History

Caught in the Net

Interrogated, examined, blackmailed: how law enforcement treated abortion-seeking women before Roe.

Police officers stand outside a farmhouse. A gloved hand holds a speculum.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Michael Blann/Getty Images Plus, Stockbyte/Getty Images Plus, nathan4847/iStock/getty Images Plus and Olivka888/Getty Images Plus.

Twelve police officers with walkie-talkies and binoculars hid in the nearby fields and in the farmhouse next door, waiting and watching. It was dark. After seeing a car drive up carrying two women, who then went inside the house, the officers unlocked the front door and went in. They walked down the halls and into the bedrooms, where they found one woman wearing only a slip in one room, two lying in bed in another, and two more who, having removed their skirts and underwear, sat waiting for their abortions in a third. The police questioned, photographed, and fingerprinted each woman. Then they drove them in police cars to a doctor, to be vaginally examined while in police custody.

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This is the beginning of a true story of a raid on an underground abortion clinic by Pennsylvania state troopers in the late 1950s. It began when a suspicious neighbor called the police after listening on her party-line phone and overhearing her neighbor’s conversation about a pregnancy. The raid was easy: Since the landlord had given the police a key, they walked in and surprised everybody there. The police didn’t act in response to reports of injury or deaths. Abortion was simply illegal, and police raids based on reports from suspicious neighbors or doctors were standard methods of enforcing the law.

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Standard, too, was the approach of capturing women in the midst of an abortion procedure and gynecologically examining them for evidence. Women who sought abortions were not targeted for prosecution (although some states allowed it). Prosecutors who tried to go after women who sought abortions in the 19th century had quickly learned that juries refused to convict and shifted to pursuing abortion providers when women died. By the 1940s and 1950s, though, police were shutting down providers even if they were safe. The law treated aborting women as “victims” and used them for evidence. Being captured, examined, interrogated, occasionally jailed, and forced to testify in court, however, punished women for seeking abortions even if they were never prosecuted or convicted of a crime.

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The Texas abortion ban that took effect last week is designed to encourage private citizens to spy and report on suspicious people and activities, in the same way that the Pennsylvania woman reported her neighbor in 1958. In fact, the Texas statute permits only nonstate actors to bring civil lawsuits against individuals or organizations they suspect have “aided” or “abetted” any abortion that occurs after six weeks. This unusual law excludes state officials and police from enforcement—typically their job, of course—in order to make challenging its constitutionality difficult. And the Texas statute, like those in some states before Roe, doesn’t allow women themselves to be sued for getting abortions. This tactic allows anti-abortion activists to claim they are “on women’s side,” and don’t intend to harass them, but rather to target what they call the “abortion industry.”

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There are a few things standing between women in Texas and the kind of invasive enforcement that happened in the past. Right now, Texas police can’t conduct raids or force medical exams under the statute, because the law depends on citizen enforcement. This new law does not require proof that an abortion occurred; intention to help or to perform an abortion past the six-week mark is enough. But if a judge assessing claims under the present statute wanted more evidence of an abortion taking place than that offered by anti-abortion volunteers, judges could conceivably order examinations, just as some have ordered C-sections or specific medical care. And if the Supreme Court, in formally overturning Roe, allows other state laws banning abortion to take effect (including Texas’ own “trigger” law), police raids like those that took place in Pennsylvania in 1958 may happen again.

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In the 1950s and 1960s, police raided the offices and apartments where abortion providers worked, with the goal of catching practitioners and patients both. In the Pennsylvania case I described above, state troopers put the women in police cars and brought them to a male doctor to determine whether a “surgical procedure” had been performed. Late on a Friday night, the women submitted to a vaginal examination by the doctor, who then named them and testified about their bodies in court.

