We Did What We Had To: My Teen Abortion Tale, 1969
When memory bursts, it’s like a dam opening, flooding the present. Still, I did not expect it to happen in a late-night taxi as I headed home from work, reading a New York Times story on my smartphone. On its face, the story before me had nothing to do with my own history: It was about the decision of actress Amy Brenneman, along with hundreds of other women, to go public about their abortions.
As is obvious from my byline, I am a man. I’ve never had an abortion or been involved with a woman who had one. But as a 16-year-old kid growing up in Chicago, I helped arrange and implement an illegal abortion in a country where no constitutional right to an abortion then existed.
For some, this could be a formative experience. Yet in the many decades since it occurred, I have recalled it only rarely, and then, mainly with the kind of bemused detachment of an older man looking back on an amazing tale from another time where another person entirely, who was me, once lived.
This time, though, was different.
Using hashtags such as #ShoutYourAbortion, Brenneman in concert with scores of female lawyers, doctors, elected officials, celebrities and women from many walks of life has launched a project called the 1 in 3 Campaign, a reference to a 2008 survey that found that one out of every three women in America has had an abortion by the age of 45. (The abortion rate since then is generally believed to have declined significantly.)
The movement’s idea, modeled on the public coming-out stories of lesbians and gay men, is for women to proclaim, rather than seek to hide, their abortion experiences. In doing so, they hope to have an impact on Middle America that echoes the impact LGBT individuals had on this country over many years.
But they have a more immediate particular target, too: Associate Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is considered the swing vote in a ruling the court is expected to issue soon on the most consequential abortion case it has heard in the past quarter-century. In Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Supreme Court will decide how far states may go in regulating abortions without violating a woman’s constitutional rights. In Texas, where this suit began, the state’s contested new law mandates that abortion facilities must meet the standards required of hospital surgical centers. It also says that doctors who perform abortions at clinics must have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital — a privilege many hospitals in the South will not grant, for fear of controversy.
Reading about this case, I thought about the only abortion in which I’d been personally involved, during my senior year of high school, arranged with the help of an underground network of Protestant ministers and rabbis. It took place in a small hotel room in Detroit and was conducted on a 16-old-girl by a man we’d never met, about 280 miles from our homes in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Chicago.
In contesting briefs submitted to the high court in the Whole Woman’s case, women who had abortions gave witness to the experience as both a responsible choice and a shattering mistake. Men’s voices are, understandably, missing.
So I decided to journey back to my childhood and fill in the pieces of a puzzle — to ascertain just how a risky, illegal procedure can affect the lives of a close group of friends. I didn’t know what I would find. I didn’t expect to discover how truly dangerous this procedure could be.
Back in the fall of 1969, Mansie O’Young — a gorgeous Chinese-American teenager, notwithstanding her last name — was in my eyes the most desirable girl in Nicholas Senn High School, a 3,000-student urban education factory on Chicago’s North Side. She was also the girlfriend of one of my best friends, Joe Glicker.
I thought Joe was just about the luckiest guy around. He had smarts up the wazoo — was on his way, in fact, toward graduation as class salutatorian for the class of ’70. And he had Mansie. I felt lucky to be hanging by my fingernails in the top 15% or so of our senior class. And I had yet to have my first steady girlfriend.
I can’t recall how or when Joe told me he had gotten Mansie pregnant. But I remember my shock at the news.
“Did you use birth control?” I asked him a few weeks ago, when I looked him up to do this story. “No,” he answered curtly from his home in Portland, Oregon, where he works today as a hydro-engineer and private consultant on wastewater treatment construction projects.
Joe didn’t remember why not. I can take a guess, though. Today, according to my 14-year-old daughter and one of her friends, free condoms are available for the taking at the nurse’s office or gym program at many New York City high schools. Back then, they weren’t available even on the open shelves of Chicago-area drugstores. You had to ask the druggist or clerk to get them for you, from behind the counter. Imagine the stares of the others in line. What 16-year-old kid would have the gumption to face down that?
