In December 1969, a lady from Oak Park, Illinois, a city west of Chicago, handwrote a letter to Reverend Spencer Parsons about her abroad abortion. “My journey to London was certainly a nice one,” she acknowledged. “Dr. Sopher is a wonderful physician who took a private curiosity in me as a affected person. He put me relaxed instantly. And so long as I used to be in London I took a couple of days to tour that beautiful metropolis.”

Parsons (pictured above) was an American Baptist minister and the Dean of the Rockefeller Chapel on the College of Chicago. He additionally led the Chicago department of the Clergy Session Service (CCS), an interfaith group devoted to serving to girls receive elective – and sometimes unlawful – abortions earlier than Roe v Wade, the landmark United States Supreme Court docket resolution in 1973 which recognised a federal constitutional proper to decide on abortion.

This letter to Parsons, like so many different letters written from abortion-seekers to spiritual leaders of that period, highlights two features of terminating a being pregnant earlier than Roe v Wade: first, abortion-seekers needed to journey to get healthcare as a result of there was a shortage of expert physicians in the USA prepared to threat their careers by breaking the legislation and providing elective abortions. Second, spiritual forces powerfully formed abortion journey networks.

The Nineteen Fifties and Nineteen Sixties noticed mainline Protestant and Jewish leaders turn out to be more and more alarmed by the public-health disaster attributable to stringent abortion restrictions. In January 1961, The Christian Century journal editorialised in opposition to the “archaic state and church legal guidelines” that “drive practically one million American moms every year to abortion mills the place roughly 5,000 of them die by the hands of bungling quacks and filthy midwives.”

Newspapers often shared disturbing statistics about a whole lot of 1000’s of unlawful abortions happening yearly. Experiences additionally signalled the horrendous human prices of criminalising abortion in the USA: hospital wards full of septic girls; unnecessary deaths from botched unlawful procedures; and people bodily or emotionally traumatised from clandestine abortions or sleazy suppliers.

For a lot of clergy, these tales about abortion-seekers weren’t summary tales about different individuals’s moms, sisters, or daughters. They mirrored what they have been listening to first-hand from members of their communities, their congregations, their shut pals, or typically even their very own spouses or relations.

American clergy who tried to assist girls safe abortions have been additionally keenly conscious of the institutional roadblocks at hospitals. In accordance with state legal guidelines, docs may solely carry out authorized abortions in instances the place the well being of the mom was jeopardised. Whether or not “well being” was narrowly interpreted to imply a lady’s life, or expansively utilized to incorporate her bodily or psychological well being, depended upon the whims of the committees of docs who adjudicated every abortion request. For probably the most half, these abortion committees acted as deterrents – directly denying medical care to most abortion-seekers whereas additionally stymying extra sympathetic docs who would possibly bend the legislation. Briefly, strict anti-abortion legal guidelines and stringent hospital rules prevented most abortion-seekers from in search of authorized medical companies.

By the mid-Nineteen Sixties, an increasing number of Protestant and Jewish clergy believed that ladies had a proper to entry secure abortions for any cause. They considered abortion rights as integral to girls’s quest for social equality and private freedom. James Pike, an Episcopal bishop in California, put it this manner in January 1966: “The choice should within the closing evaluation be with the girl involved. Nobody else could make it for her or take it from her, if she is to be a genuinely free ethical agent.”

The Episcopal bishop James Pike

The Episcopal bishop James Pike, pictured in 1967. (Photograph by Bettmann through Getty Pictures)

Clergy like Pike put their religion into motion: they organised into teams that acted as guides to assist tens of 1000’s of abortion-seekers safely transfer inside and throughout nationwide borders to acquire dependable reproductive well being care. Most did so via the Clergy Session Service on Abortion, an interfaith group spanning three-dozen-or-so US states and numbering roughly 2,000 liberal Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, dissenting Catholic nuns and clergymen, and laity from a spectrum of denominations. In the course of the heyday of its existence from 1967 till 1973, the CCS helped abortion-seekers to navigate a supplier community that spanned North America, England, and Japan.

“The abortion capital of the world”

When Britain legalised abortion in 1967 and made the service accessible to non-residents in April 1968, London grew to become a global abortion vacation spot.

Britain’s two-tiered healthcare system, which supplied public healthcare to residents and personal healthcare to each residents and non-citizens alike, enabled foreigners to entry British medical assets. The brand new laws allowed for terminations of pregnancies earlier than the twenty fourth week for an array of causes, together with defending the “bodily or psychological well being of the pregnant lady or any current kids of her household”. The legislation had minimal notification necessities; docs weren’t required to tell the spouses of married girls or the dad and mom of minors about abortion requests earlier than the 18th week of being pregnant. Girls, in different phrases, for probably the most half may privately receive abortions with minimal ‘purple tape’.

