Historians' Watch

Abortion Before Roe

In December of 1968, a woman who was 11 weeks pregnant traveled to Japan for an abortion where the procedure had been legal since 1948. While it was illegal to travel to Japan to terminate a pregnancy, many women did, from the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and elsewhere—so many, in fact, that Japan developed a reputation as an international “abortion paradise.”

She recounted her tale on hotel stationary in handwriting so beautiful and faultless it reminded me of the handwriting sample my teacher gave me as I learned, aged seven, to join up my script. At the top of each page is a picture of the “Hotel New Japan,” where she stayed—a 10-story concrete delight, built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games which sought, after the horrors of World War II, to rebuild the image of Japan as a future-focused nation through modernist design, all concrete and steel, as well as feats of athleticism. This design imperative meant that swimmers in the 1964 games competed under breath-taking dips and drapes of concrete at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium. It also provided the backdrop to this woman’s story, too, when, four years later, she would sit in a concrete hotel on a shiny pink and pea green floral bedspread and write in detail about her illegal abortion.

I’d been spending time with this woman, and hundreds of others, who had abortions outside the US before Roe, when my friend messaged, “Seen the leak?”

These stories are held in the archive of the Association to Repeal Abortion Laws (ARAL) in the light-filled Schlesinger Library at the University of Harvard. ARAL was established in the 1960s by Patricia Maginnis, a medical lab technician and the organisation was based in San Francisco. Beginning in 1966, ARAL assisted women to get abortions outside the United States. Mostly women traveled to Mexico (the historian Leslie J. Reagan has written about these trips). But they also traveled to Puerto Rico and Japan. ARAL kept what they called “The List” of safe doctors, which they posted to those in need in exchange for $5. To maintain The List, ARAL asked women to send details of their experience, and stressed this was crucial for other’s safety: “Your report will help the next woman who wants abortion care.” And here are their stories, beginning in 1966 and petering out after abortion was decriminalised in New York in 1970. Often, they are long and extensive. They’re written in marker pen, biro, on typewriters or in handwriting, messy and neat. One woman’s evaluation was ripped up and pasted back together; she wanted to destroy the evidence in case border guards searched her car when she crossed back into the US from Mexico.

The ARAL archive is packed with requests for The List. One woman wrote, in a typical message, “This letter is very hard for me to write because I don’t know you and you don’t know me. I’m unmarried…and unemployed. I’m three months pregnant, and sick about the whole thing. For many reasons which I won’t bore you with I can’t have a baby. I’m desperate.” Another wrote, “We have 3 lovely children, that my husband can support as a worker, but any more we just cannot support,” and another, “I’m 2 months pregnant and very scared. Could you please send me (as fast as you can) a list of reputable doctors.”

Sometimes husbands, fathers and boyfriends wrote in on behalf of women who were “in trouble.” One man began his request, “I cannot, for obvious reasons get my secretary to type this out…” I read a letter a father sent on behalf of his daughter and think of my own dad: “Please send information that would help alleviate her anxiety and allow her to reach her goal in life which will contribute to society.” I read another from a boyfriend which got plainly to the heart: “If my girlfriend is forced to she will use any means to bring about the abortion.” Often the letters, no matter who wrote them, began “Dear sir.” Anyone in charge of The List had to be a man, who were presumed to do everything important at the time. Please sir, send the list quickly, these letters implore.

Aside from the feeling that time is running out, there is another sense of time here, too. Women who requested The List had a picture of who they wanted to be in the future—one that would be shattered by an unwanted pregnancy. This is an archive of modest dreams; I read accounts of those who would have liked to finish graduate school, or complete nursing training, of those who couldn’t stretch the budget to another baby, or who simply couldn’t imagine themselves with a child. They wanted to end their pregnancies to protect who they imagined they would be. All they wanted was a chance to be her.

Sometimes the pages are more holes than paper. The pages have been photocopied, and the names of those who sought abortion and those who provided it have been cut out or obscured with black marker. Each doctor has been given a number allowing for differentiation. This Swiss-cheese archive demands gentle handling, and I can’t go as fast as usual. My slowness means that I read more and encounter more strong, resilient, determined, and lonely women. Archives like this are sometimes locked away for years; the person who devised this smart system made it possible to read these stories while maintaining the dignity of all involved, many of whom are still alive.

These hundreds of evaluations make clear that those who sought abortion were utterly at the mercy of those who provided them. Abortions took place in hospitals, in clinics, and in private homes. One woman arrived at a house for an abortion to find children playing in the living room. Another, who traveled to Mexico, was picked up and driven to an “abortion house,” which was packed with others waiting for their terminations. As this woman and the driver walked up the stone steps to the house, the driver noticed the landlord—who had no idea his rental property was being used an illegal abortion clinic—had dropped by. The driver hissed that this woman should pretend she was at a party and “act happy,” which she did. She pretended she knew the hodgepodge assortment of “party guests,” some of whom wore smart suits as others were barefoot. She asked them “How was your plane trip?” “How is your brother? It has been so long since I last saw him.” This superb play acting convinced the landlord, who left after what must have been an excruciating twenty minutes.

