The Bad Old Days: Two Doctors Describe the ‘Illegal’ Years

by Kirsten Ervin

illustration of doctor entering room with woman on examination table
[illustration: Rick Bach for In Pittsburgh, 1992]

I was lucky to be fertile during the time of Roe v. Wade, to have the protection of a law that ensured that I had the right to control my own body. Roe v. Wade meant I could decide if and when I wanted to be a parent, or if I wanted to be a parent at all. If the Supreme Court overturns this ruling, it will have existed for just under 50 years; I am currently 54 years old. The thought that people younger than me—women and non-binary folks—will not have this same right, the same control of their bodies is chilling. As Senator Patty Murray stated this week, if Roe v. Wade is overturned “this will be the first generation of women with fewer rights than their mothers.”

Thirty years ago, when I was just 24, I interviewed two doctors who regularly witnessed what illegal abortions did to women for In Pittsburgh. They regularly saw hospital wards full of people sick with sepsis, bleeding profusely, often with permanently damaged reproductive systems—all due to illegal abortion. Over 5,000 women died this way every year. Both doctors fought to create access to reproductive freedom, and ensure women maintained control over their bodies and lives. May we be inspired by their fight, by their resolve and commitment to freedom of choice in our current struggle. Please vote on Tuesday’s Primary Election and know how your candidates stand on the issue of choice. Our lives depend on it.

Kirsten Ervin, 2022


The Bad Old Days: Two Doctors Describe the ‘Illegal’ Years

Originally published by In Pittsburgh Newsweekly, 1992

Like Mary Litman [see last week’s story The Bad Old Days: One Woman Remembers How It Was] thousands of women were hospitalized due to botched illegal abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade. According to the 1970 Kinsey Report, one out of five pregnancies ended in abortion at that time, with the resulting deaths of about 5,000 women each year. Pittsburgh obstetrician/gynecologist Dr. Robert Kisner, who was an intern at Magee Women’s Hospital from 1969 to 1973, recalls the many women who came to Magee after illegal abortions: “The typical ones I saw and remember were people who were really sick. They had a temperature of 104, 105; they looked like the devil and were really septic. If they had done this in an era where we didn’t have powerful antibiotics, a lot of these women would have died.”

Dr. Tom Allen, now the medical director of Women’s Health Services, was a resident intern at Magee from 1944 to 1945. He remembers that usually about half of the 12 or so beds in the Septic Ward were occupied by victims of illegal abortions. Since World War II was on, “all the penicillin, which was the only antibiotic we really had at that time, was reserved for the military,” Allen says. Quite a few women died, and “if they did get better, they were probably gynecological cripples.”

Kisner says patients often developed sepsis, a poisoning caused by absorption of bacteria into the blood; or peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdominal lining. Both were brought about by the unsterile instruments and harsh chemicals of back-alley abortionists. If aggravated, these infections could result in sterility or the later need for a hysterectomy.

Yet “these women almost always waited until they were sick to come in, because they didn’t want to share with us and they knew we would probably be able to figure out what happened,” Kisner says. “It was so painful to me to ask these poor women, ‘Who did this to you?”, or ‘What did they do to you?’ … You could see the shame on their faces.” Many had remained silent because they feared prosecution: “It was almost as if they were educated by the person who performed this to ‘deny everything, because you don’t know me’,” says Kisner.

A number of factors united to change conditions in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Standards set forth by the Obstetrican-Gynecologist Hospital Services in 1969 broadened the scope of medically necessary, or therapeutic, abortions permitted in hospitals. Around this time Magee established the Therapeutic Abortion and Sterilization Committee, which acted on patients’ requests for abortions and/or tubal ligations.

Allen concedes that the meaning of therapeutic abortion was stretched a little bit. Therapeutic abortions in the ’40s and ’50s were for very severe heart or kidney disease that complicated continuation of the pregnancy because of the extra stress on the organs. But there was a conscious movement on the part of [Magee’s] staff to challenge the abortion law. The chairman required that two psychiatrists say, “The continuation of this woman’s pregnancy will endanger her life.” They got it down so they could say, “damage her mental health.”

Also, two direct court challenges were made to Pennsylvania’s restrictive 1939 abortion law. In 1970, motorcycle mechanic Barry Graham Page—a convicted abortionist from Centre County—attacked the law as being too broad and ambiguous, and won. For a time, Centre County was the only place in Pennsylvania where abortion was permissible.

