The Phone Calls Begin
Reproduced from Abortion is a Blessing by Anne Nicol Gaylor.
A MILWAUKEE PHYSICIAN, Sidney Babbitz, was arrested in fall of 1969, and charged with performing a criminal abortion in his offices. His lawyers took his case to federal court challenging the constitutionality of Wisconsin's abortion law, which was similar to most of the abortions across the country, in that abortion was legal only to save a woman's life. Penalties went as high as fifteen years in prison.
On a blustery January day in 1970, this case was heard in the federal courtroom in Milwaukee before a three judge federal panel composed of former Wisconsin governor John Reynolds, former Illinois governor Otto Kerner, and Myron Gordon.
As I sat in that courtroom listening to the arguments, I could not help reflecting that here was a case of the utmost importance to women, yet no women were heard. The judges of course, were men. The opposing attorneys were men, as were the witnesses. Only in the courtroom audience were there any women and, by law, they were mute.
The panel's verdict was handed down in March of 1970. Unanimously the judges agreed Wisconsin's abortion law was unconstitutional.
With their ruling and the consequent publicity about it, my phone started to ring, with women calling wanting to know where to go for abortions. Five years and several thousands of calls later, the phone still rings, but how the times have changed!
Everyone who called cried in the beginning. And well they might.
One doctor, Alfred Kennan, a gynecologist at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, accepted some patients, but the hospital had a meager quota, high prices ($600 for an early abortion), and the stipulation of two letters from other physicians that the abortion was necessary to preserve the woman's life. Despite these hurdles, that route took care of a few of the women who called me, and I referred some others to Milwaukee hospitals which had essentially the same red tape and high costs. Abortion, court ruling or no, was available only if someone had lots of determination and cash money, and started to search early enough in her pregnancy so that she could wait the month or more she might have to, for a hospital appointment.
In the spring of 1970 I referred about forty of the women who could not be helped in Wisconsin to Mexico. Through Bob McCoy, a Minnesota pioneer in abortion reform, I learned of a clinic in Mexico City that charged $300 and that Bob had checked out for safety and considerate treatment of women. Abortion was illegal in Mexico (still is), but the practitioners reportedly paid off the chief of police and were able to operate unmolested.
The women I referred to Mexico flew from Chicago at a round-trip cost of $226. They had to spend two nights in Mexico City and while there stayed at the San Jorge Hotel, which was built for the Olympics. They were advised to take about $40 spending money to cover the hotel, their meals, and sightseeing.
Dr. Ponce, who owned the Mexico City clinic, did abortions by the dilation and curettage method, under general anesthesia.(See Appendix A for a discussion of abortion methods.) Women were at the clinic for a morning or afternoon. The extra twenty-four hours in Mexico City was both a health precaution and helped women avoid airport questioning by the immigration people. It did occur to me that patrons having to stay an extra day in Mexico also benefited the hotel, although their rates were relatively modest. Since abortion was illegal, women flying in and out of Mexico in a short time could be subject to questioning about the reason for their trip. We told everyone, if asked, merely to say they were on a short vacation.
Those of us referring women were still under the spell of the old ideas about abortion-that it was a major medical effort with some of the risks of brain surgery-so I was delighted and astonished when one of my early referrals, an intrepid woman, phoned in her report to me. She said she had the abortion in the morning, flew back to Chicago in the afternoon-ignoring the two day stay-and took a bus home to - Eau Claire, Wisconsin, at night, about an eight-hour trip. She felt fine, she said, "just a little tired." Most women reported some discomfort following abortion--nausea from the anesthetic or cramping, similar to menstrual cramping.
Bob McCoy had prepared a sheet of general information about the hotel, meals, and sightseeing, with a little map of the hotel area, information on converting money, cab and subway guidance, and recommendations of restaurants. Places to get carryouts and inexpensive food were suggested, as well as the "Focolare," one of the city's finest restaurants with dinners costing about $8.00. Women were cautioned to watch out for automobile traffic, a far greater hazard than abortion, and aggressive males, a universal hazard.
Someone from the clinic called for the women at the San Jorge Hotel, and chauffeured them for their appointments. In the directions, with medical and clinic information, Bob McCoy and Dr. Ponce had written " . . . after you have been interviewed, you will go upstairs and put on a surgical gown. You may wish to take slippers with you to keep your feet warm." When I first read this in the directions, I almost cried. I was fresh from pleading with Wisconsin doctors to accept especially desperate patients for abortion and had found almost all of them totally indifferent to the plight of any woman, yet here were men who were concerned not only that women should have abortions, but also that they should not have cold feet!
