tv Mid-20th Century Abortion Access CSPAN February 9, 2019 9:45pm-10:01pm EST
imagined i said, what they , what they wanted me to imagine i said, or what group they imagined me to be from. steve: thank you for your time. watching "american history tv "american history tv ," only on c-span3. >> next, we talk with historian of the abortions are in the mid-20th century and the costs, health risks and access to legal abortions. american history tv recorded the interview at the western history association annual meeting in san antonio texas. steve: joining us from san professor lucia gutierrez-romine, she currently teaches in riverside, california. we want to focus on abortion. when did we first see them in the u.s. and when did they become illegal? prof. gutierrez-romine: hi.
we always see them in the united states. we know that women have practiced abortion since as long as women have been having children. there is a specific moment when we first see them in the u.s. they are always there. we see them when things go badly. they become illegal in the united states during the 1800s. you see a lot of this early legislation, early abortion legislation, developing around the 1840's and by the 1880's, every state in the united states has a law against abortion. steve: when we hear the term "back alley abortions," i know it is obvious but explain what we were seeing in this time? prof. gutierrez-romine: it can vary.
illegal abortion, often conflated with back alley abortion, illegal abortion can take place in a doctor's office. it is just describing when an abortion is a distinction. there have been exceptions in most states to protect the life or the health of the woman. an illegal -- and illegal abortion to be any abortion that doesn't fit those parameters. it could be a doctor performing an abortion for illegal reasons in his or her office or it could be someone who has no medical skill who maybe read a textbook or thinks they know what abortion is, simply trying to do the procedure in their home, bathroom, back alley. illegal abortion, back alley abortions, can fit anywhere in the spectrum. steve: in researching your paper, "breaking the law: abortion in black and white," was it a race issue?
was it an issue of wealth? who was able to get abortions, if anyone? prof. gutierrez-romine: great question. for the actual paper i am presenting, which is "breaking the law: an abortion in black-and-white," i am looking at different cases. the circumstances were similar. they were southern california participants who performed illegal abortions for two different women, both 18 years old. one was white and the other physician was black. the white physician was able to go on probation and the black physician was sentenced to five years to life in prison. in that chapter, i am looking at the punishments conferred on physicians and how that depended on race. generally speaking, the type of people who got abortions were all women. all women got abortions. a woman's means determines whether or not her abortion was
safe, whether it might be considered legal, even if ambiguous, and so a woman's own class circumstances often affected the quality of care she received. steve: how much of a health risk was it? how much danger were these women in pre-roe v. wade, 1973? prof. gutierrez-romine: it is actually interesting. before 1930 -- 1930 is when we see labor and delivery moving to the hospital -- before 1930, abortion was safer than childbirth. the circumstances of that abortion vary. if you have a physician performing before 1930, it is probably safe. since the circumstances under which a woman is able to get an abortion are so limited, it often meant women had to turn to
illegal practitioners, in which case it would increase the risk associated with the procedure. most of the risk came from the skill of the provider. did they complete the abortion? did they do the full procedure? of things thats determine the risk. in the hands of a skilled practitioner who knew what they were doing, who sterilized their instruments, it was a safe procedure and much safer than childbirth until the 1930's. once you push this procedure into the black market, once you have persons providing this illegally, that is when risk increases. steve: in the middle of the 20th century, the 1930's, 1940's, 1950's, how much would abortions cost or did it vary on who you were and where it was performed? prof. gutierrez-romine: it does vary. if we are looking at 1935 for example, i talk about an illegal
ring operating. the price they charged was $50 for abortion being performed within the first 12 weeks. that would have the same buying power now as $900. it is costly. $50 doesn't sound like much to us right now. when we are looking at the 1960's and illegal abortions, patricia mcginnis, this activist who tried to help women find reputable providers in mexico, she cautioned her clients to avoid any abortion provider who charged less than $300. she said if you are paying less than that, you're probably not getting a reputable provider who would give antibiotics or pain medication.
we see this spectrum, $50 in the 1930's to $200-$300 for illegal abortions in the 1960's. if you are someone who was practicing illegal abortion or therapeutic abortion, that cost might be high as well because typically it involves paying for your private medical practitioner, also with a hospital procedure, that involves an overnight stay. your cost would be significant either way. just determined what legal means women have access to. steve: you used the term therapeutic abortion. i've never heard that before. explain. prof. gutierrez-romine: therapeutic abortions were those that were considered legal. these were abortions that were broadly defined as necessary to protect the life or health of the woman. this term is legally amorphous.
