still eleven years away, and legal abortion was still rare in the United States; it was usually an underground procedure that had serious risks for the woman's life and the doctor's freedom. The motivations and skills of the abortionists were often questionable, and the surroundings often uncomfortable and unsanitary. Many women didn't even seek out a doctor: they used impromptu methods to self-abort, as in the case of the woman described below who slipped a cocktail stirrer inside herself to terminate a suspected pregnancy.
The doctor that Krassner interviewed in 1962 remained anonymous for obvious reasons. His name was Robert Spencer, and he was nicknamed "The Saint," because his motivations were strictly humane, instead of profiteering as was the case with many of his contemporaries. At the time of the interview, Spencer had already performed, by his own count, 27,006 abortions in almost forty years of practice.
In his autobiography, Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut, Krassner describes the place where Spencer did his work:
Ashland [Pennsylvania] was a small town, and Dr. Spencer's work was not merely tolerated; the community depended on it—the hotel, the restaurant, the dress shop—all thrived on the extra business that came from his out-of-town patients. He built facilities at his clinic for Negro patients who weren't allowed to obtain overnight lodgings elsewhere in Ashland. The walls of his office were decorated with those little wooden signs that tourists like to buy. A sign on the ceiling over his operating table said Keep Calm.
As a result of the interview, Krassner began getting phone calls from scared, desperate women who needed to find a competent, trustworthy doctor who could help them get an abortion. Krassner inadvertantly began to provide an underground abortion referral service. For several years he referred women to Dr. Spencer until Spencer was shut down once and for all by the authorities. After that, Krassner continued to refer women to other trustworthy doctors.
Dr. Spencer never saw the end of the hypocrisy and injustice that he condemns in this interview; he died in 1969, four years before the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade. As much as he would have been pleased to see the decision, he probably would have also been appalled to see how similar the arguments over abortion are now, forty-eight years after this interview originally ran.
To hear more about Dr. Spencer and Krassner's own work in the pre-Roe underground, watch Carol Queen's interview with Krassner here. —Chris Hall, Senior Editor
Q. Okay, now, just for the sake of definition, what exactly is an abortion?
A. An abortion is the removal of an undeveloped child.
Q. By what process?
A. By the use of some drug or mechanical force to empty the contents of the uterus before it's developed.
Q. How dangerous is the operation?
A. If done within certain limits of time, it is practically without danger.
Q. What would the limits of time be, into a pregnancy?
A. Well, I would call three months the upper limit, although I know if one has all the hospital facilities, it can be done even up to five months.
Q. Under proper conditions, to what extent does death of the mother result from an abortion?
A. I'd say it's practically nil. Even in_____ a few years ago. I was in Russia, and I had letters from Dr. _____ in Missouri to two famous abortionists in Moscow, but when I got there, I found that Stalin had stopped abortions two or three months before I arrived, so I didn't see anything; but they were doing at least 50,000 a year in Moscow, and only had one or two per cent mortality, and that was before the days of sulphur. But they drew the line up to the third month.
Q. Under what circumstances are abortions illegal?
A. I'd say they're illegal in practically every phase you look at it, the way our country is at the present time.
Q. Under what circumstances are they legal?
A. Well, of course, I realize it's legal now in Russia, Japan, China, India, Sweden, Switzerland, and I guess there's a few other countries that I don't know anything about. This western hemisphere is the only one that seems to be a little bit late in following the experience of the other countries.
Q. What are the prices generally charged for an abortion?
A. I'd say, in this country, they generally run around $300 or more.
Q. What should they cost?
A. Well, it could range—it generally costs in medicine alone about $20 to do it—so one can put the extra amount on that as he sees fit. I understand in Japan they only charge $5 or $10, something of that kind; over there I don't know what medication they use, but I know here the medicine to put them to sleep, and the antibiotics and things like that, runs about $20.
Q. Because of the circumstances under which abortions are often performed, isn't the use of an anesthetic sometimes bypassed?
A. Well, I'd never undertake it without an anesthetic. I've had people tell me they've had it without an anesthetic, and I'd imagine that'd be an extremely painful proposition, and rather dangerous to the patient, because I don't see how they'd be able to keep still, and you'd run a chance of perforating the uterus.
Q. You're a physician yourself, is that correct?
A. Oh, I'm an M.D., yes.
Q. How long have you been performing abortions?
A. Oh, maybe thirty to forty years.
Q. Do you have any idea of about how many actual abortions you've performed during those years?
A. To be accurate, it's twenty-seven thousand and six.
Q. Have you ever had any interference from the authorities?
A. Just last year. I had a brush with the federal authorities. They started to open my mail. And they even had women write me letters, and then when I answered them, they had proof that I was using the mails for crime-inciting matter. I never knew the law existed until I found it out in that manner.