The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When abortion was illegal: A 1966 Post series revealed how women got them anyway

Before Roe v. Wade, women died trying to end their pregnancies

Headlines for The Washington Post's January 1966 series on abortion. (Brianna Schroer/The Washington Post)

In January 1966, The Washington Post ran a four-part series on how women in the Washington area obtained abortions. At the time, abortion was illegal with few exceptions in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Now, nearly a half-century after Roe v. Wade, new abortion restrictions are being imposed in Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Utah and other states. Below is an abridged version of The Post’s four-part series, edited to highlight personal experiences. The original headlines of the series are now subheads for each section.

Abortions: Agony, Risk of Death

In the early twilight of mid-December, a car stopped briefly at 14th and K Streets NW. A young woman clambered in. At two other downtown intersections, two more women joined the group.

As the car sped out of the city, the driver ordered the three women to cover their eyes with scarves. Less than an hour later, they reached their destination — a house in the isolated Virginia countryside.

That night, three more of what is estimated to be one million abortions of that year were performed.

Police have no idea how many abortions are done annually in the Washington area, since most are unreported.

Humiliation, agony, and the risk of sterility or death do not deter American women from ending an average of one out of every five pregnancies by abortion.

Dr. John Skilling, chief obstetrical resident at Washington Hospital Center, says that a Washington woman with $600 [$4,700 in 2019] can often get a safe, competently performed abortion in a local hospital.

“You need $50 each for two psychiatrists,” he explains. “They write up consultation sheets saying you have threatened to commit suicide because you are pregnant, and then you find a gynecologist who will do a TA (therapeutic abortion) for depression.”

The total $600 cost that includes surgical fees and hospitalization is higher than the price of a criminal abortion ($250-$500), but the near-certainty of a safe operation is worth it, Dr. Skilling says.

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“Therapeutic abortion may occasionally be necessary in cases of heart disease, diabetes and psychosis,” Dr. Skilling says, “but when I go into practice I’ll only do TAs for women who have been in psychiatric consultation for a long time—not for a woman who has only seen a psychiatrist once."

A means that some otherwise legitimate doctors use is to take blood from a woman‘s arm and squirt it into her vagina. When the blood seeps out, the physician admits the woman to a hospital for care, ostensibly on the basis that she is miscarrying. Then he does a D and C [dilation and curettage] for her “incomplete abortion.”

Assembly Line Abortion Rings Called Big Business in Area

“Everyone knows, but you never see a word written about it,” said the Bethesda woman.

Floating abortion rings are big-time business right now in well-heeled Washington suburbs, she adds.

A doctor, nurse and perhaps a dozen employees may rent a luxuriously furnished suburban home for several months, she says. They operate, assembly line fashion, on women referred by a sympathetic local physician — and then move to another state before police get wise.

“Those rings take every medical precaution,” the Bethesda matron claims, “because if the woman isn‘t all right afterwards they’re in trouble.”

One of the best known area physician-abortionists was Dr. G. Lottrell Timanus of Baltimore who says he performed 5,210 operations during more than 20 years of practice with only two deaths.

Closer to home was last year’s conviction of Marcella Brown as an abortionist.

“Some of those girls looked like they‘d go crazy if they didn’t get an abortion,” recalls Edna Q. Crump, 62, Marcella Brown’s mother, who was convicted as an abortionist’s accomplice.

Mrs. Crump and Marcella, 44, were arrested on the complaint of a 25-year-old Takoma Park woman who became ill after the operation.

Edna Crump served six weeks of probation in lieu of a three-month jail sentence, and her daughter is in District Jail serving an eight-month to two-year term.

Seated in her comfortably furnished living room on Shepherd St. NW, Mrs. Crump described the workings of her daughter’s abortion business — a sideline to the legitimate family enterprise — the Marcella Brown Hand Laundry at 3549 Georgia Ave. NW, which is still in business.

“The girls came to see Marcella,” Mrs. Crump recalled, “she didn’t go to them. Some people called long distance, and some connected with the law had abortions themselves.”

“Marcella had all the sanitary medical instruments and everything like that,” Mrs. Crump said, recalling that her daughter studied medicine at Howard University but never completed the course.

“Marcella operated in another place — not here in the house,” her mother continued, “and she didn’t put them to sleep — because we like to know what‘s happening to you.”

The girls were brought to the Shepherd Street home after the operations, and Mrs. Crump cared for them for 24 hours or until they were ready to leave.

One of the Washington area’s most notorious abortion mills was operated by Dr. George Thomas Strother in the early 1950s.

Dr. Strother, his third wife, and five accomplices were arrested in 1954 in the lonely farm house near Paris, Va., about 50 miles from Washington, where they had just operated on several women. Drugs and surgical instruments were confiscated from an air-conditioned operating room, and $2400 was found between the mattresses in a luxurious bedroom.

The Strother mill netted about $600,000 a year, police estimated. Girls who stood on pre-arranged Washington street corners were picked up by Strother’s three-man taxi service, it was discovered. Patients were obtained through “contact men” in government agencies.

Convicted in 1955, Strother was paroled after serving one year of a 15-year sentence. Police say he now is retired and lives in Southern Virginia.

