Seeking Abortions: Ads, Guides, and Community Networks

Endorsed by WASM

Friday, March 31, 2023, 10:30 AM - 12:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender and Sexuality; Science, Medicine, and Public Health; Women's History


Throughout modern history, women have sought to terminate their pregnancies. This panel explores twentieth-century efforts to secure abortions and analyzes some of the ways that abortions were both visible and accessible. From individual efforts to undertake one’s own abortion, to the role of advertisements in college campuses, to an Atlantic world comparison of travel to secure an abortion, this panel considers how twentieth-century discourse shaped the experiences of those considering and seeking abortions. Graduate student Madeleine Ware and co-author Dr. Cara Delay will present a comparative analysis of abortion in the Atlantic World. With their work on South Carolinian women’s efforts to secure abortions revealing the importance of concealment, driven by their community encouraging them to “stay hidden within domestic spaces and close to their homes.” In contrast, women in Ireland who sought abortions instead found their community demanding that they achieve “physical separation from their homes.” In addition to the significant difference in response, concealment vs. expulsion, Ware and Delay will argue for the significant role of community in shaping women’s experiences. The Abortion Handbook is the focus of the second paper. Dr. Lina-Maria Murillo will not only analyze this revolutionary work, but also contextualize it in light of women’s experience “self-administering abortion care in the years before Roe.” Drawing not only on the efforts of Patricia Maginnis and her colleagues, who sought to not only bring down restrictive laws but also provide abortion access, Murillo will also consider the experiences of individual women who sought to self-terminate their pregnancies. Communicating methods and strategies in both local communities and in a national outreach, The Abortion Handbook offered women detailed, thoughtful guidance for a safe, do-it-yourself abortion that was within reach, both technically and financially. Murillo considers past guidance in the context of contemporary need. Finally, Dr. Katherine Parkin will analyze the businesses and organizations that placed ads in college newspapers across the country, as well as the responses by students and administrators in those communities. The desire to stay in school alone was a tremendous motive for college-women to seek abortions. Indeed, women began to demand information and care as tuition-paying customers. Student editors Parkin interviewed recount being removed from their positions and in one instance being arrested for running abortion advertisements and information in their student papers. Parkin analyzes these for-profit companies alongside those organizations who sought to help, and considers the consequences in colleges across the country. Shining a lens on the ways this seemingly private action appeared in public forums, including court rooms, books available for sale, and daily newspapers, allows these scholars to think more deeply and broadly about how women secured abortions and did so with the knowing and watchful eyes of their community.

Papers Presented

The Abortion Handbook: Self-Managed Abortion in the Years Before Roe v. Wade

“Dear Walter, It’s been a loooong [sic], hard struggle and I’m wondering if it will ever, ever end with women taking a serious role in determining their own reproductive fate. Yours, Patricia Maginnis.” So reads a handwritten dedication in a copy of Lana Clarke Phelan and Patricia Maginnis’s The Abortion Handbook for Responsible Women published in 1969. Maginnis, Phelan, and Rowena Gurner established the Association to Repeal Abortion Laws (ARAL) and the Society for Humane Abortions (SHA) in the early 1960s, fighting to bring down laws restricting women’s access to abortion in California. They traveled around the state—and later across the country—lecturing against restrictive policies as well as teaching women how to self-manage abortions. While this latter aspect of their activism figured prominently in newspaper accounts at the time, historians have written little about the history of self-managed abortion care promoted by Phelan, Maginnis, and Gurner as well as other abortion activists at the time. This paper takes a deeper look at Phelan and Maginnis’ The Abortion Handbook, other published materials, and accounts of women self-administering abortion care in the years before Roe. As the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade this year, histories examining independent, radical, do-it-yourself methods will cease to be relics of the past. Instead, these histories instruct and guide our understandings of how women—low-income and historically marginalized women, in particular—managed to treat themselves and each other using clear instructions for self-managed abortion care.

Presented By
Lina-Maria Murillo, University of Iowa

Abortion Travel and Spatial Experience: Mapping Communal Expulsion and Concealment in Ireland and South Carolina, 1883-1973

Abortions were illegal in South Carolina from 1883 to 1973 and in Ireland from 1861 to 2018. In both areas, despite deep-seated religious, political, and public conservatism, many women sought abortions and were prosecuted in criminal courts. The documents from these trial proceedings reveal distinct differences in abortion experiences between the two locations: women in Ireland traveled greater distances and across more county and national borders in pursuit of abortions than their South Carolinian counterparts. Applying a well-established tradition of feminist historical scholarship linking agency and mobility would imply that Irish women held greater control and choice in their abortion experiences than women who had less mobility in South Carolina. However, when we placed these mapped distances in conversation with travel narratives and spatial analyses of abortion sites we found that mobility alone did not neatly indicate choice or control in abortion experiences. Travel patterns, instead, were distinct manifestations of expulsion and concealment: two communal responses to perceived sexual deviance. We found that in Ireland, communities often dictated that pregnant women needed physical separation from their homes to obtain abortions (expulsion), whereas women’s networks in South Carolina frequently encouraged pregnant women to stay hidden within domestic spaces and close to their homes (concealment). Therefore, this paper complicates the language of ‘choice’ by highlighting the significant role of community in abortion experience and accessibility, especially in the absence of legal avenues to abortion care. It also advocates for more comparative analyses of abortion, particularly within an Atlantic World context.

