Home Nurse course The pre-Roe NYPD handbook v. Wade shows how abortions are prosecuted

The pre-Roe NYPD handbook v. Wade shows how abortions are prosecuted


With abortion bans in place or soon to be enacted in at least 20 states, many concerned Americans are now wondering: What does the investigation and prosecution of illegal abortion look like?

An internal document from the country’s largest police force in the fore-Roe vs. Wade era provides a pretty good answer.

The New York Police Department first formed an abortion squad after an abortion ring bust in the mid-1950s. It later became the abortion unit within Central Bureau of NYPD investigation, and its detectives provided operational support on abortion cases to other units. From 1872 to 1970, it was generally illegal to provide abortions in New York State.

In 1968, the CIB distributed a training bulletin titled “ABORTIONS” to detectives across the city as part of a series highlighting investigative best practices and the specialized units available within the bureau to aid in investigations. .

According to the manual, investigations normally did not begin with a tip from a suspicious acquaintance, but in the emergency room following reports from hospital staff treating victims of botched illegal abortions.

Interviewing the women while they were still “confined” in the hospital was “necessary”, according to the manual, to “verify the identity” of the abortionist and other “relevant details” of the operation.

The manual warned that a male detective investigating a hospitalized woman for intimate details “invariably results in embarrassment to both parties” and “frequently produces such resentment on the part of the woman that she becomes totally uncooperative”. Instead, police deemed it “highly desirable that a qualified female detective, rather than a male”, conduct the questioning due to the “very personal and sensitive nature” of the issues involved.

The female detectives did not face the same embarrassment and had a better understanding of anatomy, the manual advised, and were therefore more likely to “demonstrate to the subject the flaws of a fabricated story”.

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The primary target of any investigation was the abortion practitioner. Detectives were more interested in “using” the woman as a witness against the abortionist than in charging her as a defendant (although this perspective remains for uncooperative women).

At this point in the case, there was a tactical fork in the road depending on who was identified as performing the abortion: a lay “lone operator” or a licensed physician.

Most of the lone operators were women who were or presented themselves as nurses or orderlies. These women generally had no professional training, operated in “unsterile and, in many cases, downright dirty” conditions, and were relatively easy to arrest and prosecute, the manual says.

With a single witness ID, detectives could initiate a lone operator’s arrest without an indictment or warrant, according to the manual.

Meanwhile, the scales of justice weighed differently depending on the defendant: licensed doctors performing illegal abortions (usually men, at a time when women made up 5% of the country’s doctors) often received deference from the district attorney that was not given to their non-professional female counterparts. The training bulletin stated that “cases involving licensed physicians are another matter.”

District attorneys were “of the opinion that at least six counts are desirable” before a doctor can be arrested. This opinion was based “on the theory” that grand juries showed an “unwillingness to indict a doctor” unless the doctor performed abortions as a “regular business”.

To arrest a doctor, detectives had to set up an undercover operation. A female undercover officer should make an appointment to “get as much information out of him as possible,” the manual says. If the conversation was fruitful, detectives could get a warrant to bug the doctor’s office.

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After that, the police would organize surveillance of the clinic and its clients. Women “known or suspected” of going to the doctor’s office for abortions were “followed, by car and on foot, if necessary”, to secretly establish their identity and whereabouts.

Unlike cases involving single female operators, where those assisting the abortionist were often offered immunity to testify against the provider, in cases involving doctors, “pilots, drivers, pharmacists, etc.” were charged as co-defendants. As a result, the cases could quickly become sprawling investigations into “highly organized, interstate” abortion rings. It was only at this stage that male officers were used in the investigation “if the case requires it”.

After documenting at least six counts of abortions, detectives consulted with the district attorney to convene a grand jury. On the appointed day, the police showed up at the residences of the “previously identified aborts” to serve subpoenas. The women were then “brought to the prosecutor’s office, interrogated and [their testimony] put to the Grand Jury” to get a doctor charged.

The final operational support provided by the CIB’s abortion unit was to maintain a “central abortion file” detailing all aspects of previous abortion cases, which the police considered “one of the functions most important” of the unit.

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Because abortions were illegal, providers often took steps to conceal themselves and their practice from examination. Women who had abortions often had only “bits of information” about providers, such as a location, phone number, or pseudonym. The register was an “invaluable” resource for the police “since abortionists, eager for easy money, are most often repeat offenders”.

Much has changed in the 54 years since the publication of this training bulletin. Electronic surveillance captures far more data than phone calls, and physical surveillance is easier than ever, thanks to drones. More than a third of American doctors are women. Database records can be collected, stored and accessed electronically. But with the reversal of deer and a likely impending spike in abortion lawsuits, it may feel like little has changed at all.

Tom Sherman is a Delaware journalist with a collection of vintage and old historical documents.