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Beatrice J. never meant to become an abortion provider. Around 1941, she was taught by another Baltimore woman how to provoke an abortion. Ten years later, she needed another abortion, and sought the supplies she remembered at a local pharmacy. She asked for “bluejays”, or the rubber tubing usually known as a bougie and “footballs”, or ergot pills sold legally over the counter as menstrual regulators. The pharmacist understood exactly what she needed, and a few months later, persuaded her to help other women abort. Using records from Baltimore city court cases and the recollections of a local OB GYN, this paper explores how women accessed abortion procedures in the midst of a period of repression, and the kinds of vernacular knowledge they developed around the practice. The 1940s and 50s saw heightened prosecutions, which made abortions more difficult to obtain, but, perversely, also makes them more visible to the historian. Building on the work of scholars such as Leslie Reagan, Cara DeLay, and Madeline Ware, I seek to reconstruct a mid-century history of abortion, grounded in Baltimore, from black and white women’s perspectives.

Mary E. Fissell is the Inaugural J. Mario Molina Professor of the History of Medicine in the Department of the History of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University, where she also holds appointments in the Departments of History and History of Science and Technology. She currently serves as vice president of the AAHM, having edited the Bulletin of the History of Medicine for 15 years. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the NLM, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Davis Center at Princeton University.

Her scholarly work has focused on the patient's perspective in the history of medicine; gender, sexuality, and the history of the body; popular culture; and books and reading in early modern England and the Atlantic world. Her book Vernacular Bodies (Oxford, 2004) analyzed how everyday ideas about making babies mediated large scale social, political, and religious change. Having drafted a study of the sex manual Aristotle’s Masterpiece, she is now completing a book titled Pushback, a public-facing history of abortion from antiquity to antibiotics, to be published by Basic Books in Spring 2025. She is the author of scholarly articles on topics from pregnancy determination to the history of early-modern vermin.

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