U.S. and World Politics

A Personal Story About Abortion, and the Rightist Decline of the U.S.

By Chris Kinder

As a woman’s right to choose what happens with her own body is challenged by a Supreme Court which has been captured by the extreme right, and as Republican-dominated states are poised to take even more severe actions against this right than what they have already made law, we are looking at the cancellation of 50 years of a very important reform. Before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, women who wanted to choose not to carry their fetus to term were faced with a horrible fate—attempting an abortion by an untrained person, or by using a coat-hanger wire which could mean serious injury or death.

My first lover and I faced this horrific prospect, but found a rare solution to the problem in a union mining town in western Pennsylvania in the dead of night. You might be interested to hear how this came about.

The time before Roe

It was 1962 or ’63, some ten years before Roe v. Wade. I was in my second year of college at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York when I met my first lover. Her name (nick-name actually) was Dee, and we decided to get together (or “go-steady,” as the vernacular went.) She was in her “freshman” year, and as a woman, she was confined to the women’s dorms. There was strict segregation based on sex in those days in most universities. This was soon to change, but that is another story.

Dee was frantic, she couldn’t stand living in the dorm with all those snobby daughters of the rich. She asked if I could take her into my off-campus apartment, and I said yes. This was against the University’s rules. All first-year students were required to live in the segregated dorms, so it wasn’t long before we were both brought before a disciplinary hearing, but in the end, we got away with the “co-habitation.” This was allowed to exist when, at her request, we got married. Amazingly, both her parents and mine agreed with this rather sudden decision—I think they guessed she was pregnant, and they were right. We had started having sex earlier that year, which, in my case, was a first such experience (no laughter, please! (Yes, I knew about condoms, but I just...didn’t.)

The “Angel of Ashland”

Neither one of us wanted to have a child, understandably, I think. So, we started looking into our options. We knew about coat-hanger abortions, and decidedly sought out actual doctors. Somehow, I found information over the grapevine, that there was a doctor in New York City that would do the illegal operation, but he charged $600 for it, which we could not afford. Then—and I wish I could remember who it was who told me about this—I learned of a doctor in a small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania called Ashland (fitting name for a coal mining town,) who would do it for $100. That, I could afford, thanks to a loan from my dad (I think he knew I could never repay it.)

This doctor, Robert Spencer, was apparently known by some on college campuses. The story about him was very specific, you had to follow the instructions to the letter. You were to go to a particular address in this small town, and you had to do it well after dark. You were to knock on the door, and simply say, “I want an appointment.” Nothing else was to be said.

He could never be convicted

How was all this possible, we thought. What we learned eventually was surprisingly simple, Dr. Spencer did proper abortions (D&Cs,) and had been arrested and put on trial for performing them, but the prosecutors could never get a conviction, because the miners’ wives on the juries acquitted him every time! Many of them had had abortions, and they were some of the only available jurors at the time. (Their husbands, no doubt supportive of the acquittals also, were always down in the coal mines during the trials.)

Despite his acquittals, this doctor was being very cautious. We did exactly as we were told. We drove down there from Ithaca (I had a car at that time,) and arrived after dark. It was a very small town, and there were no lights on anywhere, not even streetlights. We found the door, knocked on it, and the response was, “Yes?” “Can we have an appointment?” I said. “Come back tomorrow night” was the response.

So, we found a small hotel and got a room for the night. I remember waking up to the music of the local high school band which was marching down main street that morning.

That night, we knocked on the door again, and said we had an appointment. Dee was immediately taken in. I had to wait outside, but sooner than I expected, she was released and ushered out. She was obviously a little drowsy from medication, but she was safe, and the operation had been a success.

Such was our experience, and a lucky one indeed. Just thinking of what might have happened gives me shivers. (There were other doctors doing illegal abortions, but fining them was the thing.) In the end, what could have been a nightmare came through as a good experience—one that I wish could have been available to so many people who suffered—and even died—before Roe v. Wade. Spencer was, of course, a hero (he retired in 1965.) Hopefully such heroes still exist to take action in what might become a similar nightmare for so many who can’t afford the trip to California or New York.