Occasionally, the accounts veered into racism—”I expected a Mexican butcher with a knife in one hand and a taco in the other.” (This particular woman received good care, she also recounted.) Much of the time, abortions went well, and the accounts described doctors as refined, charming, compassionate, and caring, and nurses as darling, skilful, and kind. But there were a minority of reports of botched jobs—infections, carelessness, unsanitary conditions, unsterilised instruments. Some discussed doctors that swore at them or were scared themselves, reluctant to talk or to answer any questions at all. One woman advised others that if they saw a particular doctor in Japan, “Women should not express distrust in [the doctor’s] ability by asking questions. This makes him very angry.” Many commented on the huge amounts of money doctors were making from people in need: “Another gal was brought in for an abortion before I was even off the table…they are running a mill operation for American women. Speed and money seem to be their only concern.” A woman wrote of a doctor in Japan, “He is quite the entrepreneur.” This doctor charged people whatever he liked—after all, they had already paid for a plane ticket. One woman called a doctor from The List: “I told him I was 11 weeks and he said no too far, but I pleaded saying this was my last chance.” He reluctantly agreed, and jacked up his price to $350. Some, like the woman at the Hotel New Japan, tried to bargain and were successful. One woman reported that she “Looked sad and poor (which I am),” and the doctor gave her $10 back so she could have something to eat while in Mexico. Others paid up to $800, about $6,900 in today’s money.

The List offered advice on negotiating border control, too: “It is a not legal to go to Japan for an abortion. If anyone knows of your purpose to Japan, your visa can be denied.” A woman whose luggage was deemed suspicious was stopped on the border traveling into Mexico and overheard one border guard remarking to another, “A lot of those American women are coming over here for abortions.” By 1968, ARAL stopped recommending doctors in Tijuana because the police presence was too great, and a doctor had been arrested mid-abortion. Leslie J. Reagan, discusses these trips to Mexico for abortion organised by ARAL. Reagan writes that women took the advice of The List and bought trinkets to show the border guards, evidence that they had nothing but a lovely holiday. One bought a large papier-mâché flower and struggled to get it on the plane. This woman recounted her story in such a funny way that I laugh and am relieved.

Whether those needing abortions traveled to Mexico, Japan, or Puerto Rico, they were told not to phone for an appointment from within the US; doctors were easily spooked and phones might be tapped. Many called from the airport or from the cheap hotels where they stayed. I imagine women calling from the plastic phone booths in the Tokyo or El Paso airports. I think of them unfolding The List from purses or pockets, terrified, alone, and making phone calls, sometimes many, as the woman at the Hotel New Japan did. Once they got through, they would be told to wait for a beige station wagon, or at the ticket counter in Tokyo airport for someone to find them, or to meet a man with a ruby ring at a particular café.

Drawing these lines on the map—between Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the US—shows us how networks of illegal abortion were enmeshed with global racial hierarchies and wealth inequalities. Leslie J. Reagan suggests that while much of the history of the US-Mexico border has focussed on the flow of Mexican workers to the US, we might do well to consider traffic going the other way. US citizens have long traveled into Mexico for abortion, or for more mundane procedures like car repairs and to get their hair done: “Like haircuts, illegal abortions cost less in Mexico than in the United States,” Reagan writes. Though ARAL knew fewer doctors in Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States, people also traveled there for abortions and the island had long been a site of American racist anxieties which saw Puerto Rican women as ‘hyper-fertile.’ This, combined with a Cold War fear that significant population growth would heighten the appeal of communism resulted in repressive birth control policies. As Yamila Azize-Vargas and Luis A. Avilés argue, abortion was made legal in Puerto Rico 1937 as a part of measures to roll out sterilisation campaigns and facilitate the trial of the contraceptive pill. While, by the time ARAL began its work in 1966, abortion had been criminalised in Puerto Rico, there was a longer history of women traveling to Puerto Rico from the US to get abortions. This was a common enough procedure that it was granted a nickname: the “San Juan Weekend.”

In Japan, abortion was decriminalised after World War II—not out of a feminist sensibility, but because the economy was in tatters and there was fear that it would not recover in the face of a baby boom. Tellingly, the bill that decriminalised abortion also included a clause enabling sterilisation, both consensual and forced and was also a bid to improve the “racial quality” of the nation. This Bill was passed to address concerns that the Japanese race was becoming ‘degenerate’ as those deemed undesirable in the eyes of the state, that is, the poor and people with disabilities and mental illnesses, were thought to be having too many children. This is an archive of agency, but it also reveals how US women’s ability to have abortions outside United States borders was based on curtailments of reproductive freedoms, elsewhere.

And, of course, some people couldn’t travel, just as some can’t travel today. Now that Roe has fallen, people in Louisiana will have to drive 600 miles to Illinois to terminate their pregnancies. Legal abortion is inaccessible to poorer people and others who cannot leave their home (and the majority of Louisianans live below the poverty line). Residents of Texas, where abortion is restricted with no exceptions—not for rape, nor for incest—already have to travel out of state, so for them and many others who live in Southern states, Roe had fallen long before this Supreme Court judgement. Collectives and nonprofit organisations have emerged to help people meet those costs of abortion, of travel, of hotel stays and of childcare and expenses. These organisations operate across the US, from Fund Texas Choice to Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund, Apiary, the Brigid Alliance. There are also local abortion funds in almost every state.

In this situation, I know who I’d call—who would come with me, who would give me the money and not let me pay them back, who would squeeze my hand in her own and help me make sense of it all. This feminist way of relating is so deep inside me that I cannot imagine my life or myself without it. So, while Roe falling draws us closer, there are worlds between me and those whose stories I’m reading—I have more support than they did.

But, in the end, this is also an archive of sheer, utter relief.

Women wrote after their abortions: “I surely am grateful that you are doing such wonderful work to help women like myself.” “I’m really enjoying Tokyo with the help of a book called Japan on $5 a day.” “I am so happy now I feel I have a reason for living again.”

This is an archive of a plain truth. It contours and colours what the World Health Organisation states as a fact: Abortion rates do not go down when abortion is illegal, but abortion becomes more difficult and dangerous. These stories tell me, despite the danger, the long distances, the terror and yes, the risk to our lives: We have always had abortions. We always will.

Ted Eytan, protests at the US Supreme Court the day Roe vs Wade was overturned [wikicommons]
This article was first published by Literary Hub.

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