A white woman sits on the edge of a bed. Her clothes hang off her body, revealing enough to tantalize but not be obscene. Her legs, slightly open, hint at past transgressions and future sex acts. Both her left knee and her eyes rest on a well-dressed white man hunched on a chair next to her. His angular face rests in a half smile as he stares at the woman. A stethoscope hangs from his neck, and his black medical bag is open at the end of the bed. He is the book’s titular “Abortionist.”
Published in 1961 by Kozy Books, Aaron Bell’s The Abortionist was one of many low-priced paperbacks flooding newsstands across the United States and Canada. Typical of its genre, this 150-page, pocket-size novel cost 50 cents and was printed on cheap rough paper. Its sensual cover invited passersby to imagine illicit possibilities that were deliberately out of step with the era’s norms. An irritant to antismut crusaders and other “upstanding” citizens who worried about the wide readership devouring this fare, these books featured “scandalous” topics ranging from suburban orgies, to sex work, to same-sex sexual desires. Often, the cover images depicting these possibilities were far more artful than the wooden prose and disjointed plots within.
As a historian of reproductive politics, I am especially interested in midcentury representations of abortion. In the early 1960s, audiences could find condemnations of abortion competing for space with increasingly sympathetic and nuanced treatments of abortion providers and seekers—depictions that spoke to the growing public fissures over sex and reproduction.
The Abortionist encapsulates these divides, oscillating between condemnation and compassion for abortion seekers while giving no quarter to abortion providers. The novel is set in a sleazy world where profit-motivated doctors exploit “women who desperately wanted to get rid of their indiscretions.” The story charts the downward spiral and the eventual redemption of Dr. Dick Harrison (of course his name is Dick!) as he travels through the abortion underworld, abandons his abortion practice, and returns to the arms of a good woman. This heavy-handed conclusion is likely an attempt by the author and publisher to placate censors—real and imagined—by guiding the plot back to what they believed was the moral center of sexual expression: reproductive domesticity.
But the moral center was a rapidly moving target in 1961. That same year, The Christian Century, the leading magazine of mainline Protestantism, editorialized in favor of abortion reform. By 1962, an episode of the CBS legal drama The Defenders valorized a physician who performed illegal abortions. Although pulp novels were meant to be disposable cultural productions—cheaply made and quickly consumed—the rapidly shifting ground around abortion meant that when it was released, The Abortionist was a dirty snapshot of a disappearing world. What was sensual cover art in 1961, featuring the motel rooms where abortionists anonymously operated, would soon signify horror and violence as stories of abortion-seeking women dying on motel-room floors came to light.
Gillian Frank co-hosts Sexing History, a podcast that explores how the history of sexuality shapes our present. He tweets @1gillianfrank1.
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