Defending Abortion: Lessons from US History 1964-1980

Judith Widdecombe, abortion pioneer in MIssouri

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

This is the first of two posts looking to the history of abortion rights in America. Both focus on lessons learned that we can use in the fight for abortion rights in the future.  We make two central points in this post. Abortion rights were won by a mass movement, not the Supreme Court. Second, the abortion wars continue because abortion has come to stand for women’s equality,  sexual freedom and desire.

This post draws on Jonathan’s ten years of experience in the 1980s as a counsellor working for a feminist abortion clinic in London. Of course that was 30 years ago, and Britain is not the US, but much that he learned then informs what follows.

In the early 1960s, Nancy was in high school in St. Louis, and lived with constant fears of getting pregnant ruining her chances of the life she wanted for herself. She did not get pregnant then, but later supported four close friends through abortions and as they put their lives together afterwards.

Judith Widdicombe

Our story begins in the 1960s, when abortion was illegal in every state in America. Our protagonist is Judith Widdicombe, a nurse who lived in the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood and worked the evening shift in the labour ward at a Catholic hospital. Her husband had a delivery route for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Together, they spent one evening a week as volunteers for the Samaritans, a phone helpline for people who were thinking about suicide. [1]

Widdicombe noticed there were quite a lot of calls from women who were not thinking of suicide. But the women said they had been told this was a phone line for desperate people, and they were desperate, because they were pregnant. Could the Samaritans help?

The Samaritans could not, but there were so many of these calls that Widdicombe asked other volunteers if they were getting them too. They all were. So she asked friends outside the Samaritans if any of them knew how to get an abortion in St. Louis. One of them told her about a secret abortion referral service.

This was 1968. There were many such services around the country. Hundreds of pastors were involved, many of them veterans of the civil rights movement. Others were ministers providing pastoral services for college students. They were all men, because ministers were all men.

Judith Widdicombe had seen a lot of women with botched illegal or home-made abortions come into her hospital, and seen at least one of them die on the operating table. And she had talked to a lot of desperate callers at the Samaritans. She knew something had to be done, and she was the kind of person who did what had to be done. Her husband helped too, in every way he could.

Judith Widdicombe took on organising the services in the St Louis area. Queries from desperate women would come to her. She would send them to ministers for counselling. Widdicombe sent women mainly to Rev. Ken Gottman, a pastor in her own Methodist congregation in Kirkwood, and Rev. Tom Raber, who had a campus ministry down at Southwestern Missouri State University in Springfield. Then the ministers referred the women to illegal abortionists. Widdicombe could have referred the women to the abortionists directly. But the ministers’ participation made it harder for the police to intervene.

Each time she took on a new abortionist for referral, Widdicombe went and watched them operate for a day to make sure they were safe. She also began to draw in local doctors, including one she worked with at the Catholic Hospital. Most those doctors, like Widdicombe, had seen at least one woman die on the table after an illegal abortion.

Similar services around the country were also referring people to abortion providers in Chicago, Mexico and many other places. Abortion campaigners were also organising politically, and the tide was turning. New York state legalised abortion in 1970. Several other states did the same, but New York was exceptional in not imposing a any residency requirement for the woman. Women from all over the country came to New York. Widdicombe too began sending large numbers of St. Louis women to New York every week.

She often flew to New York with them. On the return trip she would hold a little meeting with the stewardesses in the back of the plane, tell the cabin crew which women were coming back from abortions, and give a few tips on how they could help. It wouldn’t make much difference on the flight, Widdecombe thought, but it made the cabin crew aware and sensitive to what was going on.

By 1971 abortion referral services all over the country were no longer entirely underground. Widdecombe’s service had a listing in the telephone book, and from time to time the St. Louis Post-Dispatch mentioned them. Across the country, abortion referral people were coming out into the open – and finding that no prosecutor in the country dared to go after them. A prosecution of a doctor failed in Washington DC, as did another in California. The chaplain at Southern Methodist University in Dallas even explained to his congregation in a Sunday morning service why he had decided to break the law on abortion.

