'60s Icon Paul Krassner Reveals His Early History with Abortion
When abortion was illegal, women had no choice but to seek out back-alley butchers for what should have been a medical procedure in a sterile environment. If there was a botched surgery and the victim went to a hospital, the police were called and they wouldn’t allow the doctor to provide a painkiller until the patient gave them the information they sought.
In 1962, there was an article in Look magazine that stated, “There is no such thing as a 'good' abortionist. All of them are in business strictly for money.” But in an issue of my magazine, The Realist, I published an anonymous interview with Dr. Robert Spencer, a truly humane abortionist, promising that I would go to prison sooner than reveal his identify.
Spencer had served as an Army doctor in World War I, then became a pathologist at a hospital in Ashland, Pennsylvania. He went down into the shafts after a mine accident, and aided miners to obtain Workmen’s Compensation for lung disease. At a time when 5,000 women were killed each year by criminal abortionists who charged as much as $1,500, Spencer's reputation had spread by word-of-mouth, and he was known as the "Saint." Patients came to his clinic in Ashland from around the country.
I took the five-hour bus trip from New York to Ashland with my gigantic Webcor tape recorder. Dr. Spencer was the cheerful personification of an old-fashioned physician. He wore a red beret and used folksy expressions like “by golly.” He had been performing abortions for 40 years. He started out charging $5, and never more than $100. He rarely used the word "pregnant." Rather, he would say, “She was that way, and she came to me for help.”
Ashland was a small town, and Dr. Spencer's work was not merely tolerated; the community depended on it -- the hotel, the restaurant, the dress shop -- all thrived on the extra business that came from his out-of-town patients. However, he built facilities at his clinic for African-American patients who weren't allowed to obtain overnight lodgings elsewhere. The walls of his office were decorated with those little wooden signs that tourists like to buy. A sign on the ceiling over his operating table said "Keep Calm."
Here’s an excerpt from our dialogue:
Q. Do you have any idea how many actual abortions you’re performed during all these years?
A. To be accurate, it’s 27,006
Q. Have medical people come to you, who would otherwise shun you?
A. Oh, yes, I’ve had medical people who bring me their wives, and I’ve had quite a few medical people send me patients.
Q. But they wouldn’t perform the operation themselves?
A. No, they’d never perform it, and just exactly what their attitude would be, I don’t really know. Some of them, I presume, were absolutely against it, because I’ve had ministers, and they’d bring me their daughters or their nieces.
Q. Have police come to you for professional services?
A. Oh, yes, I’ve had police in here, too. I’ve helped them out. I’ve helped a hell of a lot police out. I’ve helped a lot of FBI men out. They would be here, and they had me a little bit scared--I didn’t know whether they were just in to get me or not.
Q. What would you say is the most significant lesson you’ve learned in all your years as a practicing abortion doctor?
A. You’ve got to be careful. That’s the most important thing. And you’ve got to be cocksure that everything’s removed. And even the uterus speaks to you and tells you. I could be blind. You see, this is an operation no eye sees. You go by the sense of feel and touch. The voice of the uterus. But the only thing I can see is hypocrisy, hypocrisy. Everywhere I look is hypocrisy, Because the politicians--and I’ve had politicians in here--they still keep those laws in existence, but yet, if some friend of theirs is in trouble….
Even priests came to Dr. Spencer's clinic with the housekeepers they had impregnated. (Ironically, last month the Colorado Independent reported that “A chain of Catholic hospitals has beaten a malpractice lawsuit by saying that fetuses are not equivalent to human lives.” Their attorneys argued that in cases of wrongful death, the term “person” only applies to individuals born alive, and not those who die in utero.)
That issue of The Realist with the Dr. Spencer interview included a reprint of an article from the London Observer, which began: “Three Roman Catholic theologians have expressed the opinion that, in times of revolution and violence, it is lawful for women, particularly for nuns, to take contraceptive pills and precautions against the danger of becoming pregnant through rape.”
