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Oberlin’s Pre-Roe Abortion Underground

by Anna Holshouser-Belden

Staff Writer

photo courtesy of Linda Roberson, OC '69


The late 1960s–a time of unrest and the turnover of an old social order. Hippie subculture ran rampant during San Francisco’s ‘Summer of Love,’ Woodstock brought folk and psychedelia to the forefront; second-wave feminism and the civil rights movement were in full swing, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam draft cast the country in shadow. The first men walked on the moon’s surface; assassinations killed Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, and Bobby Kennedy. Hollywood brought titles like The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Living Dead, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to the big screen; the Rolling Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, and the Supremes topped the charts in the recording industry. Gas cost 30 cents a gallon, the legal drinking age was 18, and the age of adulthood and consent was 21. Not everything was clouded by the tie-dye haze of flower power, however, and the era’s combination of tumult and excitement clashed at places like Oberlin with the resistance of the younger generation conflicting with the social order of those supervising.

The atmosphere of the late 1960s–a push and pull of old and new–was present at Oberlin, the perfect setting for it to permeate. Even so, strict binaristic rules still governed the way students lived, and a few conversations with alumni illuminated the stark differences between the Oberlin of the past and of today. The two alums I talked to, from the classes of ‘69 and ‘70, both pointed to the current age of legal adulthood as a large contributing factor to this lengthy rulebook. Students, though they had made the move away from home, were children in the eyes of the state and needed a guardian. The school took the position of that guardian, acting as the loco parentis of its student population. There was a ‘Dean of Men’ and a ‘Dean of Women’ in charge of protecting students from the dangers of being independent adults. For example, the Dean of Men would go on late-night drives around campus on holidays and weekends, letting himself into dorms with lights on to inspect for illicit activity; three people my contact from ‘70 knew were expelled through these nighttime inspections. Because of the legal ramifications that the administration fell under due to their role as loco parentis, a series of purity rules were put in place for Oberlin students, particularly women.

According to my source from the class of ‘70, in the late ‘60s the rules were as follows: Oberlin still had mandatory chapel on a weekday. At meals in the dining halls, students were assigned to sit boy-girl, boy-girl, etc. The women’s dorms had strict curfews called “parietal hours.” Female students needed permission to stay out past this curfew; they were not granted keys to their dorm buildings and had to be let in by a dorm supervisor. Men each had their own key. Staying out past curfew was allowed for very specific reasons only (like weekend visits to parents, which required a letter from home) and the administrators were stricter with freshmen while rules were looser in co-ops. There were a total of six keys to each dorm that could be rented out on rare occasions (with permission) for female students to stay out past 11 pm. Coming home late past fifteen minutes resulted in a trip to the Dean’s office, and staying out overnight was grounds for expulsion. Men were not allowed on women’s floors–with the exception of janitors, who had to announce their presence with the statement “man up”--aside from during Sunday afternoon “calling hours,” which were heavily supervised by dorm monitors. Doors were to be left open to the width of an average wastebasket. “Dating parlors” were held in Wilder Hall–then a mens’ dorm–another space highly supervised by administrators. By the time my source graduated, however, the planning of the familiar cinder-block co-ed dorms was in the works and both the Dean of Men and the Dean of Women were rendered somewhat obsolete.

The purpose of the purity rules served to protect the college from falling under scrutiny if any scandal came out about their unmarried female students, still legally minors, facing unintentional pregnancies. The rules attempted to enforce abstinence, which was not effective, and sex education at the time was limited to a short workshop during freshman orientation that centered abstinence and was often scoffed at by students. The first birth control pill had been patented in 1960 and was legalized for all married women in 1965, and for unmarried women in 1972. According to my source from the class of ‘70, many womens’ dorms had a secret ‘wedding ring’ that was passed around among students in order to prove to OBGYNs in the area that they were married, as this was the only way to access the pill during this seven-year span. These factors added up to many young women facing unwanted pregnancies, a problem that my source from the class of ‘69–a woman named Linda Roberson–was very aware of during her time as a student. A twist of fate, along with a dire need from her community, landed Linda in the position of running Oberlin College’s underground abortion referral service.

Linda’s referral service came to my attention through an article in a 1969 issue of the Lorain County Sunday Journal, sent to me via co-op email chain this summer after the Dobbs Supreme Court decision went public. The article was written by Michael Sabiers, class of ‘69, a friend of Linda and her co-conspirators. You can still find Michael in Oberlin today, where he resides and teaches online classes at American University after his retirement from teaching and running a left-wing printing press. Sabiers’ 1969 article–titled “Is Abortion a Problem on Campus?”--outlines the basics of the referral service, explaining why women might want abortions, who these women are, and how Linda works to connect them to “abortionists.” Through Sabiers, I tracked down Linda and Steven Jacobson, a man who worked with her on the service. Linda and Steven both came across the issue of abortion–which was at the time not the public issue it is today–through involvement with the American Humanist Association (AHA), an organization that focused on social justice causes through the lens of atheism.

