The Abortionist, Before Roe v. Wade
August 18, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 44
The Abortionist on The Circuit of Fear
By Marlene Nadle
The abortionist is the man hunted by the police and a million desperate women a year.
No city can be without him. Few are.
In almost ever town there are quacks and butchers with minimal training. Taxi drivers and pharmacists who improvise. Neighbors whose tools are knitting needles, wire coat hangers, and crude catheters.
Scattered across the country and in the larger cities there are a handful of qualified doctors who because of money or ideals or other circumstances have tried to meet the frantic demand for the abortions the hospitals won't perform.
These men are the stars of the underground abortion circuit. Women travel to Pennsylvania, Florida, Baltimore, or Washington because of the reduced risk to their lives these men represent. Women pass these doctors' names along as a gesture of friendship and social amenity. Their names appear on experience-tested and approved lists circulated among college girls. The lists also contain tips like whether or not to let the doctor's receptionist know why you are calling, whether or not to plan to stay overnight, what the best deals on fees are, and usually end by advising the girls -- for her emotional well being -- not to go to the abortionist alone.
These lists are often used as the basis for a non-profit referral service. One 21-year-old girl from Long Island has steered 15 friends and friends of friends three times removed to abortionists in the last year. She has received as many as four calls in one week from girls around the country who did not want to become another statistic among the roughly 5000 who are known to die from illegal abortions each year or to risk sterilization at the hands of an incompetent bungler.
The qualified abortionists who make these lists would be respected members of the medical profession in Sweden or Japan or Hungary.
Nathan Rappaport is part of this medical nether world. He has been performing illegal abortions for almost 40 years. An alumnus of City College, a graduate with honors from the University of Arkansas Medical School, with advanced training at the University of Pennsylvania, he spent nine of the past 15 year in jail. He lost his medical license, his home, his wife, and his children. He has been publicly humiliated and exorcised. Ignored on the street by doctors and people he served in his office. And frequently blackmailed...
On parole since May from his last two-year sentence, Rappaport is living in a no-color green room in a hotel on West 73rd Street. At 66 he is a round man. Round face, round glasses, a pleasantly rounded body.
In a short-sleeved sport shirt that stayed crisp despite the steam-bath atmosphere of the room, he sat before a small kitchen table piled high with a collection of printed materials, a tape recorder, and long sheets of yellow steno paper covered with an ink scrawl. He is in the process of writing his second book.
The new book will be called "Man's Inhumanity to Women." The title tells the whole story. Men made the abortion laws, women suffer because of them...
This man who has ended his medical career as a criminal began it as a law-abiding doctor in Jackson Heights.
"I always believed that competent abortions were essential, but when I first opened my office in 1926 I never thought I could go outside the law to commit them. I sent all my abortion patients to another doctor.
"Two years after I was in practice a relative begged me to perform one and I finally did it on the kitchen table. Then the Depression came. More and more women asked me for abortions because they could not afford to feed another mouth. The collections from my practice had dwindled to almost nothing. There was pressure from my family to take the abortion money. By 1933 I had let the druggist and other doctors know I was available and made abortion my specialty."
...There were women trying to rid themselves of the guilt of carrying the wrong man's child or the child of a marriage that was about to break up. There were victims of the worn-out mother syndrome and of rape. Young girls ignorant of contraceptive devices and sophisticated women who, whatever their emotional or psychological reasons, failed to use them. Women too poor to afford another child and women too rich to be bothered...
"Their decision to come to me was usually an agonizing one. Who then was I to hand down a flat judgment telling them it's worse to destroy a baby before it's born than to let it live life as an unwanted, often unloved and neglected child? Or to tell these women they should have their babies and give them up at the time maternal feelings are the strongest, when, especially if Negro, the child can spend its life in an institution waiting to be adopted..."
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]