Most of the women I referred to Dr. Ponce phoned in their reports, and without exception they liked him. Ponce was a first name, I believe, not a family name, but it was the only name we knew him by. He interviewed each woman before the abortion and checked out each patient before she left. Somehow, despite the assembly line, he managed to make each woman feel his concern for her.
The clinic was sanitary and comfortable. Here is an excerpt from one report sent in from an out-of- state referral:
Things were really good down in Mexico City. Everything happens so fast there is almost an aura of fantasy. The clinic (more like a mansion really) is very nice and comfortable.
There were about seventeen women there the morning I had the D & C done, plus some in the afternoon. They get you up right after and feed you fruit and drink and cookies right away--helps take your mind off the cramping.
Some of us went sightseeing that afternoon. Mexico City is really nice, and I had no trouble at all with any facet of the journey or my stay there.
One young woman, with whom I spent quite a bit of time before she flew down because she was unusually tense and unhappy, came back calm and relaxed. She gave me all the factual information including the friends she made and the sights she saw, and then added, somewhat apologetically, "You know, in a way it was almost fun." I don't know when a remark has left me more cheerful. I thought of all the women who had been forced to go into dark alleys and back rooms and deal with perverted, unskilled, unsanitary practitioners, and I could only rejoice that for some women abortions were being done in a safe setting with supportive people, and that the whole trip could be "almost fun." Civilization has been a long time finding women.
My referrals in the spring and summer of 1970 had been pretty much happenstance; the women happened to learn that I knew where safe abortions were being done. I had appeared on several radio and television talk shows on the abortion issue, and women called after hearing these or after seeing my name in news stories, or reading letter I wrote to editors.
One letter to me prompted the decision to establish a formal, advertised service. It read:
July 27, 1970
Dear Mrs. Gaylor:
Since I received your letter July 9th many things have happened, and I now have the chance to sit down and thank you for everything you did.
I had written you requesting information on abortion in the State of Wisconsin after reading your letter to the editor in the Appleton Post Crescent.
The next day my fiance came up and he got on the phone immediately. The first doctor he contacted from your list was able to help us. We were in Milwaukee the next morning. I had a physical, and arrangements were made for my admittance to the hospital in less than two weeks. The treatment I received, both the hospital care and personal was more than I could have hoped for. Things haven't been left at that, since I'm under the doctor's care for a future checkup.
I am still amazed at how easily and swiftly things went and how well everyone treated us. If only it weren't so hard to find out about these things in the first place. Of the women I talked to in the hospital, the majority seemed to have found out about the availability of an abortion quite by accident and only after much agonizing about what they were going to do.
In the future if there is anything I can do to help your organization, I will be more than happy to do so. After what has been done for me and my fiance it would be small payment for getting our lives back to normal again and being able to enjoy being engaged and making future plans that won't be marred by the reality of having to bear an unwanted child and making many more lives than our own miserable. Thank you again.
This letter and its reference to women finding out quite by chance and after much worry convinced me to become more visible. I had joined the Zero Population Growth (ZPG) organization because of its supportive position on abortion, and I asked the board of directors of the Madison chapter if they would consider funding advertising of a service, if I would use my own phone number and handle the calls. They readily agreed.
The first ad, placed in the classified "Personal Interest" section of Madison's two daily papers on August 12, 1970, read: "ABORTION is legal and available in Wisconsin. If your doctor won't help, contact the Zero Population Growth Referral Service." The ad included the ZPG post office box and our home phone number. The response was immediate. By the end of the month, in less than three-weeks time, we had received ninety-three calls and the phone has not stopped since.
Ours was the first advertised service in Wisconsin, possibly in the Midwest, and calls came in from surrounding states as well. When Playboy magazine listed several referral numbers around the country, including ours, in one of its issues, I was deluged with calls for months from as far away as Maine, Virginia, Arkansas and points west. Playboy readers called at all hours--one, two and three- thirty A.M. I announced to my patient family that, contrary to popular opinion, Playboy readers rarely went to bed--they phoned people all night long.