In my conversation with Linda, she explained that during her sophomore year at Oberlin, the AHA chose abortion as their big-ticket item for the year. Linda, who tells me that she was just trying to “do my part and make my mark” with the organization, ended up organizing an national conference on the newly-emerging abortion debate. She invited speakers from all over the country, including Alan Guttmacher (successful OBGYN in New York and then head of Planned Parenthood), Patricia Maginnis and Lana Phelan (reproductive health advocates running an underground service in southern California), and Father Robert Drinan (priest from Notre Dame representing the church’s position). Along with a heated conversation between Guttmacher and Drinan where the latter accused the former of believing that “the Holy Spirit rides into the womb on the sperm like a cowboy on a horse,” what came out of Linda’s conference were a sudden series of urgent phone calls to her dorm’s shared phone. “People who didn’t know where to turn, didn’t know what to do would call me,” says Linda, who informed me that after the conference, people from the college and surrounding community started calling her to ask if she could set them up to get illegal abortions. “It just sort of evolved organically,” Linda told me, “it wasn’t anything that was really planned, I was just the person who got called so I tried to help people out.”

Linda Roberson was nineteen years old when the calls started rolling in, and to me described her younger self as naive and uneducated. She reached out to the people she contacted for the conference to help; Patricia Maginnis, Lana Phelan, and Alan Guttmacher. She explained to me that where Maginnis and Phelan worked in California was too far and expensive for her clients, and Guttmacher refused to perform abortions until they were legalized to protect his position. Both contacts offered her a network of contacts in the Midwest and funds to get people needed help. The AHA also provided her with some money. “Slowly but surely I compiled a list–which was ever-changing–and then word spread,” Linda describes. She utilized two doctors the most, one being a retired MD named Robert Spencer who operated a covert abortion clinic alongside his wife out of their home in Ashland, PA. The other was a Holocaust survivor turned Montreal MD named Henry Morgantaler, who publicly protested Canada’s abortion laws, landing himself in court on several ocassions (and prison on one). Linda says that Robert Spencer was hard to get to from Oberlin because of his remote location, but only charged $100, while many at the time charged anywhere from $500 to $700. Morgentaler also took less money than his peers. Spencer used the D & C method (dilation and curettage), while Morgantaler had newer technology and used a vacuum aspirator, a technique that is commonly used to this day. Linda used her connections for financial support and often drove people like herself to abortions in Pennsylvania, Montreal, or Chicago. She told me that she helped approximately a hundred women terminate unwanted pregnancies through the underground chain of illegal clinics–mostly Oberlin students, along with a few women from the town, and even the wife of a professor.

As one might imagine, the abortion underground of the late 1960s didn’t come without its horror stories, and this applies to the Oberlin referral service as well. Linda told me on the phone that finding reliable operators through an illegal network involved some painful trial and error. She emphasized that her youth and lack of experience didn’t help this problem as well. “The experiences I had, some of the early experiences, were really pretty shocking,” she says, “they were shocking second-hand, and even more shocking for the young women who were having to do it.” Linda described one experience of driving a woman to Chicago in her car, and being instructed by the doctors to drop her off on a street-corner. Seconds after leaving Linda’s car, the woman was blindfolded and taken into another vehicle, with neither woman knowing where she was being taken. All Linda could do was wait. “She was returned to me bleeding [...] after that experience we never went back there.” Another time, a botched abortion left someone sick with a high fever knocking on Linda’s door, who debated calling Student Health or take her to the hospital, deciding against it due to the legal ramifications both herself and the other woman would be put under. She told me the woman, a student who lived locally, went home to her parents where her family’s doctor provided her with the necessary care. Then there were the extorters; a woman who Linda sent to her second, blindfold-free Chicago contact was asked for an additional $200 while dilated on the “operating table” (the bed of a hotel room, which the woman had to check into under a fake name). Linda says her clients knew the risk they were undergoing, but felt like they did what had to be done to continue with their education and their lives.

Risk also ran rampant in legal abortions, which were allowed only under the circumstances that the mother’s life was in danger. Hospitals had “sterilization committees'' who voted on a case-to-case basis, and approval of the procedure was rare. Hospitals often abided by the “rule of 40” as well, granting abortions to women under thirty with ten or more children. Many refused care unless they were undergoing sepsis, and many also died or faced long-term health issues from these legal abortions in hospitals. Linda’s service did not connect people with hospital abortions, but my contact from the class of ‘70–a woman named Mary who asked to refrain from including her last name–received the first legal abortion ever performed at Oberlin’s hospital pre-Roe, in April 1969. Mary was a 20 year-old third year, and like many of us, was not ready to start a family. Under a recommendation from her therapist, Mary was advised to seek out a legal abortion on the grounds that if forced to remain pregnant, she would commit suicide. “Afterwards, my shrink apologized to me for not sending me to [an illegal contact] in Pittsburgh,” Mary told me in an email, “She had thought that a legal, therapeutic abortion would be safer, cleaner, and less traumatic. Wrong. Even when the bans allow ‘legal exceptions’ the reality is almost impossible, as my own experience has made clear.” Mary says that the process took three traumatic months of convincing several psychiatrists in Cleveland and doctors on Allen Hospital’s “sterilization committee” that she was serious about her threats of suicide, on top of hospitalization in a psych ward.

