Postcard showing two women's faces looking at the viewer with the text: Pro-abortion or Amature Abortion, with Amature Abortion in red over a coat hanger.

“No-Tell Motels”: Abortion in Pre-Roe South Carolina

“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:

Because the medical university was here. Residents and interns would perform what we would call “No-Tell Motel” abortions….We came down for Citadel football and it was parents weekend or it was some kind of big weekend. And a girl who lived down my hall who was a senior had been dating a cadet, they were going to get married, she was in Charleston every chance she got. But that weekend or that Wednesday she came and asked if there was room in my car to come to Charleston and I said yeah….. We didn’t see ‘em at the parades, the Friday afternoon parade. We didn’t see ‘em at the football game Saturday. Sunday, when we were leaving to come back, all of us were there with our dates or whatever. She showed up and she looked God-awful, and we just thought, “Oh my god they had major fights,” because she had cried so much that her eyes were almost, she could see out of ‘em but you obviously knew she’d been crying. She said nothing on the way back to school… And we didn’t say an awful lot because we didn’t know what had gone on. Get back in and 3 o’clock the next morning, there’s a pounding on the room door across the hall from us …This girl was hemorrhaging. And I remember going into her room and looking at her and she’s lying on the bed and the bed is full of blood. She’d had an abortion, she’d gone up to Rivers Avenue [in North Charleston], to one of the motels.

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:

I heard horror stories, just bits and pieces of people in the community that had gone off and had abortions in different methods. The clothes hanger method, of going to the doctor and how horrible that was. The people bleeding to death and getting infections. Stuff like that.

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.

Newspaper clipping with the headline: Abortion ‘Plant’ operated by negress, officers say, Deaths, List of more than 500 alleged clients of Anderson woman found.
(Greenville News, September 2, 1939.)

Other providers had formal medical training. According to the Florence Morning News, 1961,

“He [an optometrist] was charged with performing an abortion on an 18-year-old white girl on Monday. The girl was later hospitalized after becoming seriously ill. B. was also charged with practicing medicine without a license, possessing an unlawful amount of drugs, and carrying a concealed weapon.”2

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).

Notes

  1. IRB approval code: COFC IRB – 2015 – 01 – 02 – 143009 Return to text.
  2. “Abortion Charge Filed by Police on Optometrist,” Florence Morning News, December 10, 1961. Return to text.
  3. “Illegal Abortion,” The Index Journal, January 21, 1966. Return to text.

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