Abortion and the Law: Walter Cronkite’s Candid Reporting on Abortion in the Sixties


This article is cross-posted from Womenstake, the website of the National Women’s Law Center.

After watching the Mad Men Finale, I wanted to write a blog about Joan and her decision not to have an abortion.  Joan was lucky in this TV version of life in the sixties; she had access to and could afford a New Jersey doctor that performed abortions in a safe environment.  While this option may have been available for Joan, I decided to dig deeper and illuminate what life was really like for a woman who sought abortion care in the 1960’s

In this pursuit, I came across a CBS Reports documentary entitled “Abortion and the Law,” hosted by Walter Cronkite.  The documentary focused on social conditions in 1965 when abortion was illegal in all fifty states.  Cronkite did not stigmatize abortion, but looked at laws prohibiting abortion with a critical eye.  He explained that:

“the illegal termination of pregnancy has reached epidemic proportions in this country.  The laws which govern abortion are broken an estimated one million times a year,” and “as long as the abortion laws remain unchanged, abortion will continue to be a critical problem.” 

In Cronkite’s view, laws prohibiting abortion do not reduce the need for abortion care, and laws must be changed so that women can access abortion services in a safe environment.

Producers put a face to the epidemic by interviewing women who had illegal abortions.  One woman who was interviewed developed a dangerously high fever after she had her pregnancy terminated with a hanger in a hallway apartment.  Another woman went to a man who, in the middle of the abortion, extorted her husband to pay him more money.  Physicians also suffered from the laws, as they had to turn away desperate patients knowing that the patients would get unsafe abortions.  These interviews made it clear that in spite of laws prohibiting abortion, many women resorted to and were tragically harmed by unsafe and illegal abortions.

Cronkite’s report was captivating.  This is in part because he told real-life stories of women who were treated as criminals for having illegal abortions, did not know where to go for abortion care, or were harmed from so-called “back alley abortions.”  However, this report was equally fascinating because Cronkite, arguably the most trusted man in America, had a candid discussion about the need for safe abortion care even before the procedure was legalized in Roe v. Wade.

Like Cronkite in 1965, the media should have a discussion about abortion and call for laws that support women’s reproductive rights.  In doing so, it should highlight stories of women that faced obstacles in accessing abortion care.  The media should also discuss why women may elect or need to have an abortion, and the harmful consequences that anti-choice laws and rhetoric have on women and their medical care.  In this conversation, Cronkite’s report should serve as a reminder of the epidemic our country will likely face if Roe v. Wade is overturned.  The discourse in “Abortion and the Law” should be continued today, as it is essential in upholding Roe v. Wade and gathering even more support for a woman’s right to decide whether to have an abortion.

You can watch “Abortion and the Law” here.

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