On this day in 1871, Augustus St. Clair was given an extremely dangerous undercover investigative assignment for the New York Times. He was to infiltrate and ultimately expose the city’s prosperous and profligate “medical malpractice” industry--the common euphemism for the abortion trade. For several weeks, he and a “lady friend” visited a number of the most heavily trafficked clinics in New York, posing as a couple facing a crisis pregnancy. They were shocked with what they saw.
It wasn't that the clinics were sordid back alley affairs. They weren't. It wasn't that they were operated by shady or seedy quacks. They weren't. It wasn't that they were dark, dangerous, and disreputable. They weren't. On the contrary, it was that the rich splendor of the entrepreneurial abortuaries—fine tapestry carpets, expensive mahogany furniture, elegant decorations, and spacious parlors--contrasted so sharply with the desperation, helplessness, and poverty of their clientele. It was that the smug complacency of the proprietors—men and women who made quite an opulent living out of the sordid trade—contrasted so sharply with the dispiritedness of their patients. It was that their frank and forthright commerce—advertised openly in all the magazines, newspapers, digests of the day—contrasted so sharply with the secretive shame of their customers. It was that the dens of iniquity were simultaneously dens of inequity.
As a result of his discoveries St. Clair wrote a hard-hitting three column article which the Times published in late August. Entitled The Evil of the Age, the article opened with a solemn warning, “The enormous amount of medical malpractice that exists and flourishes, almost unchecked, in the city of New York, is a theme for most serious consideration. Thousands of human beings are thus murdered before they have seen the light of this world, and thousands upon thousands more of adults are irremediably robbed in constitution, health, and happiness.”
Skillfully, St. Clair portrayed virtually every dimension of the slick and professional abortion industry: from its bottom line economics to its medical methodologies and from its marketing savvy to its litigal invulnerability. Told with passion and insight, the story hit the city like a bombshell. Almost singlehandedly, the young reporter put child-killing on the public agenda for the first time in decades.
Being on the public agenda is not enough in itself to bring about widespread social change however. Something more is needed--an incident to galvanize the concern of the public. Just such an incident occurred in New York just days after St. Clair's article appeared in the Times. The body of a beautiful young woman was discovered inside an abandoned trunk in a railway station baggage room. A police autopsy determined that the cause of death was a botched abortion.
A spontaneous national campaign was launched that eventually made abortion illegal in every state, condemned by the American Medical Association, and vilified by the national press. And it all began with St. Clair's story in the New York Times--of all places.