That same year, Allegheny County District Attorney Robert Duggan subpoenaed the hospital records at Magee for all of 1970. He had filed a criminal complaint charging three Magee physicians with conspiracy to commit illegal abortion. Outraged, three therapeutic abortion patients at Magee filed an equity class action for an injuction against the release of such records, claiming this would violate their privacy. Common Pleas Court Judge Anne Alpern granted the injunction, concurring that the state’s 1939 law was ambiguous and therefore unconstitutional. 

Now technically without any abortion law, Allegheny County officials allowed a more permissive atmosphere. As Allen remembers, “We could interpret it so that we could go ahead with an abortion until we were challenged … It was our hope that we could change the legislation. and get a law similar to New York but that didn’t happen.”

What did happen was that Allen, along with the late Leah Sayles, co founded Women’s Health Services in the fall of 1972 as Pittsburgh’s first free-standing, nonprofit clinic providing abortion services. The U.S. Supreme Court made its landmark Roe v. Wade decision in January 1973, three months before WHS actually opened its doors. But Allen says, “We didn’t really care. We were going to open [WHS] anyway.” 

As the Supreme Court prepares to rule on Pennsylvania’s new Abortion Control Act this July, Allen says “Women should never relinquish a right that is theirs,” and warns that protecting choice “is going to take some hard work politically. The only way is … to elect a pro-choice Congress and a President who will not veto choice legislation.” Kisner agrees on the need for activism, adding that “if [choice] ever came down to a single vote, men should not even participate in the vote. We don’t get pregnant.”

The Bad Old Days: One Woman Remembers How It Was

by Kirsten Ervin

illustration of doctor entering room with woman on examination table
[illustration: Rick Bach for In Pittsburgh, 1992]

Thirty years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Mary Litman, a woman who had experienced the physical danger and emotional trauma of an illegal abortion in the 1950s. What could have been a safe medical procedure for Mary instead became a months-long nightmare of shame, secrets, and life-threatening internal bleeding—all with far-reaching consequences. 

When I interviewed Mary for the now-defunct In Pittsburgh Newsweekly, I was fresh out of college. While her story greatly impacted me, I don’t know that I ever truly considered that we as a country would ever go back to such a dark place, where anyone with a uterus is denied the basic choices about their own body. As Mary states in the interview, “When you have control over your body, you have control over your life.”

Now, with Roe v. Wade threatened at its very core by a looming Supreme Court decision, Mary’s story takes on heightened significance. The raw truth of this single story gives us a glimpse into a world without access to safe, legal abortions. When reading Mary’s story again, I am struck by the sense that her world is closing in on her; she is ready to face death, jail, or a lack of any viable future. With Roe v. Wade struck down, abortions won’t go away—they will go underground. Anyone facing an unplanned pregnancy will have their own life choices severely constricted. Without control over our bodies, we lose access to social, vocational, and financial freedom. 

Please excuse the fact that the language in this 30-year-old interview is not as gender inclusive as it could be. I know the loss of Roe v. Wade would affect not just women, but also many non-binary folks as well. 

My hope is that those who read Mary’s story, as well as countless others, will be moved—beyond sharing and posting on the Internet—to action, to the streets, and to the ballot box. In Pennsylvania, we have an election primary coming up on May 17. Please vote and know your candidates’ stances on matters affecting reproductive freedom. Our lives depend on it.

Kirsten Ervin, 2022


The Bad Old Days: One Woman Remembers How It Was

Originally published by In Pittsburgh Newsweekly, 1992.

Political issues often remain abstract until they are personalized. Certainly this is true of reproductive choice. How many women too young to know the realities of illegal abortion feel the same visceral attachment to the issue as those who remember? How clearly can today’s women envision life without reproductive freedom, as it was before Roe v. Wade?

Mary Litman, pro-choice activist and education director of Women’s Health Services in downtown Pittsburgh, agreed to share her 1958 illegal abortion experience with In Pittsburgh. Litman first went public with her story at a NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) speak-out in July 1989, just prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Webster decision. She has been featured, along with the patients and staff of Women’s Health Services, in the HBO documentary Abortion: Desperate Choices.

Kirsten Ervin: Why did you decide to finally speak out?

Mary Litman: I just decided that it was time I shared my story with other people—specifically with other women to remind them of what it was like to not have any place to turn for counseling, or help, or treatment, or even a pregnancy test. I knew there were some restrictions coming down, and wanted to have some impact on people’s consciences. 

KE: How hard was it for you to first speak out publicly, at the NARAL event in 1989? 