Roe cancellation and the rightist decline of the U.S.

The cancellation of Roe v. Wade—the leaked decision, acknowledged as a genuine draft and likely to be confirmed by the Court—is the latest blow in what is a very serious and dangerous advance by the extreme right into power in the U.S. This must not be ignored. It is fast becoming a major reactionary move to take the U.S. back 50 or 100 years.

The very fact that this rightist assent emerges now from one of the most undemocratic institutions in the U.S.—an all-powerful court, answering to nobody and packed by the right wing—should tell us something, as should the Senate, the other totally undemocratic institution in the country. The Senate has two senators representing every state, regardless how populous, thus, disenfranchising millions. This anti-democratic institution oversees the appointment of Supreme Court justices.

Mysteries of the Supreme Court

The GOP and the right are totally absorbed in the question of who is responsible for the leak of this document to the public. While it ignores the main point about overturning Roe v. Wade, this question is itself interesting, in its own right. Leaks from Supreme Court deliberations are unheard of, and this particular leak comes at a time of escalating right-wing attacks on the politics and even the culture of this country. And, the release is timed to likely affect the upcoming elections to the detriment of the GOP. Could this leak have been the act of a disgruntled Court assistant who was frustrated by this extreme act by the rightist Court? Or was it leaked by one of the “conservative” (read reactionary) justices as kind of a “F.U.” to the vast majority in the U.S. that supports abortion rights?

The U.S. is unique in having such a court, and a constitution written by a bunch of slave-owners in the 18th Century, to which “originalists” on the court like to refer (“what did the founders say,” etc.) If the examples of other countries, such as France and South Africa count, then it should be noted that they tore up and rewrote their basic laws after revolutions. After the overturn of apartheid, the South African government consulted Blacks, whites and others across the board on what should be in the constitution. Did the U.S. consult the former slaves about anything after its one-and-only revolution, the Civil War? Absolutely not.

Amendments to a slave owner’s constitution

The U.S. added some amendments to its constitution after the Civil War, but these amendments, such as the 14th, which banned former Confederate officials from holding office on account of their participation in an insurrection, and the 15th, which gave the vote to all citizens regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” were completely ignored for another hundred years. This allowed former Confederate leaders to hold office, and facilitated the rise of slavery by another name, which—after a brief “reconstruction”—prevented Blacks from voting, living where they wanted, getting a good education, or holding many jobs.

This Court, which now threatens women with a new form of enslavement is the same institution which legalized “separate but (un)equal” in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

The right to privacy, particularly for women, who were still considered property, and without the right to vote, sit on a jury, or even protect themselves from rape by their husbands was never even mentioned in the constitution. Women got the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th amendment, but the last state law which exempted men from rape charges if committed by a husband on his wife, was only reversed in 1993.

War-mongers will not save the U.S.

The extreme voter suppression measures now being enacted in nearly half the states in the U.S. threatens to destroy what is left of the shreds of democracy in this country. The left is tuned into defending Roe v. Wade, but almost all the left looks to the Democratic Party to do something about it. This party—one of the two capitalist parties—is making some noise in defense of abortion rights, and may modify its heretofore disastrous chances somewhat in the upcoming mid-term elections with this issue. But the Democrats are worse than useless for combatting the surging rightist onslaught on every question.

Instead, this party, which is the most warlike of the two parties, who have been at the head of the war waged on Vietnam for instance—a war which soon was vigorously opposed by the antiwar movement in the U.S. and the world—votes overwhelmingly in favor of huge military expenditures, nuclear weapons, and military bases circling the world.

How can we fight the attacks of the right wing and the U.S.’ imperialist wars without a revolution to overthrow the capitalist system? The two parties will not do it, liberals will not do it! Calling all revolutionaries!