it could mean anything. the fluidity in the term, what this means is that by the 1940's, 1950's, even the 1960's, we see hospital therapeutic committees really trying to control what that term means. it moves the individual decision moves from the physician to to committees of 3-5 people who have never seen this woman or treated her before and they are now determining whether or not she can access and abortion. -- access an abortion. therapeutic abortion's were legal but they were sometimes more difficult to get. steve: whether in a classroom or with your peers at the western history association, what kind of reaction does your research get? what questions are most often asked to you? prof. gutierrez-romine: often the reaction is surprise. most of my students have grown
up after roe v. wade. i myself grew up after roe v. wade. before i approached this topic, i never thought of what abortion was like before that. a lot of my students, i feel, take this for granted. they take for granted the u.s. supreme court decision. they believe they have certain rights. certainly in different political climates, those opinions change. sometimes students feel their rights are at risk and other times they do not. generally, surprise. people don't generally know the links and the lengths to which which women went to to acquire abortions, people never really think about whether or not abortions existed before roe v. wade. almost as if, roe v. wade allows abortion and now everyone has abortions. that is not the case. abortions were just not legally sanctioned and often under scary
-- inferior conditions. steve: how far would women go to seek abortions? if they couldn't get in the u.s., did they go elsewhere? prof. gutierrez-romine: they did. in my research i looked at , american women in california who go to the border in the 1950's and 1960's, the border with mexico. there are a number of women who do that, who go to places like tijuana, mexicali, to have these procedures. there are other women who have more financial means, who are able to go to places like sweden or japan or mexico city where they are able to pay for services of a licensed gynecologist. in japan and in sweden, abortion is legal already. if women have the means, they are able to travel to those places but your standard american woman who maybe doesn't
have the means to fly to sweden for a week, she can often find the ability to afford an over the border abortion and take care of that within the course of a day trip. steve: this is not only a social issue and historical issue but also a medical issue. can you explain the evolution of antibiotics and advances in medicine during the. yet been researching? -- during the peers that have been researching? -- during the period that you have been researching? prof. gutierrez-romine: absolutely. the use of antibiotics drastically decreases mortality associated with illegal abortions after the 1930's. it actually contributes to this decline in illegal abortion mortality after. more people are using antibiotics. more women are choosing to go to a hospital right away if they experience complications from their procedures. this was not the case before the 1930's. if a woman had an illegal
abortion in the 1910's or the 1920's and she was suffering from complications, she often did not go to a physician until it was too late. there were no antibiotics with which to treat those women. it was often too late for a lot of these women who died of infection associated with an unclean, illegal and unhygienic abortion. after the 1930's, mortality decreases, even in illegal abortions. steve: you're based in california. where do you go for research? what are your sources? prof. gutierrez-romine: i got my first batch at the california state archives in sacramento. most of my research is from their board of medical examiner records. they have folders and folders of these illegal abortions investigation files. that is where i found a lot of this material.
in some chapters, i focus more on southern california, los angeles area. i have some l.a.-based sources, the ucla young research library, also huntington. it is mostly california but also a lot of material in the l.a. metro area as well. steve: what's one takeaway, one thing that surprised you the most? prof. gutierrez-romine: good question. i think the thing that surprised me the most was how much i felt for these women who had to make these complicated decisions for themselves. there is a lot of polarization that happens in the abortion issue to this day.
in looking at these investigation files and looking at interviews that law enforcement officers did of patients, friends or family members, you really empathize with them. you realize they are making a bad decision in an assortment of bad options. it spoke to the human element of this research. i am writing about deceased women, using corners records, board of medical examiner files, i am talking about individual women who lived and died under a legal system that was not respecting their own desires or needs. steve: she is a graduate of the university of southern
california, now teaching in riverside, joining us from san antonio, thank you for being with us. prof. gutierrez-romine: thank you very much for having me. have a nice day. you're watching american history tv, only on c-span3. "> each week, "reel america bring your archival films that provide context for today's public affairs issues. sponsored by the student nonviolent coronary -- coordinating committee, this was a half-hour film used in voter registration campaign in the south. shot in rural mississippi, it includes interviews with black farmers and sharecroppers who described violence and intimidation they experience when attempting to register to vote. >> this picture is essentially for america. people who call themsees