Mary: I spent about three or four days pacing my living room—because I had repressed so many of the memories, I didn’t want to think about it—trying to get the words to come out. I would sit on the bus and let the words run through me, and I would walk around my house and let the words run through me. 

KE: Are you glad you spoke out? What changed for you in the process?

Mary: It’s like walking around with weights on your shoulders, and then it felt like they were gone. It was being able to look at the world and think, “It’s out there now, I have nothing to hide from you.” It also made me feel more of a sisterhood with the women who had had legal abortions. The other thing it did was inspire other women to speak about their own experiences, and they felt exactly as I did. [We all] were isolated from each other because nobody ever wanted to stand up and say, “I had an illegal abortion.”

KE: Could you describe the circumstances surrounding your abortion? What was happening in your life at that time?

Mary: I came from a very large, Appalachian family—very loving, but not exactly upwardly mobile. I was the first in my family to formally graduate from high school and I had a job in one of the big corporations in Pittsburgh.

The person who I became pregnant with could not marry me, and I knew I couldn’t continue working at my job as an unwed pregnant woman. I didn’t want to go back home to my mother and be an extra burden on her. I just saw everything in my life I had strived for and worked for, and had attained, slipping away from me.

KE: How old were you?

Mary: Just a little past 20. I had never really heard about abortion. My sisters, when they got pregnant, they got married. My mother admitted to jumping off a couple of tables, and trying to fall down stairs, but she said, “If a pregnancy is good, it’s going to be good.” Abortion wasn’t anything I had ever heard about, except whispers about somebody dying or some awful thing happening to them. I trusted the person [I was involved with] because he was very sophisticated, very wise in the ways of the world. He told me he knew a good, safe place in Youngstown, Ohio. 

KE: Did you consider abortion as an option only after he suggested it?

Mary: Exactly. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and there wasn’t any place like [Women’s Health Services] to come and talk about my options. So, trusting his judgment, and trusting his ability to know what the accepted norms were, I went to Youngstown with him and his friend, the contact person, to this classic scene of a house. I think it may have been the same house in the book Back Rooms, because there’s one story about a woman from Cleveland who goes to Youngstown for an abortion. When I read that, I kept thinking, “I would like to find this woman,” because I don’t remember all that happened to me, and I feel like if I could find her I could fill in the blanks.

[When I went to the house], this doctor was an old man, and there was gambling going on in the front room. There were the three of us, and they left me; I don’t know where they went. I went into this room, which I don’t remember a whole lot about. There was a table. There was a calendar on the wall with the year of my birth, 20 years ago. When I saw the calendar I was sure I was going to die. It was like some prophecy. I was so very frightened, I’m not sure where reality left off, because I don’t remember anything. I don’t remember that man touching me.

KE: Were you anesthetized? 

Mary: I don’t think so, but I don’t know. I remember him telling me, “You’re going to experience a lot of pain. Don’t worry about it, just take some aspirin and stay quiet.” Don’t tell anybody was the message I got.

We drove back to Pittsburgh and I had a roommate. She really stayed with me through this whole thing, through the pain and the hemorrhaging. I remember Leigh coming into my room and saying, “You’ve got to let me call your mother. You’ve got to let me call the doctor. You’ve got to let me take you to the emergency room.” And I remember saying, “I can’t, Leigh. They’ll put me in jail. I’ll be all right.” 

So rather than go to jail and admit I had broken the law, I was ready to die. I was convinced I was going to. But good girls don’t go to jail; good girls don’t get pregnant; good girls certainly don’t go to Youngstown, Ohio and have illegal abortions. So I toughed it out. 

Finally the hemorrhaging stopped and I managed to go back to work for a while. Then I had this terrible infection and I smelled so bad. So I thought, “Well, I can go to a doctor because there’s an infection.” I still wouldn’t tell him I had had an illegal abortion. He tested me for venereal disease and said, “You don’t have venereal disease, but we need to put you in the hospital. You’re very anemic. If you lose any more blood, you’re going to have to be admitted immediately. We’re going to have to give you transfusions.”

[But] I went back to work, and I started to hemorrhage again. [This time] I was admitted to the hospital and had several blood transfusions, had my D&C*, and then I remember my doctor bending over my bed and saying, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I started to cry and said, “I thought you’d lock me in jail.” And he said, “I would have taken care of you. You should have told me.” 

KE:  You had no way of knowing who was going to be hostile and who wasn’t? 

