Kate Simon’s memoir Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood, like Bad Girl, also describes working-class1920s 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 James. 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 deaths, 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 had already 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.”
Viña Delmar’s Bad Girl and Kate Simon’s Bronx Primitive, both set in lower-class communities of 1920s New York City, indicate that abortion was prevalent in this country a hundred years ago, and they were common earlier. Thomas J. Schlereth, in his book, Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915, cites data showing that abortions were inexpensive and common in the late nineteenth century, with ten dollars being the standard rate in Boston and New York. He reports that in 1898 the Michigan Board of Health estimated that one-third of pregnancies were artificially terminated.
Willful infant deaths may also have been frequent. We tend not to think about infanticide, but the concern in our colonial days over it was so great that special evidentiary and other rules were applied when a mother reported a stillbirth or that a baby died shortly after birth.
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 even into the twenty-first century some men 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 sexual ignorance led to abortions. But abortions and infanticides also occurred because of lack or knowledge of other forms of birth control so that the only meaningful “birth control” was abortion.
Perhaps illegal abortions decreased after the 1920s, but that is unknowable. I knew a couple women of my mother’s and my generation who had abortions before they were legal in this country. These were what most would see as ordinary women. Only because I was close to them did I find out about the illegal terminations of their pregnancies. I can assume that of the many older women I have known less well, some, maybe many, also had illegal abortions.
(concluded June 3)