There are not too many occasions for chuckling when you are handling abortion referrals, but our children supplied a couple. After a few calls from the first ad, one of our sons remarked, "Well, we don't have to answer 'hello' anymore. We can just say, 'How far along are you?' " And, after the United States Supreme Court decision in 1973, legalizing abortion, when my phone calls jumped to 140 in a single week, the kids came out one day with an unusual observation. Commenting on my practice of answering the phone by number, 238-3338, and my chances for survival, they said, `We've decided on your epitaph. We're going to put on your tombstone, 'Here lies 238-3338.' "
Since I couldn't be home all of the time, other Madison ZPG women helped with the service. In all, a couple of dozen women have handled calls, for periods of anywhere from a few weeks to a few months time, using their home phone numbers as back-up numbers in our ads. Especially helpful in the early days were Gail Winkler, then president of ZPG in Madison, Donna Anderson, Martha Maxwell and Barbara Banchero.
I kept a log of telephone calls for the referral service, primarily to keep a record of the number of calls, where they were coming from, ages of the women, and notes on contraceptive failures. Since so many days the calls came thick and fast, the entries really were very sketchy, and some days I resorted to a simple tally. Typical entries read: "Rockford, 20, kids 3-2-6 months, pregnant on foam." "Chicago, 29, kids 8-6-4-2-1, went off the pill, could pay $100 down." "Holmen, Wis., 25, sounded 50, three children, problems with hemorrhaging, needs abortion and wants tubal ligation, 'can't get any help around here,' gave Milwaukee hospitals." "Richland Center mom for 15-year old, needs D & C, gave UW Hospital."
Any ideas I may have harbored about a typical abortion patient vanished when the phone began to ring in earnest. The stereotype of the abortion candidate is that of a young, single woman, working or in college. I heard from that stereotype, but I heard almost as often from the married woman. Almost daily women called who could not take care of the children they already had, or who had grave medical problems compounded by repeated pregnancies. From the beginning I heard regularly from victims of rape and victims of incest. I heard from teen-agers who were pathetically young, who were children themselves by every standard except that of fertility.
Very early in my referral experience a doctor with whom I was pleading for help told me, "Well, you can refer me the really desperate cases." I said to him what had become only too terribly clear to me, "They are all desperate."
Letters came in to the ZPG post office box, too, and the first one, so typical of those to follow, was from rural Wisconsin and written on a scrap of yellow paper.
Dear Sirs: Please send me information on the laws that would cover our situation. My wife and I have nine children from 16 to 2 in age. We own our own home, but I have to work 70 hours a week to keep things going. Is there any doctors that will at least talk to us on abortion? Any information will be helpful because my wife is three months along again. H.B.
Abortion became legal in New York state on July 1, 1970. Miraculously, the pro-abortion groups there had forced a reform law through their legislature, and the dramatic victory meant that New York would go from a situation where they had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, to a situation where they had one of the most liberal.
The immediate effect was a logjam. Women from all over the country went to New York for abortions. Clinics and hospitals were booked out of sight, and it was the end of 1970 before waits were down to a somewhat reasonable two-week delay. Quality and costs varied greatly at the different facilities, and women pretty much took potluck the first few months. Later, through Clergy Consultation Service on Problem Pregnancies, a non-profit New York city clinic was established with a charge of $150, soon to be reduced to $125. I also referred to the Eastern Women's Center when it opened in 1971, charging $150.
Here is one typical report from that period:
It's fantastic being able to control your own self and destiny. Yesterday I flew from O'Hare to LaGuardia in New York and had an abortion at the office you suggested. The aspirator is relatively painless and one of the doctor's assistants, a very understanding girl, stands by you for the entire procedure, which, in my case, took less than fifteen minutes.
The fee for me was $100 and certainly the most worthwhile $100 I have ever spent. Thank you so much for your most valuable referral.
And here is another:
Dear Mrs. Gaylor:
I previously contacted you for referrals concerning abortion clinics. I was admitted to the Women's Medical Group in New York in January.
I was admitted to a room where my blood test and urine specimen were obtained. My friends were directed to a waiting room downstairs. I sat in the waiting room approximately two hours talking with girls having appointments also. Then a counsellor came and took me to an office where I was given pills and relaxed. We talked about the abortion procedure, post-operative feelings, complications, my feelings and fears, for about an hour.
Then she took me upstairs again where I had the operation in fifteen minutes, rested a half hour and went home.
