A Woman Recounts Her Twelve Abortions in Turn-of-the-Century New York
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A Woman Recounts Her Twelve Abortions in Turn-of-the-Century New York

In an interview, conducted by oral historian Allyson Knoth for the Feminist History Research Project, Elizabeth Anderson, born in Germany in the late 1880s, described the twelve abortions she endured as a young married woman living in New York City with a husband who refused to use birth control devices such as condoms. Anderson detailed a series of painful and dangerous procedures, including the use of ergot pills, and pricking the cervix with a hat pin. Anderson also suggested that abortion was used by working-class women as well as those better off; the typical abortionist charged $25 (a decent week’s wage) to perform the illegal procedure.

Listen to Audio:

Elizabeth Anderson: But they talk so much here about the girls gettin' abortions and all this sort of stuff. Well, I had twelve abortions.

Allyson Knoth: You did have?

Anderson: In New York, and there was no trouble getting ‘em. They’d cost ’em about twenty-five dollars. They had people like would be here, midwives, or the men, you know, chiropractors or something like that,that would perform them, although I had about six of them done by my own doctor.

Knoth: Wow!

Anderson: See, all he would do was I went there and told him I was overdue. He would put something in, a prick, something you know, I mean, to just... open the uterus, I think, and tell me,“well, you got a little irritation there.” And he says, “Now when you come around, you let me know and I’ll come to your house and... But don’t let it go after you get... ”

Knoth: And there wasn’t any problem with legality or anything like that?

Anderson: No. Of course, after my twelfth one I got kind of sick, very sick and then I didn’t... By that time I thought that was about enough of it. But outside of that, I had no trouble. But I was rather sick after the, the twelfth one I had. That was after my second marriage.

Knoth: Why? Why did you have twelve abortions? Was it just you didn’t want any more children?

Anderson: Well, it was one of those cases. I think them days people maybe didn’t talk so much about other people. All you heard from the others telling you how they got rid of their pregnancy, all kinds of methods: taking a hat pin, you know, a little hard ball of a hat pin and inserting it in the vagina, and they’d get it on, take hot gin baths, and take, ah, medicine, you know, something like that.

But, them days if you’d studied up a little bit, among the things they tried to tell people: that if they didn’t satisfy their husbands, they’d go out with other women. You see? It wasn’t a case... We didn’t know, and you know, if you used contraptions, they weren’t as good as they are these days. People got sick from them, or something. And it’s one of those things that, ah, if you just had normal intercourse without protection, you just got pregnant.

Knoth: Um-hum.

Anderson: I probably had five or six with my first marriage, and six after, about that.

Knoth: Did you know of any other contraceptives, besides a doctor giving an abortion?

Anderson: Never wore any. I’ve never used any and never used any . Well, I don’t think they had any pills those days that I know of.

Knoth: Well, you talked about the hat pins and the gin baths. Would you ever do that?

Anderson: Oh, I never did with a... I’ve never used a hat pin, but I did sit many a time in the ... It wasn’t a gin bath. You sat in Epsom Salts or some kind of salts—I forget—in a hot big tub, and then you drank a pint of gin while you were in there.

Knoth: [Laughing]

Anderson: And sometimes it would bring it on.

Knoth: Uh huh.

Anderson: And then I used to take a pill with it, ah—oh, I can’t think—but anyway, it had ergot in it.

Knoth: Uh huh. What did... How did your doctor feel about all your abortions?

Anderson: Never bothered about it. I mean, you mean.... What did you ask me there? What did he do about it?

Knoth: Um-hum.

Anderson: Well, they just went to the doctor. When I went into the doctor’s he would go and examine me and said, “yeah,”like he, maybe I was pregnant. But he, you know, they didn’t take no pregnancy tests then, but I told him I was overdue and he would examine me. That is about four or five of them I had done that way. And he would go and, I think, pricked the uterus because I would hear, feel a sharp pain. And he said, “Oh, you just got some irritation there, and I’ll just go and put something on it.” And then he would instruct me that if I started to menstruate, to call him. And a couple of times I went to his office, and several times he came to the house, and then they would take it. But they always was done. I didn’t have any that I would let go until I was... oh, overdue more than about four weeks, you know, at the early, very early pregnancies.

Knoth: Did he advise any other type of abortion?

Anderson: You mean concept... No, never did.

Knoth: How did your husband feel about all these abortions?