We were incredibly tight as a group back then: Joe, Mansie, myself and perhaps a half-dozen others. In a way, it reminds me of the 1986 Rob Reiner film “Stand By Me”. Like the childhood comrades of that wonderful coming-of-age film, we would all go our separate ways as adults. But as the film’s narrator observes, “In all our lives, there’s a fall from innocence, a time after which we are never the same.”
As we were growing up in the 1960s in the dense, heavily Jewish Chicago neighborhood of West Rogers Park, our fall from innocence was already well underway. Though safely ensconced in the social ghetto of Senn’s honors classes track, we were in a school of enormous class and ethnic diversity: blacks, Latinos, Asians, white Appalachians (we called them hillbillies back then), even a smattering of Native Americans. There were gangs and drugs. There were student shakedowns. And there were occasional fights. We knew all this because Joe, Mansie, a few others and myself had started an alternative school paper to compete with the all-is-well official school rag. We reported on all this, albeit in an often puerile, anti-establishment way.
By that time, our tight bonds dictated our collective response when we understood that Mansie and Joe were in trouble. We rallied around them. Mansie, who was still in the earliest stage of her pregnancy, made clear from the beginning that she wanted an abortion. The question was, how could we procure one? In a school where illegal uppers, downers and hallucinogens were easily accessible, there had to be someone who could help us.
As it turned out, the answer came from the wealthiest kid in our group. This was an important first lesson: When it comes to abortion, as with so much in life, wealth always has its ways, whatever the rules.
Kenny Becker was (like Mansie) one of the few non-Jews in our close crew. In fact, with his light-blond hair and bright blue eyes, he looked exactly like what he was: a kid whose great grandparents had come from Germany. His family lived in a gracefully furnished four-story residence on tony North State Parkway, on Chicago’s Gold Coast. This was just a couple of blocks from Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion, where one of Kenny’s sisters occasionally worked. (The mansion of Cardinal John Patrick Cody, the archbishop of Chicago, was just down the street from there, which is something I always wondered about.)
As it turned out, once Kenny started asking around, an answer came quickly. The Smiths (their real last names), his next-door neighbors, were — in Kenny’s own words — “limousine liberals.” When Kenny told them, discreetly, about Mansie’s predicament, they provided him with a number: 312-667-6015.
This put Joe in touch with a group called Clergy Consultation Service— an underground network of Protestant ministers and rabbis who provided referrals to women in need of an abortion. That was all it took. Well, that and far more money than we had. This would pose a special hurdle all its own. But first, an unidentified person at the other end of that line directed Joe to call a clergy person in Evanston, a leafy suburb just outside the city. And that person, in turn, made an appointment for Joe and Mansie to come in for a consultation with him. Joe doesn’t remember much about that consultation today, just that it took about an hour.
“I remember being in some kind of enclosed porch room — French glass windows — that sort of thing,” he wrote me in an email recently, “sitting in chairs, or maybe on a couch.” Joe has no recollection of what the clergy person he and Mansie consulted looked like. The man wore no clerical collar or any other religious marking. He was a secret emissary to salvation.
Rabbi Max Ticktin, who was the Hillel director at the University of Chicago at the time, now lives in Washington. He is in his 90s now and is a friend whom I have known for many years. But I never knew of his role in the organization that helped Joe and Mansie until I reported this story.
Ticktin was one of four rabbis and 16 Protestant ministers working quietly in the Chicago Area Clergy Consultation Service on Problem Pregnancies, the underground abortion referral network. Ticktin told me that there is a good chance the cleric who met with my friends was Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf.
Wolf, who died in 2008, operated as a volunteer counselor for the underground clergy network in Evanston, Ticktin said. Unlike many of the Protestant clergymen, who wore clerical collars, Wolf, a prominent, longtime Chicago Reform rabbi, would probably not have worn a yarmulke then. Years later, he ended up in Hyde Park, on the city’s South Side, where he led a large congregation called KAM and lived across the street from a then little-known state senator named Barack Obama. Wolf became a friend of the young politician and was one of his earliest Jewish supporters. He died, just one month after Obama was elected president, as one of the best-known Reform rabbis in the city.
