Column: This is what back-alley abortions were really like

Published July 9 2018
Updated July 11 2018

As a moderate conservative or, equally, a moderate liberal, depending on the issue du jour, I have chills running down my spine at the possibility of Roe vs. Wade being overturned. Let me tell you why.

With a staunch Catholic upbringing and an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps, I joined the Baltimore Police Department in 1959, 14 years before the 1973 landmark Roe decision. Police training taught that "abortion" had a legal definition and was illegal in Maryland. Nine days out of the academy and two days before Christmas, I was introduced to its cruel realities.

My post included Maryland General Hospital, an exciting assignment because of its "Accident Room," as its primitive emergency room was then called. One evening I received a call to take "a report of an injured woman" at the hospital.

A car with its side door open was parked at the entrance. Blood was on the back seat with more puddled on the ground. I noted the vehicle description and license number. A trail of blood led inside. A doctor and three nurses were working on a young woman lying on a table. My initial thought was she had been gutted.

I went to the ER desk looking for the paperwork. There wasn’t any. A nurse said the man who dropped the woman off said she’d had a miscarriage and was leaving to move his car. She ordered me to find him. I searched the parking lot and bordering streets. No car.

When I came back inside, the woman had been stabilized. A nurse and the doctor were at the desk arguing. The nurse wanted to present the case as a miscarriage, the doctor as an abortion. She argued reporting it as an abortion would involve the Abortion Squad, putting the woman through hell. The doctor’s concern was that a dangerous abortionist be stopped.

I notified my sergeant that an abortion had taken place. He came to the hospital, interviewed staff and made a call. A male detective and a policewoman arrived. I was relieved of the case.

Later at trial, I learned the abortion had been performed in the back seat of a car in an alley under the bright security lights of a warehouse. The abortionist was a midwife who had lost her license to alcoholism and mistakes. She nicked a vein removing the fetus and couldn’t stop the bleeding. The young woman had wanted to end the pregnancy so she could enjoy Christmas.

Another night I went into the ER of a Catholic hospital for a cup of coffee. A nun supervisor was viciously berating a nurse. A sobbing young woman lay on a table. Her abortion had caused an infection. The nurse treated the woman, then convinced the attending physician to write an antibiotic prescription without examining her.

When the supervising nun found out, she immediately called the Abortion Squad. The squad arrived and began the interrogation of both patient and nurse. This was well before Miranda warnings. They threatened the woman with arrest unless she named the abortionist. The next night, I learned the nurse had been fired.

The Abortion Squad consisted of three policewomen, two male detectives, a male supervising sergeant and a prosecuting attorney. Its mission was to find and prosecute, with holy zeal, persons who performed abortions. Most policewomen resisted assignment to the squad, mainly because of its tactics. Teenagers, young women, women with too many children whose husbands wouldn’t use condoms — many still bleeding from their procedures — were threatened with arrest, harshly interrogated and mercilessly browbeaten until they named their providers.

Informants were everywhere. ERs were required by law to report abortions. Churches had the phone number. So did the gimlet-eyed, sour-faced "black widows" and old maids of the old ethnic neighborhoods, who would see a girl with a belly one day and a smooth front the next. Parents reported their own daughters. Women fraught with guilt reported doctors whom they had tearfully begged for help. There was even a priest who violated the sanctity of the confessional by making a woman report her abortion to the police as part of her penance. But most of the squad’s work came from botched back-alley jobs.

Once the abortionist was identified, the squad gathered physical evidence, searching garbage cans, unwrapping rolled-up newspapers, looking for the discarded fetus. They tried not to vomit.

Many abortionists pleaded guilty; many didn’t. The numbing stresses of the abortion and the agony of the investigation were re-created at trial, with the terminated pregnancy subject to public disclosure and social judgment.

A nurse told me that a woman who wants an abortion will find a way, consequences be damned. Roe vs. Wade changed all this. Without it we are condemned to the desperations of the past.

Gary Woodcock is a retired lieutenant from the Baltimore Police Department who lives in Sun City Center.