On that same page was our Rumor of the Month: “So-called ‘flying saucers’ are actually diaphragms being dropped by nuns on their way to Heaven.”
After that issue was published, I began to get phone calls from frightened women. They were all in desperate search of a safe abortion doctor. It was preposterous that they should have to seek out the editor of a satirical magazine, but their quest so far had been futile, and they simply didn't know where else to turn.
With Dr. Spencer's permission, I referred them to him. At first there were only a few calls each week, then several every day. I had never intended to become an underground abortion referral service, but it wasn't going to stop just because in the next issue of The Realist I would publish an interview with somebody else.
A few years later, state police raided Dr. Spencer's clinic and arrested him. He remained out of jail only by the grace of political pressure from those he'd helped. He was finally forced to retire from his practice, but I continued mine, referring callers to other physicians that he had recommended. Occasionally a patient would offer me money, but I never accepted it. And whenever a doctor offered me a kickback, I refused, but I also insisted that he give a discount for the same amount to those patients I referred to him.
Eventually, I was subpoenaed by district attorneys in two cities to appear before grand juries investigating criminal charges against abortion doctors. On both occasions I refused to testify, and each time the D.A. tried to frighten me into cooperating with the threat of arrest.
In Liberty, New York, my name had been extorted from a patient who was threatened with arrest. The D.A. told me that the doctor had confessed everything and they got it all on tape. He gave me until two o'clock that afternoon to change my mind about testifying, or else the police would come to take me away.
“I'd better call my lawyer,” I told him.
I went outside to a public phone booth and called, not a lawyer, but the doctor.
“That never happened,” he said.
I returned to the D.A.'s office and told him that my lawyer said to continue being uncooperative. Then I just sat there waiting for the cops.
“They're on their way,” the D.A. kept warning me. But at two o'clock, he simply said, “Okay, you can go home now.”
Bronx district attorney (later judge) Burton Roberts took a different approach. In September 1969, he told me that his staff had found an abortion doctor's financial records, which showed all the money that I had received, but he would grant me immunity from prosecution if I cooperated with the grand jury. He extended his hand as a gesture of trust.
“That's not true,” I said, refusing to shake hands with him.
If I had ever accepted any money, I'd have no way of knowing that he was bluffing. The D.A. was angry, but he finally had to let me go.
Attorney Gerald Lefcourt (later president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers) filed a suit on my behalf, challenging the constitutionality of the abortion law. He pointed out that the district attorney had no power to investigate the violation of an unconstitutional law, and therefore he could not force me to testify.
In 1970, I became the only plaintiff in the first lawsuit to declare the abortion laws unconstitutional in New York State. “Later, various women’s groups joined the suit,” Lefcourt recalls, “and ultimately the New York legislature repealed the criminal sanctions against abortion, prior to the Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade.”
Dr. Spencer never knew about that. He died in 1969. The obituary in the New York Times acknowledged the existence of his abortion clinic. The obituary in the local paper in Ashland did not.
I continued to carry on my underground abortion referral service. Each time, though, I would flash on the notion that this was my own mother asking for help, and that she was pregnant with me. I would try to identify with the fetus that was going to be aborted even while I was serving as a conduit to the performance of that very abortion. Every day I would think about the possibility of never having existed, and I would only appreciate being alive all the more.
Pretending to be the fetus was just a way of focusing on my role as a referral service. I didn't want it to become so casual that I would grow unaware of the implications. By personalizing it, I had to accept my own responsibility for each fetus whose potential I was helping to disappear. That was about as mystical as I got. Maybe I was simply projecting my own ego.
In any case, by the time these women came to me for help, they had already searched their souls and made up their minds. This was not some abstract cause faraway–these were real people in real distress–and I just couldn't say no. So I made a choice to abort myself every time. For nearly a decade, that became my fetal yoga. And, in the process, I had evolved from a satirist into an activist.