But for a short time — probably just a few weeks after Mansie and Joe had their consultation — it was Ticktin who achieved the greater prominence. In December 1969, Ticktin counseled a woman who came to him seeking an abortion. He provided her with the name and phone number of the Detroit-area doctor the Chicago group sent its women to for service. But the woman, it turned out, was an undercover Chicago cop, acting in concert with Michigan authorities.
By the time the warrant was issued for Ticktin’s arrest for conspiring to arrange illegal abortions, he was in Israel. The Chicago police raided his apartment, executing a search warrant issued by the District Court in Oakland, Michigan. In his absence, the cops carted out several files while Ticktin’s then-small children looked on. The arrest itself took place when he landed at O’Hare International Airport.
“I made Life magazine,” he recalled during a recent phone conversation. Ticktin’s pride at the memory positively radiated from the receiver. “I was kind of the hero for a short period,” he said. When he arrived from Israel, Ticktin, recalled, “there were people waiting with bail money for me at the airport.”
The prosecutor in the case, Thomas F. Plunkett, announced he had uncovered an “international system of abortion referrals involving many clergymen and many doctors around the nation.”
But the University of Chicago and the Chicago Board of Rabbis supported Ticktin. And in Michigan, the Rev. Robert Marshall of the Unitarian-Universalist Church, in Birmingham, told the prosecutor what would happen if he pushed forward with his plan to extradite Ticktin and put him on trial: “You will have to jail every rabbi in Oakland County, every Unitarian cleric, at least half the Protestant clergy and even a few Catholic priests.”
Confronted with widespread clergy resistance in both the Chicago and Detroit areas, Plunkett announced in January 1970 that he would not seek to extradite Ticktin, after all.
The debacle was a sign of the times: We were living in the last throes of the nation’s increasingly unpopular state abortion laws. But as teenagers, we knew little about this. In our world, it was Mansie and Joe’s much smaller but no less difficult dilemma that consumed us.
While the Clergy Consultation Service never charged for its counselors’ time or for their referrals, the same was not true of the abortion itself. There were also significant accompanying expenses. To reduce their legal exposure in case of arrest, CCS counselors, who were spread across many states, generally would only refer clients to abortion practitioners in states other than their own — as Ticktin had done.
In Chicago, this meant referrals to the Michigan doctor Ticktin later unintentionally outed. We decided I would go along on the trip to Detroit, as one of Joe’s closest friends, as would Marcy, the person in our group closest to Mansie. That meant four round-trip train tickets to Detroit in addition to the abortion charge, plus the bill for an overnight stay in a Detroit hotel. As state legislatures today steadily regulate abortion clinics out of business and hospitals retreat from offering abortion services, I suppose these are the same kind of travel and financial hurdles young people with far fewer resources than we had face today; and this, in an age of legal abortion.
As far as Joe now recalls, the total cost for our abortion excursion added up to $400. Kenny remembers it today as $500. Either way, that’s between $2,600 and $3,240 in 2016 dollars, not the kind of dough we had as 16-year-olds. This led us to confide in the only parent we turned to during the entirety of this experience. With Joe and Mansie’s permission, Kenny told his mother, and she agreed to lend us the money — and to keep our secret.
We paid it back over several months on our return home, mostly by going to the Illinois Central train station downtown after school and on weekends, and panhandling—an exercise that occasionally involved turning down offers of sex for money from lonely and surely closeted gay men of that era.
Our parents, of course, knew nothing about any of this. There was never any question of telling Mansie’s parents. Her mother, an overworked postal clerk who did second shift as homemaker and parent, was a high-strung, first-generation Chinese immigrant whose severity and quickness to anger I still remember. But Joe’s parents were my favorite among all my friends’: tolerant, approachable, earthy and unpretentious, and seemingly always supportive of Joe, their only child.
“I don’t know why I didn’t tell them,” Joe told me during one of our recent phone conversations, “other than that there was no reason to, and there was some reason not to.”
