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Our historian Randy Dotinga is taking a look at the history of abortion in San Diego and California. Here’s the first of two reports.
Decades before Roe vs. Wade, San Diego was the last resort for countless pregnant women. They sought abortions at underground clinics that dotted the city, including one linked to an infamous abortion syndicate that spanned the entire West Coast.
These women shared two things in common: desperation and a willingness to take immense risk. As for the physicians and nurses who helped them, their story is – depending on whom you believe – a “story of shame, blood, pain, disgrace, greed, and death” or a tale of generosity and grace.
“I have helped humanity,” declared a woman who performed abortions in Hillcrest in the 1930s and 1940s.
California outlawed abortion unless the mother’s life was in danger when it became a state in 1850. Still, “despite the fact that abortions were technically illegal, women continued to procure them—either at the hands of others or by their own means,” writes La Sierra University history professor Alicia Gutierrez-Romine in the 2020 book “From Back Alley to the Border: Criminal Abortion in California, 1920-1969.”
For its part, San Diego was on the conservative side in the early 20th century. In 1917, the City Council ordered La Jolla bathers to cover their arms and legs whenever they left the water, and it even passed an ordinance outlawing non-marital sex.
“The abomination is expected to cease,” jibed the Sacramento Bee.
But by the 1930s and 1940s, an abortion ring reportedly operated out of the top floor of downtown San Diego’s El Cortez Hotel. An undercover female reporter for the San Diego Sun found that abortions cost from $50 to $100 and could be easily obtained with a letter from a doctor or the right connections, Guitierrez-Romine writes. But even abortion providers weren’t immune to the mores of the time: They were less receptive, the reporter found, if a woman wasn’t married.
Meanwhile, a local woman named Laura Miner “made a name for herself as one of the most skilled and proficient abortionists in the industry,” according to Gutierrez-Romine.
“It became common knowledge that a person seeking her services could leave a message with the proprietor at Fleming’s Drug Store on Park Boulevard,” writes her granddaughter Robin Beers in an article for a website devoted to Hillcrest. She “had famous clients including movie stars getting away from the prying eyes of Hollywood, ballet dancers and athletes.”
Before Roe and the equal-rights movement, unwanted pregnancies could have devastating impacts on women’s lives. Aside from social and family ostracism, women could be fired from jobs or lose access to education opportunities. Social welfare benefits were limited.
The underground services provided relief. But Miner’s reputation got her in a jam. As her granddaughter tells it, the leader of a syndicate of illegal abortion clinics strong-armed her into joining what became known as the Pacific Coast Abortion Ring. Later, “she had no qualms about trading testimony against him for her own immunity from prosecution.”
The demise of the syndicate, which operated in every major West Coast city, was big news in the 1930s, although some papers referred to “illegal operations” instead of “abortions.” Gutierrez-Romine describes the ring as an “abortion mill that provided safe abortions to hundreds—if not thousands—of women.” But she also quotes a critic who describes it as “the most amazing and revolting criminal conspiracy in the history of medical science… It was a story of shame, blood, pain, disgrace, greed, and death; of how the red-gloved abortion quacks, dominated by master criminal brains, fatten on the profits from the murder of the unborn.”
Miner returned to the business of abortion in the 1940s, operating out of her chiropractor’s office at a Hillcrest bank building. She was arrested in 1948 in a raid and spent two years in prison. A fellow chiropractor testified that he asked her if she was guilty, and she “hung her head, did not answer me, and pulled out several pictures of her children.”
“I can still hold my head up, and I respect myself because my conscience is clear. I have helped humanity,” said Miner in 1950. (According to her granddaughter, Miner remained a progressive activist into the 1970s. Miner’s daughter, Joyce Beers, became a prime mover behind the Uptown District’s revitalization in the 1970s and 1980s. She’s the namesake of a community center in Hillcrest.)
The illicit abortion tide shifted in the 1950s and 1960s to Tijuana, which became known as an “abortion emporium.” Women from elsewhere made contacts in San Diego and headed south to a city that “became both a beacon and a specter—a possibility for women to find relief, as well as a synonym for the potential dangers and perils of illegal operations in a ‘vice-ridden,’ ‘uncivilized’ country,” Gutierrez-Romine writes.
Next: The aftermath of an abortion in Chula Vista leads to a landmark change in state law in the 1960s. And by the 1980s, a bombing plot brews as San Diego becomes a center of anti-abortion activism. We’ll recap this history next week in the second part of this series.