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.”