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The secret home abortion movement that started in LA two years before Roe v. Wade

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Eagle Rock’s Carol Downer developed an abortion procedure — by women, for women — because she got fed up with back-alley horror stories. Now, 44 years after Roe v. Wade, she is concerned it may need to be used again.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following story may be disturbing for some people. It includes frank discussion of abortion and somewhat graphic clinical descriptions of abortion procedures.

Norma McCorvey — better known as the "Roe" of Roe v. Wade, which established a woman's right to an abortion in the U.S. — died in February at the age of 69.  She was credited with taking abortion out of the back alley, although she switched sides in the last part of her life.

But two years prior to the 1973 Supreme Court decision, a woman from Eagle Rock had made it her mission to take abortion from the back alley to the living room. Her name is Carol Downer and she helped create an underground network of unlicensed women who performed home abortions. She wrote books on female anatomy, went to jail, and ran a women’s health and abortion clinic in Hollywood which burned down in 1985.

1976 LIFE Magazine Special Report, "Remarkable Women 1776-1976." L-R: Suzann Gage, Sherry Shiffer, Francie Hornstein, Carol Downer, Lorraine Rothman, & Lynn Heidelberg (lying-down)
LIFE Magazine
1976 LIFE Magazine Special Report, "Remarkable Women 1776-1976." L-R: Suzann Gage, Sherry Shiffer, Francie Hornstein, Carol Downer, Lorraine Rothman, & Lynn Heidelberg (lying-down)

Downer was born in 1933 in Oklahoma, but she’s lived in Los Angeles since she was a small child. By the late 1960’s, Downer was politically involved in the Chicano movement, fighting gentrification in East L.A., but she wasn’t active in the women’s movement at first. "The women at UCLA," she remembers, "were having a protest because there was no birth control services on the campus, and I, right in this very living room we’re sitting in, watched it on TV and said, 'Well, what are they expecting, something for nothing?'”

Over time, Downer felt forced to reexamine her thinking: "Well, it’s called having six kids and not having that much money, and struggling. And I was very lucky in that there was a women’s movement there for me to become part of, and I jumped in with both feet."

Downer had her first abortion in 1963, after having four children. "The first time was when I had just separated from my first husband, after a considerable period of marriage counseling, to finally arrive at this decision to make this big, big step — what do you know, I’m pregnant."

So she set about finding someone who would perform an abortion. 

"I was in a typing pool, and I had joined in in action with the black women because they were being discriminated against, so we were close friends, and I asked them, and they referred me to an abortionist on Central Avenue in Downtown LA.

I walked up upstairs and walked into this completely empty room, and there was a nurse there, at least I presume she was a nurse. And she took me in the other room, all it had was an obstetrical table, you know, where you put your legs in the stirrups.

And she said, ‘take your clothes off and lie down,' and I did. And then the person who I presume was a doctor came in, and he proceeded to give me what they call a D and C.”

In a D and C, the cervix is dilated, and metal curettes are used to scrape out the uterus. (Suction is now also sometimes used in a D and C.) Downer’s D and C was performed without anesthetic and was extremely painful, but she counts herself as one of the lucky ones:

"Some abortionists made the woman give him her panties, he kept them as souvenirs. Others required that they let them have sex with them. Other times they were just blindfolded and taken places, and had no idea, and left semi-abandoned when everything was done, and then they had to find their way back. And some died."

Other times, abortions were done with caustic liquids, folk remedies, and makeshift pokers. Pinning down just how many women died is difficult. The Guttmacher Institute says that in 1930 there were 2,700 cases in the US where abortion was the official cause of death. By 1965, it had dropped to 200, which Guttmacher attributes to antibiotics, but the institute also stresses that those are official deaths; the real numbers were probably much higher.

Downer’s quest to make abortion safer began in the early '70s. She joined the L.A. chapter of NOW’s abortion committee  and met a West L.A. man named Harvey Karman. He didn’t have a medical license, but he had developed a less intrusive way of aborting an early-term fetus. "Instead of the cold steel," Downer says, "he had a thin plastic cannula that could be inserted into the uterus, and then attached to a 50 cc syringe that he pulled back to develop suction."

A diagram of a Del-Em kit, developed by Lorraine Rothman
A diagram of a Del-Em kit, developed by Lorraine Rothman

Importantly, it could be done at a woman’s home. Downer dubbed it “menstrual extraction,” and in 1971, she began teaching it to other activists. The "menstrual" in the title comes because Downer says the procedure was only performed when a woman’s period was  due, and they wouldn't take a pregnancy test beforehand. That way, everyone had plausible deniability.

Dr. Brian T. Nguyen at USC’s Keck School says menstrual extraction is not safe enough by today’s standards. He says there could be bleeding and infection, so it’s  a job for trained professionals in a clinical setting. Nguyen admits he hasn’t seen cases of complications from menstrual extraction, but because it’s a secretive procedure, complications may go unreported. Nguyen says it’s still being practiced abroad, and Downer says it’s still happening here in the US.

Despite the medical concerns,  Downer and her collaborators felt in the early '70s that it was safer to have a menstrual extraction performed by women, for women. "Then we needed to expand," Downer says, "so we called a public meeting of women to come and talk about opening up an illegal abortion clinic." The turnout was good, but the stigma was high. "They were almost fainting, just even hearing about it and seeing this equipment, so I said, Well, just a minute.” She took out her speculum and did a practical demonstration on her own body, "and all of the feelings of disgust and fear and everything that they had was gone."

Carol Downer holding a Del-Em Kit, with her cat, Red
Carol Downer holding a Del-Em Kit, with her cat, Red

Downer had most of her direct involvement in teaching menstrual extraction before Roe v. Wade. Once the law changed, she opened the Hollywood Feminist Women’s Health Center, with a licensed doctor on staff giving traditional D and C’s, as well as providing birth control and minor outpatient treatments. But she continued to give counseling and training to new menstrual extraction groups because there were and still are obstacles ...

Like the parental consent laws that exist in 37 states: "If they go into the clinic and their parent is there and signs for them, fine. Otherwise they have to go through a judge," says Downer. Or the Hyde Amendment from 1976, which said, “Women are gonna get abortions, but at least the federal government should not have to pay for it.” So indigent women were not able to get help. They had to pay cash." And the Texas law that just a few years ago required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. And for abortion clinics to meet surgical center requirements: "Meaning they have to have a certain width of halls; they have to have certain emergency equipment that is not relevant at all to the abortion procedure."

And, Downer says, ever since Roe v. Wade,  clinics have had to contend with protesters.

"What happens more often than you would think, the people who are picketing us actually show up to get abortions, and when they do, people ask them at the clinic, 'Well, I thought you were against abortion! Why are you here? How does that square with you being out in front picketing our clinic every week, and now you want to have an abortion?'

You know what their answer is?

'Well, in my case it’s different.'"

And, speaking with us from her home in Eagle Rock, 44 years after Roe v. Wade, Downer says women may take abortion into their own homes again.

"It’s looking that way, at least in certain parts of the country. The places that provided abortion pre-Roe v. Wade will stay there; California will probably be one of those states, and  New York. The South will be where they’re not available. So we’re gonna have a situation where women have to travel, or there are pills that if they can obtain them, they can give themselves an abortion. Or they can use herbs. Or they can use menstrual extraction, but I think one way or another, abortion will continue as it always has."

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