The counseling was excellent and she stayed with me through everything, even assisting the physician. She, too, had had an abortion, which made for greater understanding.
If complications should arise, their collect phone number is given to each woman, along with brochures containing abortion post-op and complication information and birth-control methods. It was worth far more to me than $150.
Madison got it its own abortion facility, the Midwest Medical Center, in February, 1971, the only outpatient clinic in the country between -the east and west coasts. It was opened by Dr. Alfred Kennan, its only doctor, and it was almost immediately swamped with patients. Dr. Kennan did abortions by vacuum aspiration, utilizing gentle suction to empty the uterus and employing a local anesthetic, in contrast to the traditional hospital procedure of dilation and curettage done under general anesthesia. Although the clinic could accept only a tiny fraction of the women seeking appointments, it was a haven for about ninety to one hundred patients per week in the early months, a schedule later increased to 120-125 weekly.
The clinic had been open for about eleven weeks when Madison police in a sudden, Gestapo-like raid, closed it. The raid seemed particularly insane, in light of the federal court ruling that Wisconsin's old abortion statute was unconstitutional, and the permanent injunction that had been issued, saying no Wisconsin doctor could be prosecuted for doing an early abortion.
About this time Gail Winkler of ZPG and I were subpoenaed to appear for an interrogation conducted by the attorney general's office, on behalf of the State Board of Medical Examiners, who were after Dr. Kennan's license. Their methods and their questions had us wondering if we lived in Wisconsin or a banana republic.
Both Gail and I received our subpoenas during the dinner hour at night, telling us to appear before the Board early the next morning. Although the hearing had been scheduled for some time, and we were obviously busy people, the Board saw fit to give us only a few hours notice. There was little time to contact an attorney--Gail never had had occasion to consult one before, and the lawyer who had handled some business affairs for me happened to be out of town. There was not even time to go to the law library to read the law we were being subpoenaed under. Fortunately, a friend phoned to suggest an attorney, whom we met for the first time outside the Board of Medical Examiners' offices early the next morning. And we stayed outside. Two uniformed armed guards stood at the door, and we were told we would be called when we were needed. We waited in the hot sun for almost three hours. The attorney, young and kind, whose name I don't remember and who never sent us a bill, had come with a law book under his arm, and in checking our subpoenas discovered we had been subpoenaed under a portion of the law requiring that a judge be present to grant us immunity. When finally--hot, tired and sunburned-- we were admitted to the presence of the Board, our lawyer asked the prosecutor from the attorney general's office, who was presiding, where the judge was. The attorney general's assistant seemed taken aback, implying that this was an informal, friendly little session and no judge was needed. When our attorney pointed to the citation on our subpoena and the corresponding number in the statute book, the attorney general's assistant said that the subpoena was in error, that a different part of the law was really being referred to, that it was a "typographical error." Our lawyer responded that since the subpoena said what it did, he could only advise us to answer questions before a judge, and since no judge was present, he was advising us not to answer questions at all.
Gail and I were interrogated separately, and both of us took the Fifth Amendment to a long series of inane questions. At the end we were told we would be "bound over to court to answer before a judge," an event that never took place. The interrogator apparently was trying to link the ZPG Referral Service to Dr. Kerman's clinic, so that Dr. Kerman might be accused of advertising. There was no link. Not only did the Referral Service precede the clinic by half a year, but no able doctor who did abortions in 1971 had any need to advertise. All he had to do was open, and the whole country beat a path to his door.
After six weeks of court maneuvers, when Attorney General Robert Warren had been put down at every court level, the clinic finally reopened, but the cost to the 324 women who had appointments when it was closed has never been tabulated. I spoke personally with about forty-five of these women and I am still haunted by their stories, their anguish, and their helplessness. My loathing for the men who perpetrated these harassments does not lessen with time, although I am happy to report that District Attorney Gerald Nichol was defeated for reelection in 1972. Attorney General Robert Warren, however, was appointed to the post of federal judge in Wisconsin's Eastern District, Richard Nixon's last official act before being forced from the Presidency. It figures!
The chapter that follows is an account of the raid written originally for the ZPG-Madison newsletter, and later expanded into an article for the ZPG National Reporter. The chapter titled "The Victims," which also appeared in the National Reporter, was my testimony before the Judiciary Committee of the Wisconsin Assembly, which held hearings on abortion the day after the clinic reopened.
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