Anderson: Well, he, he didn’t mind that. But he didn’t—you know, the only thing a lot of people at the time, some of them, the men, would use protection, rubbers, you know, or something — and he wouldn’t do that. You know, his aversion was that if he couldn’t do that he’d get somebody else that would if I wanted to have all that kind mess, you know. And I probably was a person at the time that enjoyed sex myself. And though them days, all you heard about it was that if they took precaution, you lost the joy of intercourse. You know if it wasn’t freely, that when you felt like it, that’s when you want it, and not you hadda do all kinds of preparations, and douches, and all this sort of stuff.

Knoth: Is this the way both of your husbands felt?

Anderson: They felt that way, yeah. But, see now, the same thing with people with douches, except three or four times in my life. The first doctor I had told me never to douche because it was harmful to a woman unless it was done under doctor’s instructions. But that wouldn’t help the pregnancy any, I don’t think. At least it wouldn’t as far as I understood people that douche themselves now. Unless they were using contraptions, or they’re using pills, they’ll get pregnant regardless of whether they douche or not.

Knoth: Um-hum. Were you ever tempted to keep one of your pregnancies?

Anderson: What’s that?

Knoth: Were you ever tempted to keep one of your pregnancies?

Anderson: Oh, several times I might have thought about it, but most of the times, if I made up my mind I wasn’t going to have the baby, why I just went ahead with it. You see, because it was a case of—I guess every time, every month actually, I got pregnant. You know, every two months. It would be about two months, and then, you know, by the time it was taken care of and I would get pregnant.

Knoth: Was it just that you didn’t want any more children? Or you just, you know...

Anderson: Well, I didn’t. After. By the time I stopped doing that I think I had stopped having pregnancy. I guess I was close to forty.

Knoth: Um-hum.

Anderson: And then I think it just was normal that I had so many pregnancies that I didn’t...

Knoth: Well, you said after your twelfth abortion that, you know, you were sick and you couldn’t have any more? Were you physically harmed by it so that you couldn’t get pregnant any more?

Anderson: I don’t think so. It could have been after that I just wasn’t pregnant again after it. But what happened, I got very ill and the... it was a sort of a chiropractor came to the house and curetted me.

Knoth: What’s that?

Anderson: Well, that’s what they do: they scrape the uterus out, you know, to get rid of the, ah . . . I don’t know what you call it, pieces of something. But anyhow, I had been sick the morning before a little bit, because I went to the woman’s house, and she inserted something in the uterus so that the man could come the following morning and, and take and scrape and curette me. And, well, anyway, he did this, and by that night I was very sick. And my husband—because if we got caught doing it, we were... you could get arrested, you know, for having done that—so, he wasn’t going to have, have called in another doctor.

So I put up with it for about two days or three days and then they called him in again and he re-curetted me, scraped me again, see, a second time. And that was very, very painful. Then for about five days I couldn’t get up out of bed. I couldn’t lift my head. And then all of a sudden I could sit up, and I couldn’t lay down for about two weeks and I had to walk with my head turned sideways. And then all of a sudden, some trouble in the home happened, and I got up—regardless of how bad I felt—and I took a, a big dose of Alka Seltzer. And through the excitement I must have jerked my head back again, and I was all right.

Knoth: What was the time span that you’ve had twelve abortions? How many years?

Anderson: Well, that would be... I was married when I was seventeen, and the first baby was born about — not—about two years afterwards. I started to go to a doctor to wonder why I didn’t get pregnant, you know? Because them days, most people wanted a baby right away or thought they should have a baby right away. So, um, they told me after once I’d get pregnant, I’d probably have lots of, have plenty of children. So, it was I was married ten, eleven, ten, a little over ten years with my first husband and I had I think it was five pregnancies in that time and then, of course, I was married about thirty years to my second husband. So, I’d say it’s a matter of about, oh twenty some odd, about twenty-five years during that time that—during the pregnancy — that I had the twelve abortions.

Knoth: What is your overall philosophy on having abortions?

Anderson: Well, at that time I could see no harm in it. It was the only thing you could do. Of course, if I had to do today and had to take pills, I don’t know whether I would or not. I suppose, possibly, that shouldn’t be. Don’t hurt any part of people having intercourse. But contraptions I couldn’t see. I’d seen so many people, them days at least, have a lot of harmful things about it. They’d did where some had, some of them afterwards, they couldn’t get pregnant after they wore them for... You know they used to put little gold buttons or something in the uterus to keep it open. And if they’d done that for three or four years, why then when they did wanna have a baby, they couldn’t have one.

Of course, as far as I was concerned, it never inconvenienced me. I, a couple of times I went right from my house into a doctor’s office and had it done, and walked home again

Source: Oral history courtesy of Sherna Gluck, Feminist History Project.