In Chicago there were two underground referral services. One was organised by ministers, and went public with a long opinion piece in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1969. The other, called ‘Jane’, grew out of women’s liberation groups in Chicago. They announced their service at a public meeting. At first Jane referred women to doctors and to nonmedical abortionists. But the women activists eventually learned to do the operations themselves.[2]

There was no one model for an underground abortion service. Different activists, in different cities, organised in different ways. But all of them were increasingly open. All of which meant that by 1973 the US courts, the federal and state governments, and every police force faced a serious problem. Seventeen states had legalized abortion, although many more had not. But all over the country thousands of doctors and thousands of nurses, were more less openly defying the law – and so were many more lay women activists who were helping to organise the services. The rule of law was crumbling before the assault of a mass movement. It could not be enforced without jailing thousands, and that was politically impossible. In 1973 the Supreme Court solved the problem. In the landmark case of Roe v. Wade the court delivered a ruling that made abortion legal throughout all the United States. And Widdecombe went right out and found a property and set up the first legal abortion clinic in St. Louis. It remains open today.

Some Implications

The story of Roe v Wade is often told as a legal story, of a brave and determined young attorney in Texas who took a landmark case and argued it all the way to the Supreme Court. That’s true, and admirable, but only part of the story. Roe v Wade is also told as the story of the brave and determined ‘Roe’, a working class waitress in Dallas. That’s true too, but again only part of the story.

Other things lay behind the court battle. First, there was the importance of the women’s liberation movement and the sixties zeitgeist. Second, the way a mass movement was built by networks around the daily provision of abortion, led by activists like Widdicombe in every city in the country. Third, the way legislators are influenced by a mass movement, and how this led to a change in the law in New York State. And then, later how the courts, and especially the Supreme Court, eventually respond to mass movements.

This sequence is important. And there’s more to be learned. Let’s look deeper at what was at stake in the ‘abortion wars’.

Lena Phelan

The leaders, spokeswomen and organisers of women’s liberation were mostly educated professionals. But women like Judith Widdecombe, and the women who went to  underground abortionists, who had the operations and cleaned up themselves and their furniture and bedding afterwards, were mostly not privileged. These people formed the most important wing of the movement. It was larger than any other, and much more working class. They were the majority of women who identified with the idea of equality.

Working class women often expressed their feelings in qualified ways, indicating a distance from the educated leaders. ‘I don’t know about women’s lib, but…’ or ‘I’m not going to burn my bra, but …’ It was the but that shook the world.

Lena Phelan didn’t even say but. Born in Florida in 1921, she left school after the eighth grade to help support her poor family. Phelan married at thirteen, had her first child at fourteen, and got involved in abortion activism when she met Pat Maginnis in the San Francisco area in 1964.[3]

Maginnis was one of six siblings from a poor and abusive family. She left home, joined the army and was sent to an American base in Panama as punishment for a relationship with a black soldier. There she worked in an army hospital, and saw a pregnant soldier confined in a cage so she could not abort herself. When Macginnis got out of the army she went to Francisco, became a student, and started handing out leaflets about abortion on street corners.

Phelan, MacGinnis, and their friend Rowena Gurner helped 12,000 women go to Mexico for abortions. Phelan and Maginnis also began holding open classes all over the country on what a woman needed to know about abortion. Phelan would tell the students about her abortion, in 1938, when she was 17 years old and already had one baby.

We are going to quote from what Lena Phelan said at some length, because it reminds us that although the fight for abortion is about coat hangers and the right to choose, it is also about every aspect of being a woman in a patriarchal world.

The abortionist was kind, but told Phelan it would cost $50. Phelan didn’t dare tell her husband – you didn’t, back then, she would tell her audiences. So it took her four months to save the money for the abortion. As was usual at that time, the abortionist started the process of miscarriage and sent Phelan home. Then, Phelan would tell her audiences, she and her husband went to her sister-in-law’s for dinner:

I was at the table when I felt these awful pains. I excused myself and went to the bathroom, and I looked down at myself. I sat down on the john and looked at myself. And my God, I nearly collapsed. I was bleeding. There was blood all over me. And the worst thing – the worst thing – was there was a little limb of some kind, I don’t know whether it was a foot, or an arm, protruding from my vagina. All I could see was that. It was so tiny, it was like, oh God, a pipe stem thing. But all I knew was, what do I do now? How do I fix this? I hadn’t told anybody anything.

 So I quick took the toilet tissue and made gobs of toilet tissue, and I pushed everything back inside of me, just pushed, until everything went back inside, and I wiped up all the blood, and cleaned myself up, because it wasn’t on my dress, and went back to the table and I said, “I have such a headache, I can’t even hold my head up, I’ve got to go home.”

 And my husband said, “I’ll take you home.”