Lack of Regret Over Abortions Is Widespread

“I’ve always wondered why more women don’t think of doing what I did,” says a happily married Washington mother of five who thinks she tricked a young doctor into performing her abortion at Georgetown Hospital.

“My husband had been sick for several months,” says this upper middle class woman, “and one of my little girls had rheumatic fever. When our family doctor told me I was pregnant, I decided I just couldn’t have the baby.”

“The doctor examined me very roughly internally,” she says. “He knew how I felt, and I think he was hoping something would happen. But once you’re implanted, you’re implanted, and it didn’t do any good.”

“I felt he would have given me the name of an abortionist if I had asked,” she recalls, “but of course he had to be very careful.”

“I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to risk my life,” she says, “and I began to think about making a quick trip to one of the Scandinavian countries.”

“Then,” she says, “just on a chance I talked to a young doctor at the clinic where I take the children. I told him I had been spotting (bleeding between menstrual periods) and right away he told me I ought to have a dilation and curettage.”

“Two days later I was in Georgetown Hospital,” she recalls, “and the last thing I remember as I was going under the anesthetic was wondering whether I’d wake up with a policeman beside my bed.”

“Instead the doctor came to me afterwards and apologized,” she says. “He told me that he had discovered after the operation that I was pregnant, but that the fetus was dead.”

“I don’t think it was dead,” she says. “He just told me that so as not to upset me — and I don’t think he ever knew I’d tricked him.”

“I’ve never had any regrets,” she concludes, “just a great feeling of relief. It’s all we can do to support the children we have — right now I’m wondering if we can afford braces for our youngest girl.”

Few of the estimated million American women each year who get abortions get theirs the way this woman did, but her lack of regret is widespread.

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A recent study of 500 post-abortion cases in Sweden showed that only 11 percent felt “serious self-reproach” and only 14 percent felt “mild self-reproach.”

For a few women, however, abortion leaves lasting regrets. One girl, a 23-year-old magazine researcher, became pregnant by a business associate who refused to marry her.

She took two weeks vacation, borrowed the flight fare and visited a college classmate in Japan, where abortion is legal. Her physical recovery from the operation was quick, but the destruction of the child of the man she loved deeply still haunts her.

Many Women Pay Death Penalty After Abortions

The most common abortion tool in Washington is a rubber catheter attached to a straightened wire coat hanger, according to Dr. John Skilling, chief obstetrical resident at Washington Hospital Center, “I had a 26-year-old girl here recently who did it that way herself lying on a bed with a mirror,” he says. “She didn’t have $300 for an abortionist and couldn‘t afford to lose her job as a keypunch operator.”

“There was so much pain — I can‘t explain it really,” another woman told a grand jury after an illegal operation was performed on her without anesthetic. “It was just like my whole stomach was coming out,” she testified.

“When a girl comes to our emergency room she’s bleeding massively,” Skilling says, “She has a high fever — and often an infection in the blood stream or abdominal cavity or a bowel obstruction.”

One of Dr. Skilling’s recent patients had injected a soapy solution with a catheter and swallowed 30 tablets that she thought would make her womb contract. The price of aborting her four-month fetus was the loss of her womb — and later the loss of her hearing. The deafness was caused by the powerful drugs necessary to save her life during an 11-week illness that cost $14,000.

Dr. Benny Waxman, chief medical officer in D.C. General’s Department of Obstetrics, says about 10 percent of D.C. General’s obstetrical admissions are suffering from spontaneous or criminal abortions.

One recent patient was a 16-year-old girl who drank lye to abort herself and died. Another woman succumbed to gas gangrene — a toxin that can kill between 24 and 48 hours after a bungled abortion.

On D.C. General‘s grounds is a stark, square brick building which is the city’s morgue. Dr. Richard L. Whelton, the Coroner, says that he has seen only five abortion victims here in the last five years.

One, he said, was the victim of a hospital nurse who brought surgical instruments home to “help out” her neighbor.

The nurse tried to break the membrane surrounding the fetus and draw out the fluids with a catheter, creating an air pocket between the womb and its lining.

The air bubble entered the blood vessels and was carried to the heart, causing a sudden and fatal blockage of blood supply.

With laws as they are, the dreary story of the frightened girl and the incompetent abortionist is doomed to be repeated day after day in the back rooms of every American city.

In 1965, the death list of Washington women included:

  • Jeretha Tanner, a mother of three, who died during an abortion attempted by Theodora Cagle, a 45-year-old practical nurse, police said.
  • Teresa Lyles, 26, who died of an air embolism after an abortion attempted, police said, by James L. Davis and Shirley J. Rawot.
  • A 26-year-old suburban Maryland housewife who died June 1 at George Washington University Hospital from an infected abortion performed, police charged, by Lucille Caroline Jefferson.

Present laws are “puritanical punishment,” says Dr. Allan F. Guttmacher, president of Planned Parenthood. But punitive laws are hard to repeal, and it seems that women — not abortionists — will continue to pay the death penalty.

Elisabeth Stevens, who reported and wrote the original 1966 articles, died in 2018. Her papers are in the collection of the John Hay Library at Brown University.

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