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'There were some really sad, sad struggles' for women in Cincinnati pre-Roe v. Wade

A woman with white hair wears a green sweater and jeans as she on her porch railing.
Jolene Almendarez
Alice Skirtz says poor women were the most impacted by inaccessible family planning options in the years before Roe v. Wade.

Editor's note: this article was originally published May 18, soon after a leaked draft opinion indicated the Supreme Court may overturn Roe v. Wade.

In the 1960s, the decade before the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Roe v. Wade in 1973, the Catherine Booth Home in Avondale was almost like a college dormitory. There were classrooms, women slept two to a room, and, at one point, there was an operating room with doctors available to help teenage and needy mothers give birth.

Alice Skirtz was director of social services for the Salvation Army, which ran the home. She says women pregnant out of wedlock were either secretly sent there by family to give birth or fled there when they had no place else to go.

"Their stories they would tell! 'Oh, Susie is in Cincinnati, visiting her Aunt Jane who's just had surgery...' I know in one instance a woman told her family she was in jail," Skirtz said.

She says women were expected to not have sex before marriage because of religious and conservative ideologies. Pregnancies out of wedlock resulted in social isolation and shame, not limited to consensual sex. Those who were raped were also shunned.

The women at the home were forced to make hard choices, like deciding to keep a baby and pass it off as a distant relative or putting the baby up for adoption.

"There were some really sad, sad struggles that women had — you know, some of them didn't want to ever see their baby," Skirtz said.

Employees at the House didn't have direct contact with people illegally providing abortions, but they knew it was happening because effected women sought help from them.

"Probably the saddest ones were those who had attempted illegal abortions and had medical problems related to it — had no place to go, no home, no money, no supportive family — and were literally alone in the maternity home," Skirtz said.

Her time at the home was happening around the same time the Right to Life organization was founded in the 1960s in Cincinnati. So, when the right to abortion was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, people had legal protections.

"It was just a tremendous help to particularly poor women to have Roe v. Wade — the backup of Roe v. Wade — and be able to have medical care that they needed related to abortion, and I might add, also to family planning," Skirtz said.

Doing whatever they can 'to not become a mother'

Women in Cincinnati were making hard choices about their health care long before Skirtz's time at the Catherine Booth House.

While abortion was illegal in most states by the mid- to late 1800s, women in Cincinnati were still finding ways to terminate unwanted pregnancies and births.

Anne Delano Steinert is a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Cincinnati where she’s researching the built environment — those human-made facilities where people live and work. Specifically, She's looked at privies, or outdoor toilets, and their use as a place to terminate pregnancies through abortion and infanticide.

An online database of Hamilton County morgue records from 1887 to 1930 offers a snapshot of the desperate measures women resorted to.

An independent review of almost 300 records involving infant deaths shows more than a third were fetuses or newborn babies, roughly a day old, found discarded throughout the city.

The records can be gruesome, with remains found in rivers, alleyways, trash cans, ash barrels, and public transportation. One record is of a newborn baby found at a school and brought to the morgue in a backpack.

Steinert says many of those remains are directly linked to the societal expectations of women and their inability to access family planning options.

"I would say, without a doubt, that a significant percentage of the full term fetuses and babies that you're seeing in the morgue records are victims of infanticide, where a mother is unable to terminate her pregnancy, and so instead, she has to birth that child," Steinert said. "And then abandon it, expose it to the elements, drown it in the privy, drown it in the canal, suffocate it and hide it — do whatever she can do to not become a mother."

In one instance, the coroner notes a baby was born to a parent who'd only been married three weeks, "and to hide their shame, they came to Cincinnati from Indiana and the father took the baby away from the house in a basket ... and the following day, the body was found in the river at North Bend."

The records are from a time when Steinert says women didn't have the economic options to support themselves. Poor women were domestic or factory workers living in extreme poverty. Their only way out was marriage. Pregnant unmarried women were not considered marriage material.

At the time, "It's impossible to be a single woman and have a baby," Steinert said. "So, if you happen to find yourself pregnant as a single woman, you have no alternative. You are having to choose between the baby dies and you survive, or you birth the baby and try to raise it but you're both gonna die. Die is maybe an exaggeration — there's no way that you will prosper if you're a single person with a child."

Steinert says illegal abortions and infanticide were likely not done heartlessly by the mother. They likely saw it as an act of mercy because they couldn't care for the children.

She says the Roe v. Wade decision and legalization of birth control gave women more ways to handle family planning.

Earlier this month, a draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court shows justices may be overturning the nearly 50-year-old Roe v. Wade case, which means the fate of abortion access nationwide is uncertain.

Steinert and Skirtz say they know times have changed for women, but they worry about the health care options available to people, especially those living in poverty who cannot afford to travel for abortion health care.

"I think affluent women, as they have done for generations, will be able to find a place to have an abortion, find a place where it is legal and medically, scientifically proper," Skirtz said. "And poor women, oh, my heart just breaks for them. They certainly can't up and go on to California or New York or some other place. They have pitiful medical insurance ... But I think we'll have to figure out ways to help them. And that's tough in this community."

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.