The Bad Old Days

By Polly Rothstein

In Connecticut, where I grew up, birth control was illegal. Feminists had lobbied to repeal the law for decades, but lawmakers refused. I wondered how women-in-the-know avoided pregnancy. Some men used condoms (where did they get them?), but many women had shotgun weddings or hid out in homes for unwed mothers. Some got illegal abortions (pregnancy tests took two weeks – after you had missed two periods). One who graduated from high school with me in 1954, her belly-of-shame to big to hide and no ring on her finger, was scorned. I still feel for her.

In 1958, fresh out of college and unworldly, I moved to Cambridge to get a job and share an apartment with my friend X.

Birth control was illegal in Massachusetts, too. X announced that she was pregnant and that neither her psychiatrist nor her gynecologist would arrange a therapeutic abortion (essential for mental or physical health).

Barely able to utter “abortion,” we said, “get rid of it,” and saw no alternative. X called acquaintances for “a name,” any name; qualifications were low priority. One referred us to Dr. Robert Spencer in Ashland, Penn, instructing X to complain of a vaginal discharge. We missed the humor of going from Cambridge to coal country for a vaginal discharge. Dr. Spencer told us the procedure would take two visits, what motel to call, and where to park.

Dr. Spencer’s office was weird – walls and ceilings brimming with souvenir plaques from the gift shops in places like Lake George. One was a drawing of a vase that became the silhouette of two people when you stared at it. We avoided eye contact with the others in the waiting room, all of us too scared, unwilling to swap how-I-got-here stories, seek or give solace, or make small talk. X and I whispered to each other.

Dr. Spencer was white-haired and kindly, but couldn’t ease our fear. He packed X’s vagina with something to dilate her cervix and told us to come back in the morning. I have no memory of the evening. In the morning, I was fearful when Dr. Spencer installed me in a tiny room to wait it out and took X with him. The room had a chair, cot, afghan, and a black paperback, Crimes of Passion. I fantasized telling X’s parents where we were, and why, and that she was dead. Eventually, Dr. Spencer came in with X over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, out cold. He gently unloaded her on the cot, her eyes rolled back so the whites showed. After she came to and had rested, he checked her and gave her post-op instructions and antibiotics. The entire charge was $50.

Dr. Spencer was the beloved town doctor, protected by the police, and a hero to women around the nation. He’s in all the books about illegal abortions, and is the subject of a new documentary, “Dear Dr. Spencer: Abortion in a Small Town.” His file of requests from desperate women and thanks from women he helped (some still put flowers on his grave) is an education in itself. We realized how lucky we were when we heard horror stories: the difficulties amassing the huge fees the butchers charged, being driven around blindfolded so as not to know where the deed was done, forced sex with the abortionist before he’d get to work, the tied hands and the mouth stuffed to muffle the cries of pain from abortions without anesthesia, the soiled equipment, the hemorrhaging, the lies to the hospital emergency room, and the newspaper reports of women who died trying not to become a mother.

I was married in NY in 1959. Though illegal, birth control was available in NYC, where I had a traumatic visit to Planned Parenthood, which required a doctor’s note affirming I was getting married. Feeling like a loose woman and a liar, I also brought my newspaper engagement notice. If you’re stunned at that, a friend’s story tops it. After being fit for a diaphragm, she watched the doctor poke a hole in it so she could use it only for insertion practice, and return for a new one a day before her wedding.

My question about Connecticut women was answered in 1965 when I volunteered at the Port Chester Planned Parenthood, which had been established so they could beat the system. They took the train to Port Chester, walked to the clinic for an exam and “supplies,” and boarded the train home with the bootleg diaphragm in a plain brown bag.

Also in 1965, the Supreme Court threw out Connecticut’s contraceptive ban, interpreting the Constitution to give married women the right to privacy in such matters. (yes, 1965 and married women only.) In 1972, the Court let single women in on it, and a year later, January 22 1973, ruled in Roe v. Wade that the privacy right included abortion.

Are you surprised at the stories, and how recent reproductive rights are? Do you know that the anti-abortion religions and their legislative accomplices have already limited women’s control over their pregnancies? Do you know you can save our rights by electing pro-choice candidates?

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