“Tijuana Abortions” and Abortion Decriminalization in California

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 9:10 AM
Gramercy East (New York Hilton)
Alicia Gutierrez-Romine, La Sierra University
From the 1950s through the 1960s, abortion mortality Los Angeles County had steadily declined. Though abortion fatalities were statistically insignificant, public discourse about abortion increased. Amid he baby boom, motherhood, families, and fetal life had gained new importance in American life which coincided with stricter enforcement of abortion laws in the state. While fears of thalidomide and exposure to rubella had opened the door to discuss abortion liberalization in some contexts, the proliferation of an abortion industry on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border caused a general panic as its existence became more well-known in the U.S.

Though there were countless skilled abortionists in Mexico, there were more opportunities for unskilled abortionists to offer their services and profit. Staff physicians at Los Angeles County General Hospital, for example, blamed their proximity to the border for their expertise in treating botched abortions. Similarly, state and federal law enforcement agencies devoted resources and worker hours to investigating the “international abortion ring operating in Mexico” and drafting “new legislation to combat the problem.”

The public health crisis that California’s abortion laws created peaked in 1969 when Dr. Leon Belous appealed his 1966 conviction for referring Cheryl Bryant for an illegal abortion. When Bryant and her fiancé approached the physician, he feared they would turn to “butchery” in Tijuana. Whether imagined or imminent, that butchery was sufficient for him to state that Bryant’s life was in danger--rendering the abortion justifiable. The California Supreme Court’s willingness to entertain this defense suggests that fear of border abortions was reasonable. Responding to the public health crisis of “Tijuana Abortions,” –specifically, concerns about American women seeking medical treatment in an increasingly-racialized place—Californians took an innovative approach in decriminalizing abortion several years before Roe v. Wade.

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