When Long Beach Was the Abortion Capital of the West

Gerrie Schipske
WWII Poster

Abortions were performed illegally in Long Beach for many years.

During WWII, Long Beach was referred to in newspaper articles as the “abortion capital of the west.” Abortion was not legal but that did not stop the demand nor willing providers. It was estimated that in the 1940s, 1.25 million abortions were performed each year in the US. How many died can only be imagined as many deaths caused by botched abortions were written off as “burst appendix” or other infections.

Abortion “mills” or abortion “rings” were in abundant supply in Long Beach. A pregnant woman simply asked around and was given a name and a phone number and place to meet. She was then blindfolded and driven to the abortionist – some retired physicians, chiropractors or osteopaths – many non-medical men and women. Women who did not go to an abortionist used home remedies such as caustic lye, jumping and landing on the abdomen or insertion of metal objects that caused prolonged bleeding and septic infection.

The newspapers attributed the growing number of abortionists to “the unnatural homelife of women whose husbands were in the armed forces, giddy wartime mentality and the large number of women employed in war work.”

The circumstances during the war were referred to as “a fertile field for predatory abortionists.” Numerous articles were written on the horrors of illegal abortion with graphic descriptions of how women suffered untold agonies as they “rotted internally and died from deadly complications of slipshod surgery.”

Several abortionists were charged and convicted of the murder of the women on which they performed surgery. In 1945, a 50-year-old grandmother was arrested and charged with performing illegal abortions for more than 18 years in Long Beach. Hester Anne Hesketh admitted to police that business had boomed with the war and that she performed 30 to 35 abortions a week for the “wives and sweethearts of servicemen.”

Hesketh charged between $25 and $75 a patient and did not perform surgery. Instead, she gave a drink concoction that included a shot of gin. One of her patients – a Navy wife – languished in Seaside Hospital after consuming the abortion inducing drink and identified Hesketh as the person who gave it to her. The patient died and police arrested Hesketh.

When asked why she performed abortions, Hesketh told a reporter “Women used to cry to me and get down on their knees and say they would commit suicide unless something was done.”

Arrests and convictions continued in Long Beach and in the late 1950s James Utley, who once operated illegal bingo games, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for operating a $500,000 a year abortion “mill.”

By the late 1950s, the asking price for an abortion was $450. Cases against abortionists filled the court docket and were reported to be the main criminal issue before the Superior Court.

The prosecutions of abortionists continued in Long Beach until the 1970s Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. “Jane Roe” was actually a Texas resident who became pregnant and sought an abortion in her state. Wade was the Dallas district attorney who she filed against for enforcing the Texas law that prohibited abortion. Sarah Weddington was the young attorney who took on Jane’s (aka Norma McCovey) case. Before the case was finally decided, McCovey gave birth to the child and placed it for adoption.

The US Supreme Court took up the Roe v Wade case because the issue of abortion was festering throughout the nation. Some states allowed it while others did not. The decision was clear: the “Due Process” clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution provides a fundamental “right to privacy” that protects a pregnant woman’s liberty interests to decide whether or not to carry the pregnancy.

Roe v. Wade outlined that up until the end of the first trimester of pregnancy, a woman could obtain an abortion without restriction. In the second trimester, the states were free to establish criteria for abortion and in the last trimester, abortion could be outlawed. 



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