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Abortions Before Roe v. Wade

Mad Men: Abortion Before Roe v. Wade

Joan paid the chain-smoking ob-gyn a visit last night on Mad Men to talk about having a baby with her Vietnam-bound husband. There she let out a secret that's as surprising as it is expected. She's had two abortions.

One "procedure," as she euphemistically called it, was done by a self-described midwife, while the other was performed by the doctor himself. But how were doctors performing abortions before Roe v. Wade passed in 1973?

Abortion was legal in the US until the mid-19th century when the drive to criminalize it began. Doctors were actually the driving force behind the campaign, as they wanted to prevent untrained practitioners from stealing their business. This was easy. Exploit the "untrained" part, while waging a war of ethics on the practice itself.


It worked — a little too well. Find out why below.

By 1910, it was illegal for anyone, including doctors, to perform abortions in 49 states, except when a woman's life was in danger. The small caveat was what allowed doctors to keep performing it for most of the century.

Threatening to commit suicide, and thus endangering the mother's life, became a sure way to persuade most doctors, while others continued to perform it — for a high fee — illegally. The rate of abortions declined in the mid-20th century as doctors, under pressure from hospital administrators, failed to report them.

Joan's never been prone to histrionics, so it's safe to assume she didn't cry suicide. After a few references to a relationship between her and the doctor in the show's pilot (i.e. his house in the Hamptons), who knows? Maybe it was his. That's the third way women got doctors to perform abortions!

Photo courtesy of AMC

Join The Conversation
onlysourcherry onlysourcherry 6 years
I also had the thought that it might be the doctor's baby because of his reaction to her having another one. But who knows. Betty also talked about having an abortion in the season 2 finale when she found out she was pregnant. The doctor was like "I can't believe someone in your position would consider that. That option is for young girls with no resources." It's really interesting to see how it was treated then.
tigrelis28 tigrelis28 6 years
I took a class all about this last semester. It was so much more than that! Doctors were more likely to go through with it because they knew women would find a way with or without their help. It was better to ensure safety and ensure the woman would come back to their practice than to allow women to look for other alternatives. This is also a great reason not to overturn Roe V. Wade.
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