 And I said, “No, no, stay and have dinner.” I got out of there and took a cab as far as I had money for, and I walked the rest of the way . . . When I got there the house was dark. And I though, Oh, my God. She had said not to come back. But I didn’t have any choice.           

 I went around the house, and it was so black, and dark.

 I knocked on her side door, and I guess she had gone to bed, because she came to the door and she said, “I told you not to come back here.”

 And I said, “I had to, I had to,” and I was crying, and she let me in.

 She put me up on the gurney, and she said, “Oh, my you’re almost finished, I have to clean you up.”

 I felt really comforted when I got back to her, because it was somebody to share my secret with. And she cleaned me up, and I was laying on that gurney sobbing my heart out, and I’ll never forget that woman, she was wonderful. She came around, big black lady, she put her arms around me on the gurney, and she put her face down near mine, and she kind of put her cheek up next to mine. And she said, “Honey, did you think it was easy to be a woman?”[4]

No. It was not easy to be a woman. Beyond the dangers of illegal abortion, beyond the importance of a woman’s right to choose, what really matters about abortion politics is that one side wants to make it harder to be a woman, and the other wants to make it easier.

Lena Phelan

Shame and Fear

The legal victory in Roe v Wade mattered a great deal. It reinforced, and validated, the sexual revolution. It made autonomous female desire and sexual pleasure safer and easier.

Before then, unmarried women were in charge of holding men at bay, or they would pay the price of pregnancy. With that restraint, young women kept themselves in their place. Of course many still had sex out of wedlock, and other kinds of birth control were available, but those methods often failed, and women were always anxious they had made a mistake.

The fear of pregnancy and the secrecy of abortion also meant that women were ashamed – of their bodies, of their vaginas, of their desires, and of their sexuality.

Nancy remembers from her childhood in the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves:

I am ten when all the Girl Scouts in Webster are invited to an evening of sex education. The Presbyterian Church hall in Big Webster is packed with girls, scout leaders and lots of moms. The slide begins with menstruation, which might start at twelve. There is some anatomy, and a bit about eggs and sperm. The presentations ends with some stick figures and sappy stuff about love and family life.

I sit at the back of the hall, thinking hard about what I have heard. The slide show hasn’t told me how the egg and sperm get together. I’m desperate to ask because I don’t know the answer and I know I need to know. In the end, I keep quiet. I’m afraid I’ll be laughed at, or worse, that something will else bad I can’t even imagine will happen. Walking home from school soon afterwards, it dawns on me that my favourite cousin Pat was now 12 and might be going to have a baby.

Nancy continues: The silences and prudery put sex, unacknowledged, at the centre of our lives, while our ignorance of our own bodies itself produced gendered inequality. Our ignorance meant we could not and did not question the virgin/slut divide. Our ignorance promoted rampant heterosexism and supported male dominance by turning boys and men into potentially violent penetrators and impregnators. And our ignorance was also part of a system which devastated the boys who were shy, unattractive, or no good at sports. The damage spread out in many ways.

Forty years ago we did not have words – neither ‘gender’, nor ‘reproductive anatomy’, nor did we know anything much about ‘sex’, and we certainly didn’t have the pill. We tight-rope walked between making out and not going too far, between hanging onto a boyfriend and coping with outright sexism. The only words most of us had for homosexuals were ‘fruit’ and ‘fairy’, and I didn’t know what they meant. And I had no idea women could be gay, even though we’d all gone to slumber parties when we were eleven and twelve and snogged each other to find out what it would be like with a guy.

The extreme formality made dating predictable. I think it was part of how we kept actual sex at bay. Girls like me didn’t make out down dark lonely lanes. At the end of a date we kissed and petted in the car outside the house. And just as well. My friend Sarah’s mother said simply, ‘I trust you,’ adding not another single word. All I knew was ‘Not to do it,’ without being clear what ‘it’ was.

We were incredibly naïve, and outside our immediate circle of friends, secrecy was all. We didn’t talk about masturbation, and ‘orgasm’ was not a word in our vocabulary. We knew nothing of other forms of sexual pleasure – fellatio, cunnilingus, anal sex – and we would have been incredulous had we been told. We were utterly fixated on vaginal penetration. I didn’t know anything about birth control, nor had I any idea about abortion. In high school, I didn’t know anyone who had an abortion, though I know now that some did. Home for Christmas from our first term in college, we were stunned that Lisa had ‘done it’ and become pregnant before she got married, though we all rallied round to give her a bridal shower.