Presented By
Madeleine Savanna Ware, Yale UniversityCara Delay, College of Charleston

Abortion Advertising in College Papers

Many college students in the late 1960s and early 1970s relied on campus newspapers to secure information about abortions. This paper will explore both the strategies of those businesses and services that placed advertisements for abortion referral services following the legalization of abortion in New York in July 1970, as well as the response in colleges and universities across the country. Women in this period began advocating for greater responsiveness by college administrations to their gendered health needs. Demands for university-provided health care, including free access to gynecological services, birth control technologies, and abortion information rippled across the country. For some institutions, the student newspaper was the only place delivering abortion information. Predominantly male student editors and their readers debated whether their newspaper should carry such advertisements and if they could report on abortion referral information as a service. Moreover, companies that sought to advertise and editors running pieces with phone numbers sparked administrative responses, often predicated on the supposed illegality of running abortion ads or providing abortion information in their state. With consequences ranging from apologies to arrests, fines, and shut-down newspapers, this paper will explore the meaning behind these small, spare ads and their role in shaping abortion discourse in this period. While the passage of Roe v. Wade in January 1973 marks an endpoint for these kinds of ads, as legal abortions were expected to be available nationally, this brief window between abortion access and abortion rights illuminates the campus discourse around this contentious issue.

Presented By
Katherine J. Parkin, Monmouth University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Johanna Schoen, Rutgers University
Johanna Schoen is Professor of History at Rutgers University. Her major interests are the history of women and medicine, the history of reproductive rights, and the history of sexuality. Her first book, Choice and Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare, examines the role which birth control, sterilization, and abortion played in public health and welfare policies between the 1920s and the 1970s. Her second book, Abortion After Roe, which won the William H. Welch Medal for the best book in the history of medicine by the American Association for the History of Medicine, traces the history of abortion since legalization.

Presenter: Cara Delay, College of Charleston
Cara Delay is Professor of History at the College of Charleston. Her research analyzes women, gender, and culture in Ireland, the American South, and the Atlantic World, with a particular focus on the history of reproduction. Her award-winning body of scholarship includes three books and more than 30 peer-reviewed journal articles and chapters. Her new book (co-authored with Beth Sundstrom), Catching Fire: Women’s Health Activism in Ireland, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press, and another project, Menstruation: A Global History, is under contract with Polity Press.

Presenter: Lina-Maria Murillo, University of Iowa
Lina-Maria Murillo is Assistant Professor in the departments of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies, History, and Latina/o/x Studies at the University of Iowa. She is completing her first book titled Fighting for Control: Reproductive Care, Race, and Power in the U.S-Mexico Borderlands. In it she examines the century-long tensions between advocates for population control, namely proponents of Planned Parenthood, and Chicana activists committed to greater reproductive access for the majority Mexican-origin women in the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region. Her work is supported by several grants and fellowships, including from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS).

Her writing appears in the Washington Post, Rewire News, and Notches. Her article “Birth Control, Border Control: The Movement for Contraception in El Paso, Texas 1936–1940” with the Pacific Historical Review was published this summer. “Espanta Cigüeñas: Race and Abortion in the U.S-Mexico Borderlands,” is forthcoming in Signs: A Journal of Women and Culture in Society. Murillo is also co-director with Professor Natalie Fixmer-Oraiz of the Maternal Health and Reproductive Politics Obermann collaborative at UIowa.

Presenter: Katherine J. Parkin, Monmouth University
Katherine Parkin is Professor of History and the Jules Plangere Jr Endowed Chair in Social History at Monmouth University (New Jersey). She is the author of Food is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) and Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), each of which won the Emily Toth Award for best book in women’s studies and popular culture. She is also the author of more than a dozen articles. Her teaching and research interests include the history of women and gender, sexuality, and advertising and consumerism. She has been interviewed by magazine and newspaper reporters, as well as for radio programs, including the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR’s Bob Edwards on Sirius-XM, and WHYY’s Marty Moss-Coane in Philadelphia.

Presenter: Madeleine Savanna Ware, Yale University
Madeleine Ware is a Ph.D. student in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. Her research examines intersections of gender and sexuality, race, disability, and health science across 19th-century European empires. She has written and published on the understudied history of abortion in South Carolina and remains committed to issues of reproductive health and justice in her scholarship. Her most recent work traces the naissance and many afterlives of the 19th-century physical cultural movement in orthopedic and gynecological medicine as well as in popular representations and lived experiences of physical ‘fitness,’ reproductive health, body positivity, and social belonging.