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'60s Icon Paul Krassner Reveals His Early History with Abortion

Publishing a satirical magazine led Krassner to run an underground abortion referral service.

When abortion was illegal, women had no choice but to seek out back-alley butchers for what should have been a medical procedure in a sterile environment. If there was a botched surgery and the victim went to a hospital, the police were called and they wouldn’t allow the doctor to provide a painkiller until the patient gave them the information they sought.

In 1962, there was an article in Look magazine that stated, “There is no such thing as a 'good' abortionist. All of them are in business strictly for money.” But in an issue of my magazine, The Realist, I published an anonymous interview with Dr. Robert Spencer, a truly humane abortionist, promising that I would go to prison sooner than reveal his identify.

Spencer had served as an Army doctor in World War I, then became a pathologist at a hospital in Ashland, Pennsylvania. He went down into the shafts after a mine accident, and aided miners to obtain Workmen’s Compensation for lung disease. At a time when 5,000 women were killed each year by criminal abortionists who charged as much as $1,500, Spencer's reputation had spread by word-of-mouth, and he was known as the "Saint." Patients came to his clinic in Ashland from around the country.

I took the five-hour bus trip from New York to Ashland with my gigantic Webcor tape recorder. Dr. Spencer was the cheerful personification of an old-fashioned physician. He wore a red beret and used folksy expressions like “by golly.” He had been performing abortions for 40 years. He started out charging $5, and never more than $100. He rarely used the word "pregnant." Rather, he would say, “She was that way, and she came to me for help.”

Ashland was a small town, and Dr. Spencer's work was not merely tolerated; the community depended on it -- the hotel, the restaurant, the dress shop -- all thrived on the extra business that came from his out-of-town patients. However, he built facilities at his clinic for African-American patients who weren't allowed to obtain overnight lodgings elsewhere. The walls of his office were decorated with those little wooden signs that tourists like to buy. A sign on the ceiling over his operating table said "Keep Calm."

Here’s an excerpt from our dialogue:

Q. Do you have any idea how many actual abortions you’re performed during all these years?

A. To be accurate, it’s 27,006

Q. Have medical people come to you, who would otherwise shun you?

A. Oh, yes, I’ve had medical people who bring me their wives, and I’ve had quite a few medical people send me patients.

Q. But they wouldn’t perform the operation themselves?

A. No, they’d never perform it, and just exactly what their attitude would be, I don’t really know. Some of them, I presume, were absolutely against it, because I’ve had ministers, and they’d bring me their daughters or their nieces.

Q. Have police come to you for professional services?

A. Oh, yes, I’ve had police in here, too. I’ve helped them out. I’ve helped a hell of a lot police out. I’ve helped a lot of FBI men out. They would be here, and they had me a little bit scared--I didn’t know whether they were just in to get me or not.

Q. What would you say is the most significant lesson you’ve learned in all your years as a practicing abortion doctor?

A. You’ve got to be careful. That’s the most important thing. And you’ve got to be cocksure that everything’s removed. And even the uterus speaks to you and tells you. I could be blind. You see, this is an operation no eye sees. You go by the sense of feel and touch. The voice of the uterus. But the only thing I can see is hypocrisy, hypocrisy. Everywhere I look is hypocrisy, Because the politicians--and I’ve had politicians in here--they still keep those laws in existence, but yet, if some friend of theirs is in trouble….

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