[“Gun Confusion,” Parts I and II of which were posted on Oct. 4 and Oct. 6, will resume on Oct. 13. “Gun Confusion” is being interrupted for a reprise of this essay which once again is especially timely.]
Bad Girl by Viña Delmar was a bestseller in 1928. My copy is from its fifteenth printing that year. (Sales were probably not hurt when the novel was banned in Boston.) In the novel, Dot is a working-class, New York City woman who does the unthinkable and has premarital sex. She gets pregnant and marries her lover. She fears childbirth, about which she knows little, and the book has a frank discussion of her attempts to terminate the pregnancy.
Even though it is against the law, she gets a concoction from a pharmacist. Although she takes it “religiously,” it fails to work. Dot then turns to a more upper-class friend, Maude, who urges Dot not to have the baby and tells her that only an operation, not any medicine, will work. Dot asks whether the operation hurts, and Maude says it does “the first time, because most girls are crazy enough to try it without ether.” With the anesthetic, however, “you don’t feel a damn thing.” The friend gives Dot an address and tells her not to pay more than fifty dollars, an enormous sum to Dot. Maude states that the hospitals are open to the woman giving birth, but not to the one who doesn’t want a baby. “High prices, fresh doctors. It’s a man’s world, Dot. To the woman who knows her place they will give their charity, but the woman who wants to keep her body from pain and her mind from worry is an object of contempt.” Dot, not having fifty dollars, goes for a preliminary visit to the doctor, who determines she is pregnant, molests her, charges her five dollars, settles for the only two dollars she has, and tells her to make an appointment soon because she is in the second month.
Dot and her husband Eddie cannot talk freely with each other about what they are feeling. Eddie thinks that a pregnancy termination would be murder, but he also thinks a man “would have a hell of a nerve” to tell a woman to have a baby. “What right had a man to say what she should do?”
Dot talks with other friends. Edna says a woman has the baby whether she wants it or not. “Abortion” is never uttered. Instead, in different from the way we use the term now, it is referred to as “birth control.” Thus, Dot “was not anxious to debate the pro and con of birth control” with Edna, and Edna to herself was trying to figure out, “Who was the birth-control advocate, Eddie or Dot?”
Edna urges Eddie to oppose the abortion, but he replies, “It’s her business.” Edna then indicates that “nine-tenths” of young married women are ignorant about both childbirth and abortion. She states that there are only a half-dozen New York City doctors who do abortions without serious complications such as blood poisoning. For a birth, Edna maintains, a woman can find a good doctor, but “the other way you’ve got a guy who couldn’t make a living the way other doctors do. . . , and in case you have religion, you’ve sinned against it.”
Finally, Dot decides. “After all, it was her body that was to be the battle-field. She had been wrong. It was her place to do what she pleased, not to stand by and wait for Eddie to pass judgment.” The thought of the horrid abortionist was repulsive, and she feels happy and peaceful as she announces that she will have the baby.
Kate Simon’s memoir Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood, like Bad Girl, also describes working-class, 1920s New York, although Simon is narrating from the viewpoint of a young girl. She and her family were then living in a Bronx neighborhood largely inhabited by immigrant Jews and Italians, and she was struggling to understand the world she was encountering, including the visits of Dr. James. He was seldom seen by the kids because he came when school was in session. No explanation was given for the appearance of this tall, fair “American” in a neighborhood of short, dark “foreigners.” However, Simon noticed, the mothers he visited, who were fine in the morning, were in bed when school let out.
Years later Simon’s medical relatives told her that Dr. James had had a prestigious and lucrative medical practice and came from the prosperous New England family that produced the writers and intellectuals William and Henry. After his children were raised, Dr. James dedicated himself to poor immigrant women who had “no sex information, no birth-control clinics, nothing but knitting needles, hat pins, lengths of wire, the drinking of noxious mixtures while they sat in scalding baths to prevent the birth of yet another child. Some of these women died of infections, and often when these procedures did not work, the women went to term and then let the infant die of exposure or suffocation.“
To prevent such suicides and murders, Dr. James went from one immigrant neighborhood to another, performing abortions. Often charging nothing but never more than a dollar or two, James performed thousands of the procedures. All the adults knew what he did, and according to Simon, so did the police and the Board of Health who generally let him be. Periodically, however, when there was some change in officialdom, he was arrested. He wouldn’t post bail but contacted colleagues. Doctors then thronged the courthouse where “they pleaded, they argued, they shouted, they accused the police and the court of ignorance and inhumanity,” and each time Dr. James was released.
James was a skillful and careful practitioner and would not perform an abortion if it would be too dangerous. Simon had a much younger sister, and when Kate was an adult, her mother told Simon that the sister was unwanted. James, however, would not perform an abortion because Simon’s mother already had had too many and another would be hazardous. Shortly before she died, Simon’s mother told Kate that she had had thirteen abortions (as well as three children) and that other women in the neighborhood had had even more. Why do you think, the mother continued, that the Italian women urged to have large families by the Catholic Church had only two or three kids? “Certainly it wasn’t the abstinence of Italian husbands, no more controlled than Jewish husbands. It was the work of the blessed hands of that wonderful old goy.”
Bad Girl and Bronx Primitive indicate that abortion was prevalent in this country a hundred years ago, as were willful infant deaths. (We tend not to think about infanticide, but the concern in our colonial days over it were so great the special evidentiary and other rules were applied when a mother reported a stillbirth or that a baby died shortly after being born.) One of the reasons for the number of abortions was ignorance about sex. In Bad Girls, Dot’s husband has no idea why she is making monthly marks on their calendar. In our colonial history, and beyond, men, at least, believed that a woman could only get pregnant if she had an orgasm and that a woman could only have an orgasm if the intercourse were consensual. Thus, a raped woman could not get pregnant. Surely this ignorance led to abortions. But abortions and infanticides also occurred because of lack or knowledge of birth control in our modern sense of that term so that the only meaningful “birth control” available then was abortion.