Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

"The Verdict Created No Great Surprise upon the Street": Abortion, Medicine, and the Regulatory State in Progressive-Era Los Angeles

Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

"The Verdict Created No Great Surprise upon the Street": Abortion, Medicine, and the Regulatory State in Progressive-Era Los Angeles

Article excerpt

In 1894 a young woman named Ada Faulkner traveled by train from the small town of Santa Ana, California, to Los Angeles, some twenty miles away. While in Los Angeles, prosecutors later alleged, Faulkner obtained an abortion from a midwife named Catherine E. Smith. Faulkner returned home to Santa Ana gravely ill. Prosecutors used Faulkner's testimony to bring charges against Smith. Southern Californians followed the drama for a year as it wound its way though city courts. The Los Angeles district attorney only dropped the case when Faulkner died in 1895.

Certainly the publicity that the Smith/Faulkner case briefly garnered was exceptional. But their story and the stories of women like them also serve as representative case studies that help us understand the battle over reproductive rights in late nineteenth--and early twentieth-century Los Angeles. This article examines the cases of four midwives/doctors (Louise Perret, Louise Claussen, Catherine E. Smith, and Lela Latta) and four local women who died in this era (Louise Aluset, Adelaide "Ada" Faulkner, Lizzie Hutflesz, and Alfretta B. Swanson). These cases reveal the complex relationships between women and their reproductive health care providers during a time when access to abortion services was legally restricted. They also expose how both Los Angeles's practitioner permit system and criminal accusations of abortion furthered the Progressive-era regulatory state's goal of monitoring, controlling, and bureaucratizating women's reproductive and health care choices. Yet prosecutors seldom successfully convicted accused abortionists in the city. In Los Angeles one can see how ideologically fraught the issue of access to reproductive health care services actually became when taken out of the abstraction of politics and placed into the reality of the courtroom. Reformers' mania for reproductive regulation often outpaced both the public's and the criminal justice system's interest in and willingness to punish transgressors. At a time when states are again purposely using regulatory hurdles to deny women access to abortion, the interplay of all of these issues during the Progressive era sheds important light on the larger history of reproductive justice in the United States. (1)


Progressive-era Americans expressed both anxieties over women's reproductive choices and an enthusiasm for the regulation of those choices. As part of the larger social and political movement then taking hold across the country, many Progressives shared an interest in promoting public health; a passion for using local, state, and federal government policy to solve problems; and a growing concern over the declining birthrate among Anglo-Americans. These interests combined to make reproduction, abortion, and contraception not just moral and medical issues but also policy issues worthy of regulation. (2)

Progressive-era health regulations were, of course, a mix of good and bad. Good regulations were written clearly, had the patient's best interests at heart, and were consistently enforced. Regulations that meet these criteria could and did protect patient health. One example of such regulations is the set of new laws Los Angeles adopted designed to ensure a clean milk supply. However, there were those regulations that were badly written, had loopholes, or were not consistently enforced, thus rendering them ineffective. These types of regulations often generated negative outcomes for patients, as well as challenges for local law enforcement. Los Angeles's Progressive-era practitioner-permit system, I argue, fell into the "bad" or at least "ineffective" regulation category. (3)

Abortion had been illegal in California since 1849. In 1872 California's politicians drafted Penal Code section 274. The law held that anyone who provided an abortion, except in cases when necessary to save the mother's life, was liable for imprisonment for two to five years. …

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