Joe’s mom, it turns out, eventually found out — when Joe was in his 30s. “I think she found out from your mom,” Joe told me. I only vaguely remember telling my mother, many years later, about this episode of my adolescence. I have no recollection of her reaction. But according to Joe, when his mother heard about it from mine, she voiced relief at having been kept in the dark. “I don’t know what I would have done,” she told Joe. “I’m so glad we never knew.”
Joe does not remember much about the logistics of our trip to Detroit. But I remember lots. I remember how the four of us stayed at Kenny’s home on State Parkway the night before we were to leave. I remember how we were told to register at the Howard Johnson Hotel in downtown Detroit and were given a number to call from there for further instructions after we registered.
Unfortunately, when we arrived, the Howard Johnson desk clerks took a look at our faded jeans, cheap travel bags and waiflike miens. They scrutinized our ID’s. And they refused to register us. We were, they told us, underage.
One of us called the number we had been given, trying not to panic. What do we do now, we asked. We were given the name of another hotel to which we should go — was it the Ramada? — and told to register there. This we tried to do, with the same result.
Another call, another directive: Try the Hilton. To our young minds, the word “Hilton” evoked the same aura as the word “Cadillac.” This was the most expensive and fanciest hotel yet. I was sure that they’d never let four scruffy-looking teen-age kids register. But to my utter surprise, they did, with no questions asked.
I considered this my second lesson: In America, at the top money speaks louder than age.
My recollection about what happened after that diverges from Joe’s. Once ensconced in our double room at the Hilton, we informed the contact person at the number we had been given. I remember an unassuming man eventually standing at the doorway, with a satchel in his hand, like an old-time doctor making a house call. Joe doesn’t remember seeing the doctor at all.
“Mansie had to be alone,” Joe recalled. “I never saw him. They told us that he was a doctor, a licensed M.D., and that Mansie will be safe. But that’s all I remember. We didn’t have any interaction with him.”
Later, tracking down the identity of the abortionist 47 years after the fact would prove surprisingly easy. But the results were, to say the least, startling. Clergy Consultation Service prided itself on vetting the doctors to whom they referred their clients, in order to ensure the clients’ safety. And in Chicago, the clergy used just one doctor — Jesse Ketchum, Ticktin told me. It was a recollection backed up by several written accounts of the clergy network’s work.
Indeed, when the Michigan prosecutor dropped his extradition request for Ticktin in January 1970, it was Ketchum, then 52, with a suburban Detroit medical practice, who remained firmly in the prosecutor’s grasp. Unlike Ticktin, he went on trial.
The Rev. E. Spencer Parsons, who was dean of the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel and founder of the Clergy Consultation Service’s Chicago chapter, urged Ketchum’s attorney: “Don’t go try to defend Dr. Ketchum on some technical ground. Go after the law itself, go after the unconstitutionality of the law in Michigan.”
It worked. When the Ketchum trial closed, on Good Friday 1970, the judge declared the state’s abortion law unconstitutionally vague. This did not change the situation statewide, since it was just one judge. But Ketchum was off.
Less than two weeks after this, New York became the first state in the country to pass a law enabling women to obtain abortions on demand through the 24th week of pregnancy. (Hawaii had earlier legalized it, for state residents only, through 20 weeks.) Ketchum, who was arrested on other abortion charges in Michigan after his acquittal, acted quickly to take advantage of this. Moving to Buffalo, New York, soon after the law took effect on July 1, he opened up an open, fully legal practice just across the street from a local hospital.
He would make news again the following year.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that just months after Mansie’s abortion, in one of those tales that make adolescence so charming for all concerned, she dropped Joe and became my girlfriend — the first girlfriend I ever had, and the first girl I ever really kissed. The year after the abortion, she and I lived together in a small apartment above a student house as freshmen at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Finding Mansie decades later would prove a real challenge. We broke up after our freshman year. The last time I had seen her was probably around 1973, when we graduated college: me, with a degree in anthropology and film; she, with a degree in theater arts. Looking for her online under her birth name yielded nothing.