The silence about sex at the time is hard to exaggerate. A friend from those days remembers:

I was a zombie. I never thought about sex in high school. Boys? Sure I thought about boys, but not about sex. And I never heard the word ‘abortion’ until I was in nursing school. There we learned about ‘miscarriages’. I remember seeing socie-types – elite girls – having ‘D and Cs’ and wondering so many of them needed them. Only later I worked out they had the money to pay. The poor people of St. Louis went to City Hospital and to Barnes, we didn’t see them at St. Luke’s Episcopal and Presbyterian.

After Roe

Roe v Wade validated, and facilitated, not just a woman’s right to choose when to have a child with her body, but her right to have sex with as many people as she wanted, when she wanted. And in liberating women from daily anxiety and life-long shame, it made them stronger people. Moreover, this was a right women had won for themselves, in a mass collective movement.

But the Supreme Court decision in 1973 did not end the controversy over abortion. More than 40 years of conflict followed. It is important to understand what was, and is. at stake.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the birth control pill and abortion between them had changed women’s sexual lives. Less obviously, the weight of pregnancy fell on married women too. They too had abortions, and they too were ashamed.

Making abortion legal did not make it easy for women to talk openly their operations – not least because most married women who had had abortions also had a child who would hear what they said. But making it legal took away some of the shame, many of the small humiliations and the terror of going through an illegal procedure.

These were benefits and advantages which strengthened women and encouraged their independence. And they outraged the people who feared the sexual revolution and female desire, and wanted to see women subordinate. From 1973 on the forces opposed to abortion, individuals and institutions, began to organise for a long campaign. Their public argument was ‘pro-life’ – that abortion was killing an unborn child. And indeed, many of the most dedicated pro-life activists were motivated by just that.

The other side, defending abortion rights, called themselves ‘pro-choice’. Their argument was that a woman should have the right to make her own choice. After all, it  was her body, and no man, and no government, should be able to take that choice away from her. These were the public terms of the debate. Behind this, though, there were deeper and other conflicts.

For one thing, the debate was not really about life and choice. Those things mattered some to many people on both sides, and they mattered a lot to some people on both sides. But practical people kept forgetting and calling the two political positions by their right names: anti-abortion and pro-abortion. Because, after all, that was the central question. Were you for or against the operation? Was abortion all right?

This was not the same thing as a disagreement over whether abortion was killing an unborn child or not. In truth, you can argue over whether it is murder, or killing, or nothing much. Everyone understands that the operation stops a life coming into being. No one who works in an operating theatre doing abortions is flip about this, and neither are the majority of women who come for the operation.

Equality, abortion and sexual violence

So a woman’s sexual freedom came to stand for something very big – women’s equality, a woman’s independence, a woman’s fight not be controlled by or dependent on her parents or her husband.

Every abortion counsellor has talked with large numbers of women who thought abortion was murder, and still wanted the operation. The question is, how did not having a child weigh against the other things that a woman needs?

But there is more to it than this. The availability of abortion is something that protects all families, and all women.

Let’s take families first. The majority of abortions are chosen by women who already have children, and often have male partners. They are choosing the circumstances of life which will be best from them, for their existing children, and for their relationships. On one level it’s about money. On another it’s about anxiety over bills, medical care, evictions, crying children and all the reasons marriages come apart. In other words, abortion availability makes life easier for working people – most of us.

The major organisations involved in anti-abortion work in the US are the Catholic Church and the evangelical Protestant churches. The politicians who oppose abortion are the ones who oppose women’s sexual freedom, though that’s not how they express it. And almost all the debate in America was about unmarried, pregnant high school girls, although they are a tiny proportion of women having abortions.

But in an ugly spin, the word sex is too anodyne, too distanced, to capture the emotions and passions that animate the abortion wars. The right word is fucking. And especially fucking done by young women out of anyone’s control.

On the other side, the people and the organised forces who defend abortion, there is no question in anyone’s minds who they are. They are the feminists. Abortion was the greatest single victory of women’s liberation. Every defeat for abortion is a defeat for feminism, sexual and economic freedom and women’s equality.