Inside days of the brand new legislation’s enactment, girls from North America started travelling to London for personal healthcare. The devaluation of the British pound made the prices of staying in England moderately low cost for North American abortion-seekers. On the similar time, the legality of abortion, the professionalism of suppliers, and the shortage of residency requirement, made “crossing the Atlantic a greater proposition for American girls”⁠ than the pricey, clandestine, and steadily harmful unlawful abortion market in the USA, wrote Garry Lloyd in The Instances (London) on 30 December 1968.

People joined abortion-seekers from Europe and British girls from areas of the UK that had restricted abortion companies. And as dozens of personal medical services opened up in London to serve home and worldwide clientele, non-profit and for-profit abortion companies alike organised medical appointments, journey, and lodging for worldwide abortion seekers. Quickly, the AP information service described London as “the abortion capital of the world” and dubbed the act of in search of an abortion there as “The London Answer”⁠.

Piccadilly Circus, London, c1968

Site visitors circulating round Piccadilly Circus c1968. The AP information service described London as “the abortion capital of the world”. (Photograph by Barnard/Fox Images/Getty Pictures)

Non-profit abortion companies just like the CCS would pre-research the logistics so that ladies may simply make their very own preparations for flights, inns, and medical companies. They’d safe reductions for impoverished abortion-seekers and typically get medical charges waived altogether. Then again, for-profit abortion companies functioned like a journey company and charged a referral/service charge, which ranged from modest to exorbitant.

Protestant and Jewish spiritual leaders in the USA, who had been steering girls to secure abortion suppliers for years, shortly tapped into the increasing trans-Atlantic abortion community. The Clergy Session Service, for instance, rigorously vetted British abortion suppliers for high quality of medical care and general hospitality. After experiencing difficulties with different suppliers, they directed a whole lot of their shoppers to Dr David Sopher, a Bombay-born doctor who had earned sufferers’ regard for his attentive bedside method and his gradual and cautious strategies.⁠

Sopher started offering abortions, not for cash, which he later described as a fringe profit, however in response to sufferers’ wants. “If one thing wanted to be performed and may very well be performed safely and legally, then I’d do it,” he acknowledged about abortion. Whereas some British physicians overtly bragged about charging excessive charges to worldwide travellers, Sopher maintained a set price: $385 as much as the thirteenth week of being pregnant; $425 as much as the sixteenth week; $525 as much as the nineteenth week; and $725 as much as the twenty fourth week. For sufferers who couldn’t afford to pay, he would supply his companies without spending a dime.

Quickly, girls counselled by clergy from throughout the USA started flying to London to get abortions on the Girl Margaret Nursing Dwelling, an outdated English mansion the place Dr Sopher labored. However getting abortion-seekers from the USA to London – particularly those that have been inexperienced travellers – was not simple. In an period when info was all analogue, abortion journey was logistically demanding. Consequently, a necessary facet of the CCS’s pastoral care was serving to travellers navigate potential pitfalls.

To that finish, the CCS and different clergy taught girls methods to get a passport and a journey visa, the place to buy airline tickets, the place to choose up baggage upon arrival, which flights to take, the place to trade cash (and at what price), and the place to remain in a single day. Additionally they suggested girls on what to say to, and methods to pay, the physician; what to anticipate throughout the process; and methods to take care of themselves earlier than, throughout and after their abortions. The following pointers oriented inexperienced travellers to English tradition, de-stigmatised and defined medical procedures, and lessened their shoppers’ stress and fears.

However – maybe most significantly – this steering saved girls valuable time at a second when buying fundamental details about getting an abortion and travelling to get one may take weeks and even months to establish. With this medical process, time was of the essence – so sensible recommendation was a game-changer.

The CCS’s recommendation to abortion-seekers typically emulated the fashion of American journey guidebooks, providing tricks to make the journey comfy whereas conveying American assumptions about meals and hospitality. The CCS’s multipage guides to London, for instance, repeatedly griped about British meals at the same time as they urged sure eating places to travellers. The Lansing Michigan CCS model of this guide bluntly defined, “Salads and low are to be averted in England as they’re normally poor” and described Wimpy Bars as “an English model of the Massive Boy, however worse.”⁠ The identical information additionally bitterly complained about British heating practices and suggested packing further sweaters. These culinary and clothes ideas, nevertheless, have been hardly an important recommendation clergy supplied abortion-seekers – the actual hazard was the tough males they could encounter whereas travelling.

