Note: Jeanette published this article in the Summer 2022 edition of South of the Garden, just before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
My father was arrested in 1972 for performing illegal abortions, in Oklahoma, where he was an ob-gyn and a surgeon. I was in college in Massachusetts at the time, and the news found its way to me through friends of friends. My parents were long divorced by then, and I’m not sure when my mother would have ever gotten around to mentioning that the arrest was reported in the Tulsa newspaper. At the time I was embarrassed. As far as I knew, no one in my family had ever been arrested.
As a young adult, I was uncomfortable with his whole line of work. I didn’t like to think about what he did at his office any more than I wanted to think about my parents having sex, ever, with anyone. So I felt squeamish about his work and disconcerted about his arrest.
Later I assumed it was true, that he performed illegal abortions, even before I had corroboration. My mother also assumed it was true and said so whenever I asked. We both knew that he had never opposed abortion.
My father grew up in Savannah, Georgia, went to Duke University for two years, finished at Mercer College, and then went to medical school at the University of Georgia in Augusta. In the early 1940s, he did an internship at Charity Hospital in New Orleans and an obstetrical residency at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. While in Dallas, he published a medical journal article about D&C (dilation and curettage), the procedure used to clean out a woman’s uterus in the case of excessive bleeding or other medical issues. It is also a procedure that can be used for abortions.
It seems that even though abortions had been illegal in the US since 1880 (except when necessary to save a woman’s life), nearly every ob-gyn in America was trained in a procedure that could be used for an abortion. Of course my father had been trained in this procedure. He had been trained for deliveries, surgeries, and a host of other obstetrical and gynecological situations.
I don’t know when my father started performing illegal abortions. I’ve been told that when he first set up his medical practice in Tulsa in the 1940s, there was an older doctor in town who would perform them. Whenever a patient got into medical distress after the procedure, the older doctor, who didn’t have hospital admitting privileges, relied on my father to admit the patient and care for her. At some point the older doctor must have faded out of the picture.
I assume that my father started performing abortions for several reasons. He was concerned about the health of his patients and wanted to be sure they had good medical care. Sending a patient to someone he didn’t trust must have seemed like a poor option. I also know that my dad was always looking for extra ways to make money. Doing abortions on the side would have generated some cash. At any rate, by the early 1970s he was part of an “underground” network in Tulsa that included volunteers and a college chaplain who helped women get from Tulsa to my dad’s secluded medical facility in a house about an hour west of town. That’s where he was arrested.
My father’s case never went to trial, apparently because Roe v. Wade was working its way through the court system. Why try someone for something that could soon be declared legal? After the Roe v. Wade decision in January 1973, a Tulsa newspaper article mentioned his willingness to waive the $200 fee for women who could not pay and quoted him saying that abortion “is no more murder than a woman using a diaphragm.”
After college, I became involved in the women’s movement and began to feel proud of my dad and the part he played in providing safe abortions before they were legal in Oklahoma. I was active in NARAL-NC (the National Abortion Rights Action League in North Carolina) and lobbied my local US legislator to change his position on funding for abortions.
Now, with the Supreme Court on the brink of overturning Roe v. Wade, I’m thinking about my father’s courageous actions more frequently. He was a complicated man with more than his share of vices, but he was a trailblazer in the struggle for reproductive choice. His pro-choice stance and his risky actions provided safe medical care to countless women.
I do not want to go back to the days when people had to sneak around to get abortions, a safe ones or a not-so-safe ones. To keep abortion safe and legal, we can elect better politicians. We are in the current mess because anti-choice people got elected to state and national offices, appointed anti-choice Supreme court justices, and passed restrictive state laws. It is absolutely imperative that we vote, in this and every election. If we don’t vote, someone else will make decisions we may not like about our lives and our bodies.
Join Jeanette and the RCWMS community on July 12, 2022, for an intergenerational discussion about what to do now that abortion is no longer protected as a Constitutional right. Register here at this link.
NOTE: A longer version of this article will appear in Jeanette’s forthcoming memoir Making the Road as We Go, to be published this fall by RCWMS Press.