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Let’s look at reality rather than hiding behind fairly innocuous medical terms like “examine.”  The doctor’s examination in search for evidence required each woman to remove her clothing, spread her legs, and allow the doctor to touch and look at her genitals, and physically invade her vagina with a medical instrument—a cold speculum—through which he viewed her cervix and uterus. In the name of collecting evidence of a crime, the doctor performed a coercive exam. And even if he was polite and kind, these were humiliating, voyeuristic, and frightening procedures performed not for the benefit of the woman, but for the police. Prenatal care and annual gynecological exams included pelvic exams, but at that time, many patients found them uncomfortable and avoided them in order to avoid exposure and embarrassment. We can imagine the horror of captured women forced to undergo such exams. We also now know that such exams can be particularly traumatizing for people who have been sexually abused.

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Following the examinations of the women in Pennsylvania, the police took them to their headquarters. The police searched for other evidence as well: They collected envelopes of cash and gathered anything that appeared to be part of the abortion process, taking medications, rubber tubing, medical gloves and masks, a table, gauze, surgical instruments, and more. They photographed the abortion specialist and his two assistants, and the rooms of the house. What was set up as a clinic was now photographed and presented in court as a “crime scene.” When the case against the abortionist and his assistants came to trial, the doctor and one of the patients testified. The doctor reported his findings: In two women he found vaginal bleeding and “packing.” The cotton gauze packed into the uterus, he explained, was intended to irritate the cervix and thereby induce a miscarriage.

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The state went after abortion providers, not aborting women, and in this case all three defendants were sentenced to prison. Nonetheless, in this case and in others from the pre-Roe era, women who aborted were punished, shamed, and physically violated through the processes of capture, gynecological examinations, interrogation, and being forced to testify in a public courtroom. If women who had sought abortions refused to cooperate, they risked threats and being sent to jail, as happened to one Chicago woman in 1949. When she refused to testify about her abortion, the judge cited her for contempt and sentenced her to six months in jail. One night in jail convinced her to talk. In other cases, there’s evidence that prosecutors released photographs to the press or threatened women caught in raids with prosecution in order to win cooperation from hostile witnesses.

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Women who traveled for abortions before Roe also faced versions of this invasive enforcement of the law. Mexico decriminalized abortion this week, one week after Texas’ abortion ban went into effect. Online commenters immediately grasped that Texans would be crossing the border for safe, legal abortions in Mexico. They also wryly suggested that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott would place guards on the border to check all Texans leaving the state, in order to stop abortions. This nightmare scenario may seem utterly ridiculous, but it has been done before. In the 1960s, thousands of American women from California, Texas, Arizona, and nearly every other state went to Mexico for safe (but illegal) abortions. Attempting to stop them, San Diego border patrol agents would question young women closely when they crossed the border, looking for people who might be leaving for an abortion or returning afterward. They wouldn’t allow women under the age of 18 to cross the border without parental permission, when alerting parents was, no doubt, what some of these young people wanted to avoid.

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Given that the state has demonstrated its hostility to the autonomous decision-making of pregnant women, it is not at all unlikely that Texas—or vigilante citizens acting in the state’s place—will attempt to stop women from accessing abortions outside the state. Still, even if Americans cross the border for legal, safe abortions in Mexico—in the same way that Americans go to Mexico to buy pharmaceuticals, alcohol, gas, and other items and services for less—not everyone will be able to go there. Not only does travel to Mexico take money and time, many cannot easily leave the U.S. because they are minors, have green cards, or are undocumented.

History offers grim examples of what making abortion a crime means for women whose lives and bodies are invaded by law enforcement. If this history is a guide, they are likely to be shamed, traumatized, and victimized, in the name of their own protection. Black, brown, and poor women will be hit the hardest—both because of their disproportionate use of abortion, and because of the overpolicing of people of color. Almost half of the states now have laws on the books ready to make abortion a crime again if the Supreme Court rules in the anti-abortion movement’s favor. For women who will pursue abortions anyway, and end up shamed, roughly handled by law enforcement, traumatized, and (in some states) prosecuted, it’s a disaster in the making.

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