Clergy fearful about male border officers humiliating girls with probing or insensitive questions. To that finish, clergy provided ready-made solutions to appease “a blunt or insensitive official”⁠ within the UK who would possibly crudely enquire about their undesirable pregnancies and motivations for abortions. They suggested travellers to easily inform customs officers that they have been travelling to England “‘for emergency’ (private causes/household gathering), ‘restricted’ trip time overseas, research go away, or every other response which adequately signifies the necessity for haste.”

Hear: Mary Fissell talks about girls’s reproductive well being in early fashionable Europe and America on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. She discusses how girls handled their durations, theories about fertility, concepts concerning the feminine physique and the childbirth course of

However border officers have been solely the primary impediment. CCS clergy emphasised that ladies needed to be particularly cautious round London’s taxis drivers. Quite a few girls had reported encounters with cabbies who obtained commissions for diverting sufferers to rival abortion suppliers. Dr David Sopher wrote to American clergy and warned of how taxi drivers operated. One cab driver, he acknowledged, instructed a affected person that Sopher’s clinic had been burnt down. In one other occasion, when Sopher’s workers confronted a taxi driver who was trying to redirect a affected person, the cabbie reportedly instructed them that cash motivated his dishonesty: “We too need to make a dwelling and we get no pleasure from you,”⁠ he reportedly exclaimed.

Dr Sopher’s warning prompted the Los Angeles CCS to alert abortion-travellers about “Taxicab banditry”⁠ and for the New York Metropolis CCS to “warn girls within the counseling session in opposition to believing any cab driver who claimed that Dr. Sopher was on trip, arrested, or useless.”⁠ The large takeaway, clergy defined to travellers, was: “Don’t discuss to taxi drivers concerning the function of your journey.⁠” The British press additionally reported this malfeasance, prompting the Secretary for Social Companies to pursue the matter throughout an a 1969 inquiry into the “mass immigration” of abortion-seekers from world wide.

Most abortion-seekers have been capable of simply surmount these obstacles due to clergy steering. On a sensible degree, girls guided by clergy to Dr Sopher and different suppliers got here ready for what awaited them. “I need to say,” Dr Sopher recalled, “that those who got here to me from the Clergy Session Service, they have been all very assured, by no means had the slightest doubt about what was going to go on, they have been briefed … knew the background, knew the security elements and so forth. They have been a lot simpler to take care of than anyone who simply got here off the road, so to talk.”

Girls’s reproductive well being via historical past

One discerning traveller described the medical remedy there as wonderful. However, she commented, the Girl Margaret was “furnished with what I’d name Good Will rejects”. For this grateful affected person, the furnishings was the best of her complaints. She, like so many others who had been suggested by clergy, walked into Dr Sopher’s workplace with out incident to obtain world-class medical remedy.

By clergy counselling, abortion-seekers arrived in London buoyed by expectations of competent and compassionate medical remedy. This, at a second when girls have been being denied abortions for undesirable pregnancies at dwelling. As such, discovering skilled and compassionate care overseas left an impression. “I’d have by no means been capable of perceive why a younger, wholesome, married lady, with two kids wouldn’t wish to carry and have a 3rd youngster as soon as the being pregnant occurred; particularly if there’s love and understanding in such a house,” wrote one lady to a priest. “However it occurred to me.” Like so many others, this lady needed to journey at nice price and over a number of days to endure a surgical procedure that always took lower than quarter-hour to carry out.

'Women's right to choose' demonstration in New York City, c1972

‘Girls’s proper to decide on’ demonstration in New York Metropolis, c1972. (Photograph By H Armstrong Roberts/Classicstock/Getty Pictures)

As these girls returned to their properties from London and the various different far-flung locations they travelled to in want of reproductive healthcare, many started to ask a significant query: why was it so tough and so shameful to acquire an abortion at dwelling when it was so comparatively simple to take action overseas?

Gillian Frank is a historian of abortion and has written extensively on life earlier than Roe v Wade. He specialises within the overlapping histories of sexuality, gender, race, and faith. This tutorial yr he will likely be an affiliate fellow at Princeton College’s Heart for Tradition, Society and Faith. Beforehand, Gillian was an ACLS College Fellow at Stony Brook College, a visiting fellow at Princeton College’s Heart for the Examine of Faith, and a postdoctoral analysis fellow on the College of Virginia.

He additionally hosts a podcast, Sexing History, which explores how the historical past of sexuality has formed our current. To seek out out extra, go to www.gillianfrank.com


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