Published in 2020 by the University of Nebraska Press, Alicia Gutierrez-Romine’s From Back Alley to the Border: Criminal Abortion in California, 1920–1969 tells the story of abortion during the era it was outlawed in California. We recently chatted about how Gutierrez-Romine came to the topic, the challenges of telling these women’s stories, and why California was unique in the history of abortion.
Karen Weingarten: In your introduction, you discuss how you came across the subject of your book by chance, which reminded me of Courtney Thompson’s recent Nursing Clio essay about Archival Kismet. How did you realize you wanted to write about the history of abortion in California during the era it was outlawed?
Alicia Gutierrez-Romine: This piece on Archival Kismet is gold. I’m happy someone else has put that into words because it reflects how I approach my research. I’ve felt a bit like an outsider at certain conferences and even in graduate school because I worked with people who were confident from day one about what they wanted to research. I had general ideas; I knew I was interested in medical history, I’d previously done research on medical experimentation, but I didn’t have a set project that I had been conceptualizing my whole life.
During my coursework, I worked closely with scholars whose expertise was in Los Angeles, the American West, and race and ethnicity. I figured my dissertation would sit somewhere at an intersection there. I started formulating a project on the experiences of physicians of color in Southern California from the 1930s to the 1950s, and my department funded a trip to the California State Archives, where I planned to look at physician license revocation files. I expected I would disproportionately find physicians of color there. Instead, I didn’t have permission to look at documents from the 1940s and 1950s, and I overwhelmingly found documents about physicians losing their medical licenses for performing “illegal operations.” Once I discovered that this was a euphemism for abortion, I became enthralled by this story. I’m a historian, but I’m also a millennial who’s grown up in a world where abortion was always legal – never making the connection that if Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, then it was illegal before that.
By the end of the first day, I had started uncovering a body of documents on the Pacific Coast Abortion Ring, an illegal abortion syndicate headquartered in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. One of the final documents I saw that first day discussed how much money they were making – the modern-day equivalent of millions of dollars a month. I emailed my adviser to ask if he’d ever heard of it. He replied immediately, letting me know he hadn’t and that I had to find out everything I could. That got me really excited. It was in that instant I knew this was my dissertation topic, which became this book years later.
KW: What do you think is most distinct about California’s particular history of abortion in this period?
AGR: One of the most distinct things about the history of abortion in California is its geographic proximity to the border. Obviously, women in all places could, in theory, travel to other places where they felt the law was less invasive or restrictive, but for many women in the American southwest, it wasn’t just that they could travel to another neighborhood or state – they could actually go to another country whose borderlands space was perceived as a zone of tolerance for American vice or debauchery. Abortions were illegal in Mexico, too; but the perception was that the border was like what we think of Las Vegas today – what happened there stayed there – and many people took advantage of that.
I also think the perception of the border as a place where “anything goes” complicated efforts to enforce the existing abortion laws. The law, to an extent, prevented abortions from happening in California. The problem was that the law focused on regulating women’s behavior. Mexico became a workaround, but it also helped to advance fears about public health and safety. Dr. Leon Belous, in his case before the California Supreme Court, claimed that he was concerned about women being subjected to “butchery in Tijuana.” The border was obviously an important part of the discourse surrounding illegal abortion in California at this time.
Finally, the role of Hollywood and the film industry is also important. You had Hays Code–era Los Angeles attempting to portray a wholesome image to the rest of the world through film, at the very same time that abortions were an open secret within the industry itself.
KW: I enjoyed how you covered the stories of individual women. Why did you decide to emphasize individual stories as you told this history?
AGR: There are so many of these women in the archives. I honestly wish I did a better job at telling their stories. My goal was to put them at the center of the book, but looking back on the project, it’s a bit more of a story of the California Board of Medical Examiners’ attempts to grapple with illegal abortions. Nevertheless, I appreciate you recognizing my attempt to tell their stories. There are so many of these women in the archive, and I shouldn’t know about them. I shouldn’t be privy to the intimate circumstances and details of their life that rendered them subject to an abortion investigation file, yet here I am. My hope was that they’d be humanized, that they wouldn’t be abstract women who the reader could make assumptions about. If I mention that a woman underwent an illegal abortion because she was worried about losing her child in a custody battle with her estranged husband, and then died, it’s because her story was in the archive, and it was real.
KW: Chapter three discusses the experiences of Black abortion providers and women who sought abortions. The chapter stands out, since you tell readers that most of the stories you found in the archive were about white women and abortion providers. Did you come across anything that revealed the experiences of other women of color?
AGR: This was something I struggled with. Because of how diverse the American West is, I expected (and several of my readers expected!) to include more voices from women of color. Aside from surmising from someone’s surname, or the occasional racist comment in the documents, there wasn’t much about demographics in the archives. When I was still in the early phase of the project, I tried to see if there was a way to bridge my previously imagined topic with this current topic of abortion – that’s essentially how I got that chapter on Black women and Black abortion providers. However, there wasn’t really enough for me to do much beyond that chapter. After comments from one of my reviewers, I did try to go and “find” Asian and Latinx women, but it felt forced. It was a bit late in the project and the last thing I wanted to do was a poor job at telling those women’s stories. Ultimately, I recognized I can’t do everything. I explained in the introduction that there probably is a story out there about Asian and Latinx women and abortion in Southern California, but this book isn’t the one to tell it.
KW: Another focus of your book is California legal cases. Which legal case do you think had the biggest impact on this story?
AGR: That’s a tough one! Trials are really important in each chapter. The two that I think are probably most important are People of the State of California v. Reginald Rankin et al. and People of the State of California v. Roy L. Buffum.
The Rankin case was about the Pacific Coast Abortion Ring. It was such a huge case, there were so many women who were made to testify, and it differed from earlier trials that were only possible because the patient, or abortion recipient, had died. Instead, this case highlighted that illegal abortions could be safe.
The Buffum case showed the limits of the court’s power. When that case was ultimately decided, it basically said that when it came to California women getting abortions in Mexico, the court and law enforcement had no power. This case is what allowed for the Tijuana abortion business to thrive.
KW: Finally, what lessons do you think your book teaches for people who are committed to ensuring safe and legal access to abortion today?
AGR: Hopefully people can get a sense of what the experience was like for women who wanted to exercise reproductive control in spite of a law that stripped them of bodily autonomy. I hope readers get a greater sense of the desperation that some of these people felt, which leads to a better understanding of what criminalization of this medical procedure really does.
My book shows how detrimental criminalization is to women. If we are interested in ensuring safe access to abortion, it has to be legal and accessible. While abortion is still legal in all 50 states, access to the procedure is becoming increasingly limited. There is no choice where there is no access, and if state restrictions limit access, then abortion is already essentially illegal in some places. If we want to protect access to safe and legal abortions, we need to use our voice and vote for representatives who support that.