I remembered hearing secondhand that she had become a fervent Christian. Had that affected her views about her own abortion? When I finally did find her online, via discovering the surname of her husband from her second marriage, I had reason to suspect so. Her spouse, I learned, was a wealthy, politically active Republican and a religiously committed Catholic. She herself was the co-director of a theater arts youth program headquartered on the third floor of De Paul College Prep, a large Catholic high school on Chicago’s Near West Side. Though still Chinese, of course, Mansie O’Young was now, strangely enough, Mansie O’Leary.
As I took a taxi from Chicago’s Near North Side to this school to see her for the first time in more than 40 years, I felt a deep disquiet unlike the anxieties that I’ve experienced over the course of a career that has included traveling to Tunis to interview the mastermind of the Munich Olympics massacre; to Cairo during the Arab Spring to interview the deputy chief of Hamas, or even last year, when I traveled to Iran as the first reporter from a Jewish publication to be allowed in that country since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Those pressures were professional. This was about my own biography, and all the emotions I had invested in Proustian memories of the girl who was my first love.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and Mansie was working on the third floor of the large school, in a sun-filled room with some computer terminals, an electric piano and piles of theatrical costumes on the floor. Today, she is the arts director and co-founder of Infinity Arts Academy, a for-profit enterprise that runs theater programs for young people. It’s her second career, taken up after she’d made a good amount of money, she told me, doing public relations for high-end real estate companies. “I’ve never worked for other people,” Mansie told me proudly. From across the hall came the sounds of young voices rehearsing a musical in a larger performance space.
She has two grown children, and a grandchild, now. But she is separated from her second husband, under whose surname I found her. “For me, he has no face,” she said, explaining that this was an “Asian saying” equivalent to the Italian “He’s dead to me.”
Sitting at the piano keyboard, Mansie regarded me with some wariness as I started asking about her abortion of 1969. “The experience for me was just an experience,” she said. “I don’t believe it was life altering. I don’t believe it either guided my path or determined my path.”
From the outset, Mansie had made it clear that seeing me after all these years — at least about this — was not a priority for her; not because it was painful, but because it was irrelevant. Her voice was flat and emotionless. Cold, even.
“There was a problem to be solved,” she said, “and circumstances presented themselves to solve the problem. I know some women cry or think about the what-ifs. For me, it was just a biological circumstance that needed to be corrected… for me, it was such an inconsequential event in my life. After it happened I very quickly put it out of my mind.”
The only occasions that she had had to recall it in the years since, she said, were when doctors inquired about her medical history. At one point, when she had a hard time conceiving, “I mentioned to doctors then about my abortion,” she said.
If Mansie’s attitude resembles that of many other women, it could be that the 1 in 3 Campaign will find its biggest hurdle not in women who are ashamed to talk about their abortions, but in women who have simply put them out of their minds as quickly and completely as possible.
There was one last thing I wanted to ask Mansie about, though, a question I saved for the end. Back in Detroit, I told her, when she was in that hotel room and still under the sway of a sedative, Marcy stayed with her for a while, alone. When she came out, we asked Marcy how she was, what she was doing, what she had said. Her reply then has stayed in my mind ever since:
“You were groggy and everything,” I told Mansie, “and Marcy told us you were crying a little and said, ‘They flushed my baby down the toilet!’”
Mansie replied promptly, looking into my eyes: “No. I don’t remember any of that at all.”
She added: “Given the circumstances, I think that was the procedure. To flush it down the toilet. You wouldn’t carry it out of there. And clearly at that stage, things are very small.”
Joe didn’t remember the incident either. “I remember going to bathroom of the hotel room, and there was still some blood in the toilet,” he said. “That’s the one vivid image I have — of a little bit of blood.”
On June 16, 1971 — less than two years after he aborted Mansie’s fetus — Jesse Ketchum performed an abortion in his Buffalo office, on Mary Louise Smith. She was a 25-year-old Michigan woman who had been exposed during her pregnancy to rubella, which can result in severe birth defects. According to court testimony following Smith’s death, Ketchum did a vaginal hysterectomy on her. This consists of an incision in the cervix and manual extraction of the fetus. It was, experts testified, “not a commonly used method of abortion, especially at the stage of pregnancy that the victim had reached.”
