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The Most Trusted Man in America Reports on Abortion in 1965

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 60’s; 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.

To watch “Abortion and the Law,” go here.


another story, from 1962

Lots of women couldn't afford illegal abortions in the U.S. and had no idea where to access services they could afford, so they went elsewhere.  here's a story, "Lucky Girl" published in Guernica, that tells one such story:

Prevention is Key

An interesting piece, but I do not completely agree with the author. Since there is a limited amount of time, money and resources, the focus in the media should not be on discussions that call for a reinforcement of laws that support a woman’s right to have an abortion but rather on mechanisms that prevent a woman from being in a such a position in the first place. In the same manner that the media should concentrate on ways to prevent becoming obese instead of on liposuction treatments, the media should reinforce healthy sexual lifestyle choices that result in positive outcomes; it would be best if nobody ever got to the point where they needed liposuction or an abortion. Of course, we do not live in a perfect world. Women sometimes get abortions because terrible things happen to them such as rape. This is precisely the reason the discussion of prevention in the media must take a much more comprehensive approach than it has in the past. The media should discuss traditional methods of birth control like condoms but also extend their coverage to areas such as rape, incest, and attitudes towards sex. Pregnancy is not a disease like cancer where the source of the problem is unknown. Fortunately, we know what causes pregnancy. Although the exact reason a person has an unwanted pregnancy is more nuanced, we know many of the reasons, and we should focus on preventing them as much as possible. People are more aware of the multifaceted nature of abortion today than they were in 1965.  People do not need to view a special report on the obstacles some women face in order to get an abortion or the reasons some women seek one. They already know. A discussion that calls for additional laws that support abortion would indicate that unwanted pregnancies have become a larger problem in society. We should be focusing on reducing the problem. In the future, I hope that discussions on obesity and cancer become obsolete because they are no longer problems. In the same manner, I hope abortion becomes less of a discussion piece as a result of a more comprehensive dialogue and approach to prevention.   


It's so nice to read this as I was growing up as a child my church drilled it in my head that abortion is wrong but deep inside I knew THEY were wrong.  As the years went by I found out that my church was a cult, so I stopped going there.  They condone rapist and child molesters and condem abortion.  This finally prompted me to hook up with a group that took us to Washington D.C.  and lobby for the rights for women to have an abortion and for the insurance companies to pay for it.  As far as I know we won and I hope our politicians don't make us go backwards ever again on this issue.  While I was there they wanted us to put name tags on, so I used my maiden name and felt honored to share the same last name as Walter Cronkite.  After his death I went to the Family History Center to trace my geneology, so I took my book "A reporter's Life" and my brothers obit and she was able to trace me back to 12th cousin.  My poor beloved brother passed away Febuarary 22, 2009 then five months later I lost Walter.  I'm so sad and torn over all of this and have some pretty hard days, but when I read about the nice things like this article here that he's done for our country then it helps in my healing process and I'm very proud to say that I'll be honoring him by marching in some upcoming PEACE parades and hopefully some day get to meet his three children Chip, Kathy, and Nancy.  My beloved brother's name was Ronald D. Cronkite and he will be sadly missed.  RIP Ronnie and Walter.

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