“We are not concerned here with a problem of morals. It is not our real concern to establish why women feel that they are unable to face the admittedly large task of motherhood. Whatever the reasons may be, economic, or for reasons of fear or shame, the medicine is sold. Unlike most rackets, this most ugly of all does not serve any need. It is just as useless as it is dangerous.”
Quite progressive for 1940, the Physical Culture article “Exposing the ‘Abortion Medicine’ Racket” follows through on its promise not to take on a heavy-handed moral message against the predicament of pregnant women who consider or choose abortion. Rather, the article spends the majority of its word count criticizing drug dealers for profiting on the mental anguish of women, giving them ineffective and harsh drugs that can destroy their health.
The article doesn’t once look down upon the women themselves for seeking abortions. It does admit that if they seek traditional medical assistance, they will be forced to carry their babies to term, but this is a simple statement of fact. This article was written 43 years prior to the Roe v. Wade decision, and abortion was illegal in many states, so doctors could not legally offer it as an option to women who came to them for help.
A map constructed from stateline.org’s data shows that prior to Roe v. Wade, abortion was only legal upon request in four states: Alaska, Hawaii, New York and Washington. Thirty states outlawed it completely, with the remainder outlawing it except for special cases.
Physical Culture claimed that there was no medicine in existence to effectively cause abortion. A single, sometimes-successful vaccine had been used in the past, but was no longer approved by any upstanding medical professional due to its severe side-effects. The mag goes into great detail about the drugs that are being sold, including what they’re made of, their actual uses as listed by a medical dictionary and why they’ve become so popular with racketeers.
The article’s argument boils down to this: the popularity of “abortion medicines” is all a result of misinformation. The fear of pregnancy in unprepared women is so great, the author claims, that it leads to symptoms of pregnancy such as skipped periods. The woman then takes the “abortion medicine,” and her fear subsides because she trusts at it is the only effective solution to her problem. Not the medicine, but the change in attitude, causes the symptoms to recede and the woman’s life to go back to normal. Many of the “success” stories of the drugs are actually falsely assumed pregnancies rather than real pregnancies, according to the mag.
Further misinformation kept the system running because the racketeers acted like the drugs were illegal, and that the women could get in trouble for buying them. In reality, “It is no more illegal to sell ergot [one of the fake medicines] than it is to sell lollypops. The only time it is against the law to sell ergot is when it is stated that it is for the purpose of causing an abortion. Even then only a conviction of fraud can be obtained, since it is acknowledged in medical circles that there is no such thing as an effective abortion medicine,” the author writes.
As a result of these lies, women who had negative experiences with the drug and its side effects kept their mouths shut and did not turn the dealers in, because they feared their own punishment.
The article gives two anecdotes to demonstrate the dangers of these “abortion medicines.” One story is that of a teenage girl who attempted suicide after she thought the pills had been ineffective, when really she had never been pregnant in the first place. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the story of a mother of five who sought the pills due to her family’s financial instability. The plant her husband worked at had just been forced to close. Her pregnancy did end, but only because the pills had put so much stress on her immune system after she kept increasing the dosage. She ended up bedridden for a month, unable to care for her struggling family. The truth of anecdotes in these old mags are always questionable, but Physical Culture may very well have saved a number of women from pain or serious illness by warning of the side effects of these often-ineffective drugs.
I was surprised to find this topic covered in a 1940 magazine, for the topic was clearly taboo at the time. I can only name two pre-170 films off of the top of my head that tackle abortion: exploitation flick Street Corner (1948) and period drama The Group (1966). Though magazines had their own set of ethical and moral principles, they didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of anything as strict as the motion picture code, so they can be a great source for insight into what was being discussed about issues that are still debated today.