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How will illegal abortions be prosecuted? 1968 NYPD manual offers hints.

The cover image on a 1968 New York Police Department training bulletin on investigating illegal abortion cases. (Tom Sherman)

With abortion bans in place or likely to be enacted soon in at least 20 states, many worried Americans are now wondering: What does the investigation and prosecution of an illegal abortion look like?

An internal document from the country’s largest police force in the pre-Roe v. Wade era provides a pretty good answer.

The New York Police Department first formed an Abortion Squad after an abortion-ring bust in the mid-1950s. It later became the Abortion Unit within the NYPD’s Central Investigation Bureau, and its detectives lent operational support on abortion cases to other units. From 1872 to 1970, it was generally illegal to provide abortions in New York state.

In 1968, the CIB distributed a training bulletin titled “ABORTIONS” to detectives throughout the city as part of a series highlighting investigative best practices and specialized units available within the bureau to aid investigations.

According to the manual, investigations normally began not with an tip from a suspicious acquaintance, but in the emergency room following reports from hospital staff treating victims of botched illegal abortions.

Interrogating women while they were still “confined” in the hospital was “necessary,” the manual stated, to “ascertain the identity” of the abortion practitioner and other “pertinent details” of the operation.

The manual cautioned that a male detective investigating a hospitalized woman for intimate details “invariably results in an embarassment to both parties” and “frequently produces such resentment on the part of the woman that she becomes totally uncooperative.” Instead, police found it “highly desirable to have a trained female detective, rather than a male,” conduct the interrogation because of the “highly personal and delicate character” of the questions involved.

Female detectives did not face the same embarrassment and better understood anatomy, the manual advised, and so they were likelier to effectively “demonstrate to the subject the flaws in a fabricated story.”

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The primary target of any investigation was the abortion practitioner. Detectives were more interested in “utilizing” the woman as a witness against the abortionist than in charging her as a defendant (although that prospect remained for uncooperative women).

At this point in the case, there was a tactical fork in the road depending on who was identified as performing the abortion: a non-professional “lone operator” or a licensed physician.

Most lone operators were women who either were or presented themselves as nurses or nurse’s aides. These women usually did not have professional training, operated in “non-sterile, and, in numerous instances, downright filthy” conditions, and were relatively easy to arrest and prosecute, the manual stated.

With a single witness identification, detectives could initiate an arrest of a lone operator without an indictment or warrant, the manual advised.

Meanwhile, the scales of justice weighed differently depending on the accused: Licensed physicians performing illegal abortions (generally men, at a time when women made up 5 percent of doctors nationwide) often received an amount of deference from the district attorney not afforded to their non-professional female counterparts. The training bulletin stated that “cases involving licensed physicians are a different matter.”

District attorneys were “of the opinion that at least six counts are desirable” before a doctor could be arrested. That opinion was based “on the theory” that grand juries showed a “reluctance to indict a doctor” unless the doctor performed abortions as a “regular business.”

To arrest a physician, detectives needed to set up a sting operation. An undercover female officer should schedule an appointment to “elicit from him as much information as possible,” the manual stated. If the conversation was fruitful, detectives could obtain a warrant to wiretap the doctor’s office.

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After that, police would organize a stakeout of the clinic and its patrons. Women “known or suspected” of visiting the doctor’s office for abortions were “tailed, by car and on foot, as necessary,” to covertly establish their identities and residence.

Unlike in cases with female lone operators, where people assisting the abortionist were often offered immunity to testify against the provider, in cases involving doctors the “steerers, chauffeurs, druggists, and the like” were indicted as co-defendants. As a result, the cases could quickly become sprawling investigations of “interstate and highly organized” abortion rings. Only at this point were male officers used in the investigation “if the case so demands.”

After documenting at least six counts of abortion, detectives consulted with the district attorney to convene a grand jury. On the appointed day, the police showed up at the residences of “the previously identified abortees” to serve subpoenas. The women were then “brought to the D.A.’s office, interviewed, and [their testimony] put into the Grand Jury” in order to secure the indictment of a physician.

The final operational support that the CIB Abortion Unit provided was maintaining a “Central Abortion File” detailing all aspects of previous abortion cases, which police viewed as “one of the most important functions” of the unit.

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Since abortions were illegal, providers often took steps to conceal themselves and their practice from scrutiny. The women who received abortions often had only “scraps of information” about the providers, such as a location, telephone number or alias. The registry was an “invaluable” resource to police “since abortionists, greedy for easy money, are more often than not recidivists.”

Much has changed in the 54 years since the distribution of that training bulletin. Electronic surveillance captures far more data than telephone calls, and physical surveillance is easier than ever, thanks to drones. More than one-third of U.S. doctors are women. Database records can be collected, stored and accessed electronically. But with the overturning of Roe and a likely imminent spike in abortion prosecutions, it may feel as if not much has changed at all.

Tom Sherman is a journalist in Delaware with a collection of antique and vintage historical documents.