As a college student in the mid-1960s, I supplemented my income, and my education, by working as a reporter for a local newspaper. The combination led to my initial first-hand encounter with abortion, then a shadowy, illegal practice. The place was the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where I lived off campus in a dilapidated two-story building popular with students.
My introduction to the area’s abortion specialist came through a neighbor, an animal-science major. Though the ridges and valleys of East Tennessee are far removed from the cattle-raising plains of the West, Roy was a true cowboy. A senior in his early 20s, he already was a successful rancher, leasing pasturage in a nearby county for his beef cattle. In his junior year he had sold one-third of a blue-ribbon bull for $10,000, testament to the animal’s breeding potential.
Roy exhibited Hollywood-cowboy traits, too. He was taciturn when sober and rowdy when drunk. And he was known to carry a .38 revolver.
A behest from Roy led to my discovery of the Doc. The Doc was a general practitioner whose office hours were 5 to 9 p.m. three days a week. His office was on the fringe of downtown, less than a mile from our apartments. (In this story, he will be called the Doc; the other names have been changed.)
Roy had come to me in an uncharacteristic panic. He had gotten a girl pregnant and he asked if I knew where she could get an abortion. Roy knew that I had contacts through my job. I worked at The Knoxville Journal, the morning daily.
I asked the Journal’s police reporter, he obtained the Doc’s name from friends at the cop shop and I passed the information along. I didn’t see Roy for a couple of weeks, and I assumed that he and his girlfriend had visited the Doc.
But the Doc’s name came up again a few weeks later when my friend Stanley came to me with the same problem. His girlfriend Julie was pregnant.
Stanley and Julie were involved in a more stable relationship than Roy was. When Julie’s pregnancy had been confirmed, they had decided not to have the baby. Stanley wasn’t mature enough for fatherhood and Julie was well aware of that. Indeed, a couple of months later, Stanley would be making another trip to the Doc’s – with another girlfriend.
In 1967, the options available to those confronted with an unwanted pregnancy were limited. The Pill had been available for a few years, but to most it was still a novelty, controversial. Roe v. Wade was five years away.
Knoxville had a home run by the Florence Crittenton agency, which had been founded in 1896 to provide a discreet place where unwed mothers-to-be could stay during their last three months of pregnancy. But Knoxville girls, at least those with the means, usually opted to spend their pregnancies at Crittenton facilities in Nashville or Memphis, returning after the baby had been adopted. That way the pregnancy could be kept quiet, their absence explained as an extended visit with relatives or, in the case of one of my friends, as a lengthy treatment for a mysterious “infection.” Such visits depended on having the contacts, and on being able to take time away from jobs or school.
Another option was the Mexican abortion – Tijuana was popular. But Mexico is a long way from Knoxville, and Julie could not miss work.
The Doc provided another option. Most cities, even those in the 200,000-population range like Knoxville, had a doctor or two whose specialty was abortion. As I recall, the Doc’s fee was $200.
For Stanley, the trip to the Doc simply meant a month or two of drinking less, catching his executive father in a generous mood with a convincing story, or borrowing the money from friends. Stanley cadged the $200 from a fraternity brother and made an appointment. Immediately after the procedure, Julie, pale and shaken, rested in my apartment; the Doc had no recovery facilities and Stanley lived in the frat house.
Later, through my job, I became friends with an emergency-room nurse. She knew about the Doc. And she knew about the girls without the knowledge or the means to visit him. Occasionally, she would be involved in the treatment of a girl who had attempted an abortion either alone or with help, often of the coat-hanger variety. There had not been any recent deaths in Knoxville from such methods, but she had heard stories from veteran co-workers, stories that I did not want to hear.
But that all came later, after Roy’s situation resulted in a first-hand encounter with a time-tested southern Appalachian solution to unexpected pregnancy. Whatever Roy and his girlfriend had decided, her family had their own ideas, and one night shortly after I had sent Stanley to the Doc, I was awakened by yelling outside my window.
The father of Roy’s girlfriend, flanked by his two sons, was facing the building’s second-floor balcony, where Roy was standing, shirtless, revolver in hand. The girl was behind her dad, at the rear of a mud-spattered car that I took to be the family sedan.
The yelling was mostly from Roy and mostly along the lines of “I’m not the one knocked her up.” The father’s arguments were measured, spoken quietly and determinedly. It was evident that the pistol in Roy’s hand was the reason he and his sons had not bounded up the stairs for a more physical confrontation.
As other lights came on in the building, the girl and her family climbed back into the car and retreated. The next day I asked Roy what all the yelling was about. He didn’t say much – just that he didn’t think he would need the abortionist’s services.
I don’t know whether his girlfriend had the baby or not. There could have been a marriage of convenience to a family friend to provide the child a name, or she could have visited a Crittenton home. Roy wasn’t saying. But he did ask me to help him move his cows to another farm, on the other side of Knoxville about 70 miles from the girl’s home county.
A few months later, Roy graduated and moved back home to Virginia. Eventually, the Doc retired – with Roe v. Wade, his services no longer needed. But if laws return the United States – or at least some of the states – to the days before Roe v. Wade, there will be a demand for a new generation of Docs.