Mary: No, absolutely not. I thought, you break the law, you go to jail, period. So I went on with my life, sort of pushing it back. I never told anyone except my roommate. I got married in 1961 and I tried for a number of years to get pregnant and I never could. But in 1968 I adopted my daughter Tracy, and I don’t feel any lack of having children because I’ve got Tracy.

KE: How long after your abortion did it take you to get you back on your feet, physically and emotionally?

Mary: This whole procedure, from getting pregnant to being in the hospital and the D&C, was a four- or five-month period. Then, like everybody else, I thought, “Oh, I’m never having sex with anybody ever again.” I truly did repress it, the whole idea that it happened to me. I just put it out of my mind.

In 1972 or ’73, I picked up a copy of Ms. Magazine; a number of celebrities who had had illegal abortions were listed. I can still remember crying and reading. It was very important to me that I had tapped into a whole group of people who had had the same experience I did. 

KE: The man you were involved with, was he a support for you?

Mary: No. If he had been, and not been worried about himself, he would have picked me up in his arms and carried me to the emergency room. But he didn’t do that. He came [to my apartment] and looked at me and looked at Leigh and said, “Is she gonna be all right?” and left.

Women are such strong creatures, though. Lots of other women did exactly what I did. We all managed to live through it and we all managed to go back to work, back to school, or whatever. It’s unbelievable how brave women are. 

When people ask me whether the anti-choice people in front of our clinic make any women change their minds, I say, “Absolutely not. Women used to risk their lives to terminate an unplanned pregnancy.” Anybody who is going to change her mind about having an abortion will do it here in the privacy of the counseling session. And that often happens. 

KE: Do you at all regret your decision to have an abortion?

Mary: The decision at that time was entirely appropriate. I wasn’t ready to be a parent and I couldn’t have handled it financially or emotionally. It was a good decision; I just wish it could have been done in the safety of a clinic with proper counseling, and proper care.

KE: How do you think your life would be now if you hadn’t made that decision?

Mary: I know that in 1958, having an illegitimate child was not accepted the way it is now. But how my life would have turned out, I really don’t know. It’s just one of those mysteries. I’m satisfied with the way my life turned out.

KE: Does your experience as a young woman have a lot to do with your working at Women’s Health Services? 

Mary: Absolutely. Walking through that recovery room and seeing somebody have their blood pressure taken, seeing the counseling rooms filled up during counseling sessions, somebody else getting a pat on the cheek—I couldn’t get that kind of care, but other women are getting it now. That makes it all right.

KE: What message would you send to young women about this issue?

Mary: I think young women have got to realize what the broader agenda of the anti-choice movement is. They want to eliminate certain kinds of birth control, like the pill—low-dosage birth control pills act as an abortifacient and they also want to get rid of abortion.

Women have made greater strides since 1973 than in any time in their history. It’s no mistake that the anti-choice forces want to take away reproductive freedom for women, because if you don’t have reproductive freedom, you can’t really think about becoming a lawyer, becoming a doctor. When you have control over your body, you have control over your life. That’s what young women need to understand. It’s not about abortion. It’s about power over women’s lives.


* D&C: A dilation and curettage procedure, also called a D&C, is a surgical procedure in which the cervix (lower, narrow part of the uterus) is dilated (expanded) so that the uterine lining (endometrium) can be scraped with a curette (spoon-shaped instrument) to remove abnormal tissues.

Lift/Off: Kirsten Ervin’s Air Portraits Take Flight

Passenger Portrait Project installed in glass case at Pittsburgh International Airport

Kirsten Ervin’s Passenger Portrait Project at Pittsburgh International Airport

The third floor of Pittsburgh International Airport’s “land-side” terminal is a single, high-ceilinged, wide-open space devoted exclusively to ticketing and baggage check-in. It hasn’t gotten the deluxe terrazzo floor re-do the “air-side” received a couple years ago, so you’ll still find a dated, early ’90s color scheme in the floor’s clickety-clack tiles.

Appearing like a glowing apparition rising from the dull gray is a an enormous illuminated display case that nearly spans the entirety of the north wall. Inside the glass is a series of hand-drawn, brightly-colored, chalk pastel portraits. The subjects are young and old, of all complexions and hair colors, smiling and noncommittal, dressed in business attire and printed t-shirts. Together they’re all part of the Passenger Portrait Project.

collage of 9 chalk pastel portraits created by Kirsten Ervin

Some of the 65 portraits created for Kirsten Ervin’s Passenger Portrait Project

From the late summer through mid-fall, Pittsburgh artist Kirsten Ervin spent every Thursday at the airport. She wasn’t flying anywhere, nor was she there to drop-off or pick-up an air traveler. Ervin’s reason to make the trip each week was to meet strangers passing through the airway’s concourses. Those with an open mind and a few minutes to spare would have an original artwork created of them, right there on-the-spot.