One fact is telling. Before 1970, the Catholic Church was opposed to abortion. Although it may be hard to believe now, the distinguished historian Linda Gordon writes, ‘Evangelical Protestants endorsed abortion rights until secular Republican Party strategists pulled the evangelical leadership into the anti-abortion campaign.’ But before this, in 1968, the American Baptist Convention passed a motion ‘calling on ministers to counsel and assist women with family planning and abortion.’ Harris Wilson, a Baptist minister and a pastor for students at the University of Chicago, was co-sponsor of the resolution. Harris was also the leader of the not very underground referral service run by ministers in Chicago.[5]


When abortion is legal, freely available and not shameful, women can be protected from many hurts and domestic grief. At one extreme, there’s a deep connection between abortion and rape. All women are policed and cowed every day of their lives by the threat of sexual violence. So it is no coincidence that the powers that be cover up and enable sexual violence have seen to it that the swing votes on the Supreme Court should belong to a sexual harasser and a man who attempted rape.

It looks likely that the Supreme Court will make abortion substantially harder in the US. They may overturn Roe v Wade. They may just rule in smaller ways that will have the effect of allowing states to make abortion harder or impossible for some women, though neither of these outcomes will mean that abortion is illegal in those states where the legislature has made it legal.

So what do we do? One thing, obviously, is to punish the Republicans in elections. But that will not be enough. The lesson of Roe v Wade is that it was not the courts that made the difference, it was women’s liberation and a mass political movement. The activists in that movement talked to everyone at the same time as they were helping women to have abortions. And they made it very clear that tens of thousands of people would defy the law.

Those women were not defensive then. For thirty years the defenders of abortion in the United States have been defensive. This is not their (our) fault. That was the temper of the times, an era when neoliberalism and conservatism have been on the march. Those times are past.

We now live in the era of Donald Trump, which is also the era of Christine Blasey Ford. In the fight against sexual assault, we can imagine changing everything.

One way is to fight for abortion rights by helping with provision. This is a matter of money, but it is also a way of involving not just the people who want to protest, but those who want to help. It is also a way of building an army of people who have been helped.

But we can also use people who can drive three women in a car, or seven women in a mini-bus, across state lines, or from Texas to Mexico – and people who can put up women (and their husbands, and their children) for a night or two while they have the operation in another state.  Anyone who can volunteer at help desks or phone line does a crucial job of referring people on. There should be a volunteer referral service on every college campus too.

Planned Parenthood and other nonprofits have to stay within the law. But as clinics are closed or threatened with violence, we may well need organisations that walk along the edge of the law, or break the law with careful defiance.

It’s useful to remember the importance of the ministers in the illegal abortion movement that won Roe v Wade. Because they were harder to prosecute, the referral services were safer. Movie stars, ministers, elected politicians and musicians can do the same for us. And lead to conversations which persuade the people who are not sure what they think or do not agree with us.

Talking publicly about an abortion is not simple. Sometimes that feels OK and sometimes it does not. But in many conversations, you can say it.  Or say you paid for your girlfriend’s abortion, or held your wife’s or your daughter’s hand in the waiting room.

Because when we tell the truth, without shame, we make it easier for the people in the room who have not spoken to make themselves known. The truth is, the vast majority of Americans love a women who has had an abortion and does not regret it. Or they know a man who does not regret someone close to him having one either.

Perhaps the most important thing about Judith Widdicombe’s story is the way she talked to the cabin crews at the back of the plane on the flights back from New York.


Further Reading

On the Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh hearings, see here.

On sexual politics and Trumpgate, see here.

And we recommend Cynthia Gorney’s wonderful book about Judith Widdicombe and   Missouri, Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars.


[1] The following account of abortion politics relies particularly on Cynthia Gorney’s book from 2000, Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars, New York: Simon and Schuster. Other important sources for the two posts are Laura Kaplan, 1995, The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Abortion Service, Chicago: University of Chicago Press; William Saletan, 2003, Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, Berkeley: University of California Press; Faye Ginsberg, 1989, Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community, Berkeley: University of California Press; Rickie Solinger, 2001, Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion and Welfare in the United States, New York: Hill and Wang; Carol Sanger, 2017, About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twenty-First-Century America, Cambridge: Harvard University Press; and Linda Gordon, 2007, The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

[2] Laura Kaplan’s The Story of Jane is a thrilling and inspiring account of this.

[3] ‘The Army of Three”, at Pat Magginis,

[4] Gorney, 77-78.

[5] Linda Gordon, 2014, ‘The Women’s Liberation Movement’, in Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon and Astrid Henry, Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements, New York: Liverwright, 112; Kaplan, 1995, 62.

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