Mary was kind enough to outline the whole process for me of her pregnancy and its termination, which she claims she never regretted despite the many tribulations. Mary attributes Oberlin’s purity rules to the start of her pregnancy; their cruel irony left Mary locked out of her building after a party next door to Keep. She was unable to access her dose of birth control, and had to find somewhere to wait until 7am to get let in. “I got tired, and went to sleep on a couch. Hours later, a casual friend lay down beside me. I didn’t say no, we had a pleasant time. Only the second time I’d ever slept with someone.” Mary explained to me that in 1969 pregnancy tests weren’t available until six weeks after a missed period, at which point she was eight weeks pregnant. “I’d sit in Peters Hall, staring at a blob-like stain of red varnish on the floor, hoping I’d get my period. Nope.” Mary turned to her therapist, Dr. Marion Baum, who advised the legal abortion. She had to convince additional psychiatrists that she would commit suicide if she wasn’t given an abortion, which required frequent weekend trips to Cleveland on the Greyhound since Lorain County didn’t have any. In addition, Mary had to convince the hospital’s sterilization committee, which was extremely conservative and consisted of mainly older white men. With push from Dr. Baum, the committee landed on a tied vote and Mary had to go plead her case in person. She was two and a half months pregnant at that point, and was pressured by the hospital’s only female doctor to either lie and say she had been raped, or otherwise have the baby at a home for unmarried pregnant women and take a semester off school. Mary also had to come in for weekly appointments with the hospital’s OBGYN. “He’d slap me on the thigh, say, ‘you’re so healthy! You could have ten right now!’” Mary says, “I’d look him in the eye and say, ‘That’s not what I’m here for.’” She was finally approved by the committee to have an abortion over spring break. She describes the procedure itself as being “nothing” compared to the lead-up, and tells me the hospital was very secretive about it, not even telling the nurses what she was in for. The operation Mary received for her abortion was a D & C, and it was the first of its kind performed at Oberlin. Her parents were charged $2,000 for the abortion (which compares to around $20,000 today with inflation). She never told them about it, but suspected they approved.

Today, we find ourselves facing somewhat similar circumstances that Mary and Linda faced in the late 1960s. While abortion is still legal for up to twenty-two weeks of pregnancy in Ohio, the urgency of today’s situation is different from that of the 60s when abortion was illegal alltogether. The political debate around abortion is much more polarized, and in places where it has been banned the legal consequences around women’s bodies will be much worse. In a New Yorker article written by Jia Tolentino titled “We’re Not Going Back to the Time Before Roe. We’re Going Somewhere Worse,” Tolentino states aptly: “The future that we now inhabit will not resemble the past before Roe, when women sought out illegal abortions and not infrequently found death. The principal danger now lies elsewhere, and arguably reaches further. We have entered an era not of unsafe abortion but of widespread state surveillance and criminalization—of pregnant women, certainly, but also of doctors and pharmacists and clinic staffers and volunteers and friends and family members, of anyone who comes into meaningful contact with a pregnancy that does not end in a healthy birth.” I agree with what Tolentino has to say, but I think there’s also plenty to learn from our pre-Roe predecessors. Community resilience as a response to a public need, as demonstrated by Linda’s service’s function in the late ‘60s, may be the best way to deal with this newfound danger.

Additionally, recent changes to Oberlin’s Student Health providers leave the school in another sticky situation. The administration chose to outsource Student Health in the late spring, around the same time a draft of the Roe decision was released. The new Student Health providers come through Mercy Allen Hospital, which is owned by the right-wing Catholic company Bon Secours Mercy Health. All healthcare companies that advertise themselves as Catholic publicly in the U.S. are required to follow a set of medical directives put into place by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who in turn report back to the Vatican and Pope Francis. Directive 45 under part four of the USCCB’s fifth edition of Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services states that “Abortion (that is, the directly intended termination of pregnancy before viability and the directly intended destruction of a viable fetus) is never permitted.” The directive further defines an abortion as including “every procedure whose sole immediate effect is the termination of pregnancy before viability…includ[ing] the interval between conception and implantation of the embryo.” The only exception to this directive is if the mother’s life is in danger. Bon Secours came under several lawsuits from women who were refused treatment on miscarriages until they began undergoing sepsis for fear of the consequences they could face performing abortions, according to an article in The Guardian entitled “Abortion Ban Linked to Dangerous Miscarriages at Catholic Hospitals” published in February 2016. This leaves us even closer to the realities of Linda and Mary’s Oberlin, making their stories that much more important to tell.

Oberlin as an institution has historically prided itself on its progressive politics; its milestones in areas of diversity. Being the first American college to admit students regardless of race and gender is wonderful, but do these far-away statistics protect Oberlin’s reputation with the changes it's making today? Our administrators have done a great job sending out long, apologetic email blasts–but that seems to be where their action ends. Both Mary and Linda confided in me their fears for the futures of the current generation of Oberlin students, should our government and our school administration continue down the paths they now walk. Though I’m not writing this to make lofty statements, it's my hope that we can follow their example and lean on each other as a student body–stepping up to the plate as if we’re back in the Pre-Roe universe with purity and progress running a close race.

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