Billy Ray Ellenburg, Smith’s companion, with whom she had been living for the past year and a half, accompanied her to the appointment but left — as we had with Mansie — when Ketchum began his procedure. He returned 90 minutes later, and again two hours after that. Each time, he found Smith pale and her breathing labored. No one was attending to her or even regularly coming in to check her vital signs. Finally, at Ellenburg’s insistence, Ketchum summoned a rescue squad, which found no life signs and could not resuscitate her. They rushed Smith to the hospital across the street, where she was pronounced dead on arrival.
The court found Ketchum guilty of criminally negligent homicide on October 26, 1973, two years and four months after Smith’s death. But during that interval, Ketchum continued to perform abortions. And just four months after Smith’s death, 37-year-old Carole Schaner of Ohio died as a result of an abortion he performed on her in his Buffalo office, where, the Erie County coroner found, she had suffered “hemorrhaging and lacerations of the cervix and uterus.”
Ketchum was sentenced to three years in prison for Smith’s death, but, after a lengthy appeals process, he ultimately served only about a year. During his appeal, he returned to Michigan and sought to restart his practice there. But after an Ohio woman 14 weeks pregnant was forced to have a hysterectomy as a result of an abortion from Ketchum, the Michigan Medical Practices Board revoked his medical license for failing to meet “minimal standards of acceptable and prevailing medical practice.” The board cited not just his negligent homicide conviction in New York, but also “a 10-year history of malpractice and criminal action” in Michigan, including nine malpractice suits.
It was November 1974 by then — nearly two years after the U.S. Supreme Court enshrined abortion in the first trimester nationwide as a constitutional right in Roe v. Wade. Consequently, as part of its action against Ketchum, the Michigan Medical Practices Board also established its first concrete guidelines for doctors in the state to follow in performing the now legal procedure. “This is the beginning of a tremendous change,” the board’s acting chairman, Dr. Frederick W. Van Duyne, told UPI.
Ketchum died in 2005. But ironically, it seems, it was his disastrous abortion practices that led to Michigan’s first effort to regulate the procedure. And now, the country awaits a Supreme Court ruling on the effort by Texas and other states to virtually regulate the practice out of existence — which would, I suppose, put people like Ketchum back in business again.
When I discovered Ketchum’s record as an abortionist, I emailed Mansie in Chicago, curious as to her thoughts about what seemed to me, now, to be an episode in our lives whose danger we hardly realized. She replied, as she did in our interview, with a curt bright-red line between this episode and any other aspect of her life since.
“The information you provided me has no interest to me,” she wrote back. “Yet, I applaud your investigative skills.”
During our initial interview, Joe had already mused to me, “When you’re young, you’re just stupid. It was more like a lark…I don’t recall what I felt—I don’t remember being scared. In my recollection, I never felt like we were at risk.”
When I wrote him about what I’d discovered about Ketchum, he wrote back, “I guess knowing more doesn’t change anything about it for me…. You have to figure that whomever was doing this at the time had to be on the fringes of medicine somehow.”
My own feelings on the issue are complicated. The moral questions abortion poses are real. But as the father now of two teenage daughters and one teenage son, I know I would never want them to undertake the risks we blithely jumped into when I was 16, or to feel like they had no choice but to do so. I also know, from my personal experience of how the world looked when I was 16, that if they got in trouble, the odds that they would take such risks are high, no matter what kind of parents my wife and I try to be.
Dear Justice Kennedy: As you look at your own grandchildren, you might want to keep this in mind. Indeed, you might want to keep in mind that for many teenage girls already, the need to travel to another city covertly to get an abortion from a strange doctor, and do God knows what to come up with the money, is already a reality. The increasingly restrictive and medically unfounded regulations that many states have put in place have shut down abortion clinics in broad swaths of America, leaving them no choice. And please take it from me: They will do what they have to do.
Contact Larry Cohler-Esses at [email protected] or on Twitter @CohlerEsses