An abortionist is one who performs abortions. They are often physicians, but historically have also been, and still can be, midwives, nurses, physician assistants, and trained or untrained laypersons.
The common perception is that prior to Roe vs. Wade, illegal abortion was practiced by untrained people. This was not the case. Mary Claderone (then Medical Director of Planned Parenthood) and Nancy Howell Lee (a pro choice researcher) both investigated the practice of criminal abortion in the pre-legalization era. Calderone estimated that "90% of all illegal abortions are presently (1960 - ed) being done by physicians." Calderone further estimated that 8% were self-induced and that 2% were induced by someone other than the woman or a doctor. Lee estimated that 89% of pre-legalization abortions were done by physicians, an additional 5% by nurses or others with some medical training, and 6% were done by non-medical persons or the woman herself.
Anecdotal data tends to support this research. Stories of abortions by midwives, orderlies, chiropractors, and assorted trained lay practitioners like Harvey Karman and the Jane Syndicate are far too common to represent only 2% of criminal abortions. We would probably not err too far if we relied primarily on Lee's numbers and adjusted them slightly to reflect the slight under-reporting of amateur abortions. Thus, a fair estimate of the breakdown of criminal abortionists would probably look like this:
- 90% physicians
- 5% trained non-physicians (medical and lay)
- 3% untrained accomplice
- 2% the woman herself
There were physicians who ran abortion mills, physicians who did selected abortions on their own patients, and physicians who worked patients in through loopholes in the law. In addition to the physician abortionist, there were the professional non-physicians, often operating with training, equipment, medications, and back-up provided by physicians.
Controversy has surrounded the dual role physicians who profit from performing abortions (or referring cases), as they are professionally bound to present all options from a neutral perspective, though in reality it is argued that this rarely occurs and undue pressure is placed on women to have an abortion.
- Mary Calderone, "Illegal abortion as a public health issue," American Journal of Public Health, July 1960
- Nancy Howell Lee, The Search for an Abortionist, University of Chicago Press, 1969
- Dear Dr. Spencer: Abortion in a Small Town"
- GMC guidance on Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice
- Physicians values and physician-value neutrality Journal of Religion and Health