What Feminists Did the Last Time Abortion Was Illegal

As the US Supreme Court heard arguments over the Texas and Mississippi laws that threatened to weaken Roe v. Wade substantially, my thoughts turned to the abortion rights activists I interviewed in California in the wake of the 1989 Webster decision. Webster v. Reproductive Services also involved a Mississippi statute, one that required viability testing after twenty weeks of pregnancy. While Webster marked the first significant legal victory by antiabortion forces, the two current abortion cases will make far more substantial progress toward making abortion illegal again. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization involves Mississippi’s ban on abortions after fifteen weeks of pregnancy in almost all cases. Texas passed an even more extreme law that forbids abortion after six weeks.

The women I interviewed, Lana Clarke Phelan and Carol Downer, wanted to save other women from going through the experience of illegal abortions that they had endured. In 1964, Phelan met Rowena Gurner and Patricia Maginnis, the founders of the Society for Humane Abortion (SHA), a California organization that advocated for the repeal of all abortion laws and provided education about abortion to both public and medical groups. Phelan, a gifted orator, became the SHA’s primary spokesperson. Phelan also mentored Downer, a women’s liberation activist interested in abortion and women’s health. After Roe, Phelan assumed the presidency of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), an association dedicated to maintaining legal abortion, and Downer co-founded the first woman-controlled abortion clinic in the United States in 1973.

Photo of Lana Clarke next to a event poster with a coat hanger and the words "END BUTCHERY" on it
Article by Carol Honsa in the Washington Post: “Abortion class draws crowd.” (September 1967.
Photo from Pat Maginnis archive)

The Guttmacher Institute estimates that if the Supreme Court upholds the Texas law, twenty-six US states would quickly move to outlaw abortion once again. The situation would revert to the immediate pre-Roe years. From 1967 to 1973, dedicated activists pushed politicians to repeal anti-abortion laws while also helping women access abortions. I spoke with Downer and Phelan in 1989 as an undergraduate desperate to learn how feminists my age might respond to Webster. In the ensuing years, Phelan and Downer’s activism has become part of a well-established history of the broader feminist movement for reproductive justice. We may need to rely on the lessons of the past if abortion becomes illegal again.

“the laws were changed, [but] . . . patients had been turned over to the medical end of it.” – Lana Phelan

In 1967, California joined a handful of states, including Colorado, Oregon, and North Carolina, that permitted abortion in limited circumstances or when continuing the pregnancy would impair a patient’s physical or mental health. That latter provision required two physicians to attest to a patient’s mental state in order for them to secure an abortion, something that women found demeaning and insulting. Phelan was angered that women had to claim that they were “mentally unstable . . . to a bunch of men who had never been pregnant.” The solution seemed clear to her: “we should teach [women] how to do [abortions] themselves.” Phelan and Maginnis developed a presentation providing both medical and legal information that they gave throughout the county in 1967 and 1968. The press often sensationalized these lectures as “do it yourself” abortion classes because they included detailed instructions about how to self-induce pregnancy loss.

Cover of a blue and white booklet that says THE ABORTION HANDBOOK on the top
The Abortion Handbook. (NPR, courtesy of Andrea Bowers)

In 1969, Maginnis suggested to Phelan that they write a book to disseminate abortion information to a broader audience. Phelan remembers, “I sat down at my typewriter, and for six weeks, I typed the abortion handbook. And I just typed it day and night. And before I knew it, I had galleys in my hands.” Phelan liked to envision the male physicians who controlled abortion access “sitting at a table in the hospital hearing about what these women are doing now. They’re telling each other how to do their abortions and how not to do them.”

While working to repeal abortion efforts, the Society for Humane Abortion also ran an abortion referral service. After the publication of The Abortion Handbook for Responsible Women (1969), Phelan remembered receiving a “deluge of letters from desperate women.” Phelan estimates that she provided over five thousand women with the SHA information packet that contained a list of abortion providers. The information packet also included an evaluation form to be returned after the procedure. The SHA used this feedback to weed out bad providers because Phelan felt “that was the only way we could keep the next [woman] safe.”

In 1971, California joined Hawaii, Alaska, New York, and Washington in legalizing abortion in all cases. Phelan focused on replicating the successful abortion law repeal campaign in other states through an offshoot of the SHA, the National Association to Repeal Abortion Laws (now NARAL). Carol Downer, a protégé of Phelan’s, continued to help women obtain abortions. Downer met Phelan in 1969 when she was the sole audience member to turn up for a poorly publicized lecture about abortion sponsored by the National Organization of Women’s (NOW) abortion rights task force. Undeterred, Phelan gave “a one-to-one lecture. I told Carol exactly what I had come to tell all the other women who might have to be there, and she was the most rewarding student I ever had.” Downer shadowed Phelan at public lectures and eventually became a speaker for the task force as well.

Downer initially considered developing an underground abortion network. However, while observing an illegal abortion, she came to believe that demystifying women’s reproductive health could convince people that abortion should be legal. In April 1971, Downer demonstrated a gynecological self-examination to a small group of abortion activists and shared the Karman Cannula, a suction-based device used to perform early abortions. One audience member, Lorraine Rothman, realized how simple the device would be to assemble, and, like the other women present, immediately saw the potential use for self-abortion. She returned to the group’s second meeting with an improved version. During the summer of 1971, Rothman and Downer received additional medical training in performing suction abortions at a legal clinic in Seattle.

After Downer and Rothman presented their information at the NOW conference, they received invitations to train women in other cities. Like Phelan and Maginnis, Rothman and Downer toured the US to educate other women about abortion, including the means of self-abortion.

In 1972, Downer and Rothman helped found the Women’s Abortion Referral Service in Los Angeles. They wanted to keep as much of the abortion process as possible out of male medical hands. Downer remembers that although the group could not find a female physician, “we found a doctor that was good at doing abortions, and would do it our way. . . . [We] did the pelvic examinations at the women’s center and did the counseling and then scheduled the abortion,” and accompanied women to the hospital for abortions. Following Roe, Downer helped to found the first women-controlled abortion clinic located in Los Angeles.

The incontrovertible lesson of history is that people will seek and procure abortions no matter what the law dictates. If the Supreme Court upholds these statutes from Texas or Mississippi, a patchwork of state legislation will once again intersect with individual privilege to create inequitable access to abortion. Lana Clarke Phelan died in 2010, but Carol Downer, who became a lawyer, still fights for reproductive justice. They are only two of the many abortion activists whose legacy from when abortion was last illegal endures in referral lists of reputable abortion providers and organizations dedicated to providing financial assistance to abortion seekers.