Abortion, Small Town Iowa, 1927

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My grandmother, Dorothy Mary Gibson Roberts, was so lucky. When her first husband became jealous, then violent, and then brought a gun into the house, she removed the bullets, hid the gun, then called her father to come pick her up in Sioux City. He drove down the very next day, nearly being run off the road when my grandmother’s husband saw them leaving.

With the clothes on her back, she went home to Whiting, Iowa, to stay with her parents while she got a divorce and figured out what to do next. Meanwhile, Will Gibson protected his daughter Dorothy from a raging, harassing ex-husband, filing divorce papers for her, and arranging for an abortion when she found out she was pregnant. My grandmother was 25 years old.

Fram, as we called her, was reeling from the consequences of her choices:

“It was one of my minor disasters. I didn’t realize you had to be in love to get married. And I was not in love with Al. I liked him a lot, but I just had no affection—I didn’t love him. I knew immediately I had made a terrible mistake.”

When I interviewed Fram extensively for my senior thesis in 1983-84, I got the story of her abortion from her bit by bit, asking another question each time we met, until I had as much of the story as she was ever going to tell. According to Fram, both the town doctors performed abortions, and they did quite a lot of them.

“It was definitely illegal at that time. It wasn’t fun; it was supposed to be a disaster, but nowadays it’s no disgrace at all. I remember going up to their office. It was at night. But I don’t remember that it hurt or anything. I don’t remember anything about it. It apparently didn’t bother me mentally. I would have done anything not to have a child, because I knew that I’d made a horrible mistake.”

The doctor who performed my grandmother’s abortion was also the doctor who delivered her and her two brothers. My grandmother was so lucky: her family was white and middle-class, owned the car dealership in town, went to Church with the doctors and their families, and were part of a small-town fabric that valued independence and privacy. She was lucky because in Whiting, Iowa in 1927, the town doctors believed that women and their families should be able to make their own health care decisions, and that women were strong, resilient, and capable of reconciling having an abortion with their relationship to God.

Watching the national coverage of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I wonder where those doctors are now. Why is there just one abortion clinic for the entire state of North Dakota, only one in South Dakota, in Arkansas, and in Mississippi? Why don’t more Family Practice doctors and OB/GYNs offer abortion services to their patients in these states?

Really, I am the lucky one in this story. My grandmother was able to recover from her low point, work again as a pipe organist and then as a secretary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she met my grandfather. This time, she knew she was in love.

They married and had two daughters, one of whom is my mother. And my sisters, cousins and I got to have a feisty, independent, funny, straight-talking grandmother, who in spite of the pain of recalling that time did tell me this story, so I could tell others.

Abortion is part of women’s health care services. Access to safe and legal—and affordable—abortion is the best way to insure women’s health, and the health of their families. Abortion has always been performed in this country, and will always be, no matter what some backward state legislatures decree. But not everyone will be as lucky as my grandmother was.

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