“With passengers in a place like the airport you get such a wide cross-section of people, going different places, from many different cultures,” Ervin says, “It’s more diverse than, say, your average shopping mall.”

Artist Kirsten Ervin working on an "Air Portrait"

Kirsten Ervin in action at the terminal gate [photo: Pittsburgh International Airport]

The process began with three simple questions: Where are you going today? What’s the best trip you ever took? and If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go? The participants’ answers to these are included alongside the final portraits.

From there, both artist and traveler/model were off on the brief but intense relationship that is a one-on-one, up-close drawing session.

“I really love the kinds of conversations that happen with people as you draw their portraits,” Ervin says, “You’re literally paying attention to every aspect of their face, their affect. You’re paying attention to every detail in a way that you don’t do with photography or other art forms.”

woman with dyed red hair holding partial portrait of herself

Passenger with in-process portrait [photo: Kirsten Ervin]

Ervin is a multidisciplinary artist who’s worked in paint and collage, hooked rugs and embroidery, puppetry and theater, as instructor and consultant. In previous work drawing “furries” at Anthrocon and an ongoing project having her Lawrenceville neighbors sit for her, Ervin is not new to quick-study figure drawing, either. That said, the Passenger Portrait Project is by far the biggest of these ventures, so far.

“Drawing or painting a portrait is a very deep meditation on another person as a human being,” says Ervin, “You have a very directed focus on a person for a period of time.”

male/female couple with partial portrait of themselves

Newlywed passengers with in-process portrait [photo: Kirsten Ervin]

The majority of the airport drawings were done in short 15-20 minute bursts when early-arriving passengers had some extra time at the gate before boarding. A photo was taken of each participant with their in-process sketch. Later, the 11″ x 14″ drawings received after-the-fact touch-ups, extra details, and filled-in backgrounds at home in Ervin’s studio.

The drawings preserve the rough, immediate energy in which they were created. They’re neither photo-realistic, nor cartoon or caricature. Instead, the subjects appear amused and disarmed, visibly pleased at the delight of this unexpected airport encounter and inevitably excited to be both engaging with a friendly face at the often-impersonal transit spot and embarking on a new adventure or returning home from a business trip.

Artist Kirsten Ervin with portrait subject at Pittsburgh International Airport

Ervin with portrait subject [photo: Pittsburgh International Airport]

You may have seen Tobey Fraley’s Robot Repair Shop and assorted other installations throughout the space, but that original artwork is created within the airport–expressly for exhibition there–may come a surprise.

In fact, Pittsburgh International Airport has an arts and culture manager (Rachel Rearick) and the Office of Public Art has a project manager (Derek Reese) who works in the space. PIT is among a very small group of international airports that support a full-time artist-in-residence program, complete with studio space at the terminal.

Ervin’s “air portraits” were created through the Art in the Airport program, which makes regular  calls for artists that provide visual art for several different display areas in the facilities as well as weekly live performances.

artist Kirsten Ervin looking at Pittsburgh airport's arrival information board

Kirsten Ervin at the estimated times of art board [photo: Pittsburgh International Airport]

Full disclosure: Pittsburgh Orbit has thrown out all journalistic integrity on this particular post. Kirsten Ervin is more than just some artist whose project we like. Over the years, she’s been a contributor, editor, and sounding board for the blog. Oh–and “Mrs. The Orbit” is married to one of our junior reporters.

That said, it’s safe to say we’d jump at reporting this story even if we weren’t living under the same roof. Kirsten’s excitement at engaging with strangers is infectious, as is her desire to skip the politics and get down to what’s really important–making connections between human beings. If that’s not what art–let alone air travel–is all about, well then maybe we should all just stay home.

Artist Kirsten Ervin in front of chalk pastel portraits of airport passengers

Kirsten Ervin with her Passenger Portrait Project installation

The Passenger Portrait Project will be up through late February, 2019. If you’re traveling by aeroplane between now and then, do yourself a favor and leave an extra few minutes early to check out the full display for yourself.


Follow Kirsten Ervin on Instagram @kirstenervinart and check out her web site kirstenervin.org