“Charleston was the place to come before Roe v. Wade, for abortions.”
Reminiscing about illegal abortion in South Carolina in the 1960s and early 1970s, this woman in her 60s, an oral history narrator, highlighted the roles of “backstreet” abortion networks in Charleston. She also told a story about a college friend who needed an abortion:
This narrative was collected in 2016 by researchers from College of Charleston’s Women’s Health Research Team (WHRT), an interdisciplinary group of students and faculty that investigates health issues in order to empower women and girls in South Carolina and beyond.
Faculty and students on this project, entitled “Reproductive Health Histories,” gathered 70 oral histories focusing on reproductive health from women in South Carolina’s Lowcountry.1 Although we asked basic questions on fertility control and abortion, we were astounded at the in-depth knowledge about illegal abortion that our narrators demonstrated. These women provided intriguing glimpses into abortion realities in South Carolina’s recent past. They told us about the complexities of abortion: the diverse methods employed, the various spaces of abortion, and the roles played by “professional” abortionists.
Women over 50 and 60 had particularly telling things to say about abortion before it was decriminalized. They related a variety of abortion methods, including home or folk remedies such as herbal potions and turpentine consumption, surgical procedures at “professional” offices, and other self-inflicted mechanical procedures. According to one woman discussing the 1960s in Charleston, “you could go to one of these root doctors and you could get medicine for anything, and you could get medicine for preventing pregnancy or ending pregnancy.” Another told us:
These remembrances of illegal abortion also raised additional questions: Who were the abortion providers? Where, other than “no-tell motels,” did abortions occur? How many illegal abortionists were brought to trial from 1900 to 1973?
These questions form the basis for the WHRT’s continuing research project on abortion in South Carolina’s history. Team members have perused newspaper articles from the early to mid twentieth century that shed further light on the backstreet abortion networks that permeated the state. While these accounts rarely discuss in any detail the methods of abortion used, they do provide intriguing information on abortion providers across several decades. In a 1939 edition of the Florence Morning News, for example, Mary E. Adams was accused of procuring over 500 illegal abortions. Adams apparently relied on experience over schooling and accommodated clients in her own home, suggesting that she may have been a midwife or traditional healer. That she was African-American was also noted by newspaper summaries.
Other providers had formal medical training. According to the Florence Morning News, 1961,
Although this article does not provide information on the race of the doctor, others suggest that African-American doctors were overrepresented in prosecutions, especially when they gave abortions to “white girls.”
In an article “Illegal Abortion” from January 21, 1966 in The Index Journal, a widow of a doctor was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail for performing an abortion on a 16-year-old girl.3
Moving forward, researchers from the WHRT hope to examine not only more newspaper accounts but also contemporary medical literature, additional first-hand narratives, and the criminal court case files focusing on illegal abortion prosecutions. Our hope is that these historical narratives will remind us that, whatever its legal status, abortion is a complex reality for women across time and space.
This research also demonstrates the often-troubling continuities that we witness in abortion history. Currently in South Carolina, legislative attempts to restrict reproductive health care services are alive and well. The “Personhood Act,” which, according to state senator Richard Cash, is designed to take on Roe vs. Wade, defines life as beginning at fertilization and would not only eliminate abortion but also possibly restrict contraception access. On February 20, 2018, a state Senate committee approved the bill, which now heads to the Senate floor.
Women with unwanted pregnancies in South Carolina’s history did whatever they could to control their fertility, even in an era when they faced not only difficulty accessing abortion but also potential prosecution if caught doing so. Women today and in the future will undoubtedly follow suit. Turpentine, coat hangers, and “no-tell motels”… will these methods become necessary once more in our state if this legislation passes? If so, our historical knowledge of clandestine abortion methods will become more important than ever. And so too will the efforts of the Women’s Health Research Team and others working to secure health care for all women.
To learn more and stay up-to-date on the situation in South Carolina, follow the Women’s Health Research Team on Facebook and Twitter (@WHRT_CofC).
- IRB approval code: COFC IRB – 2015 – 01 – 02 – 143009 Return to text.
- “Abortion Charge Filed by Police on Optometrist,” Florence Morning News, December 10, 1961. Return to text.
- “Illegal Abortion,” The Index Journal, January 21, 1966. Return to text.