Abortion bounty hunters in Texas. Doctors reporting patients’ miscarriages to the police in Indiana. Internet search histories used to prosecute individuals following a pregnancy loss. The Supreme Court majority decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has certified a new era of “uterus surveillance,” in the words of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Justice Clarence Thomas has suggested that the decision in Dobbs could lead to reviews of other landmark rights for marginalized groups, including contraception and same-sex relationships. The state’s expansive and expanding surveillance apparatus will ensnare ever more in the absence of robust constitutional protections.
In the 21st century, such surveillance relies on high-tech innovations. But historically, would-be regulators had to devise new and innovative methods to police abortion, sexuality and reproduction. Over a century ago, White women joined police departments, including the New York Police Department, under the guise of reform and improving the treatment of women by the police. However, in practice, female entrants to police forces tended to extend the state’s surveillance apparatus, reinforcing existing gender, race and class hierarchies. Having devised new means to police abortion, policewomen’s regulatory work expanded to suppress other behavior.
For much of American history, abortion was widely tolerated by legal and political authorities. Any antiabortion statutes on state books were typically poorly enforced and shaped by the principle of “quickening.” This doctrine held that a pregnancy did not begin until the pregnant person first felt the fetus move, typically around the 16th week of pregnancy. Pregnancy was thus a female preserve, determined by pregnant women themselves and the female midwives who supplied the majority of maternity care.
The political will to surveil abortion intensified in the mid-to-late 19th century, however. At this time, White male doctors were seeking to establish their supremacy in the competitive health care marketplace by founding medical schools, journals and organizations such as the American Medical Association, established in 1847. These physicians were particularly troubled by women’s authority over pregnancy, as well as nativist fears that White Protestant women were having fewer children than the large number of Catholic and Jewish immigrants then arriving in America. Most women, especially immigrants with fewer economic resources, relied on midwives for maternity care. Midwives’ expertise stemmed from their historic leadership of birth, and they were a trusted and attractive resource for women patients because they shared a community — gender, race, ethnicity, language — with those they cared for and could often be more flexible on payment options.
As part of their ambitious quest for status, physicians declared a war on abortion. Lobbying legislatures, doctors sought to make abortion at any stage of pregnancy a crime — and in the process to associate midwives with immorality and criminality, while claiming maternity as the site of their expertise. By the early 20th century, they had succeeded; abortion was illegal in all states.
But the state struggled to actually police abortions, even as it criminalized them. Existing policing tools were ill equipped as abortions took place in private, female spaces that eluded male police officers’ grasp.
Would-be abortion regulators had to devise new methods to suppress the practice. One of the most insidious new approaches was the NYPD’s deployment of policewomen to hunt down suspected “abortionists.” In the 1910s, the department established “Special Squad no. 2,” a vice squad that consisted of women officers, including Isabella Goodwin — the first female detective in the country. These early women officers’ “success” in the profession was intimately connected to their ability, and willingness, to extend state surveillance of other, more marginalized women.
Prosecution records at the New York City Municipal Archives reveal that these policing efforts did not focus on White physicians, who served the city’s genteel women and practiced in affluent neighborhoods.
Instead, female investigators predominantly targeted ethnic neighborhoods’ midwives, especially those from Central, Southern and Eastern Europe, who provided maternity care for working-class, immigrant women and children. At this time, the state was targeting these same populations though policing, social reform aimed at “Americanization” and immigration restrictions.
Policewomen’s methods betrayed these policing priorities. They dressed in disguises and used foreign language skills to convince to midwives that they needed abortions. They told stories of reproductive vulnerability, of poverty, of widowhood, of the existing children they had and of their desperation for a lower fee. Once midwives agreed to help them, the officers used their willingness to do so as evidence to prosecute them.
Although these investigations led to comparatively few convictions, they inspired arrests, protracted trials and sensationalist newspaper accounts. An investigation conducted by an undercover female police officer led to the closure of the first-ever U.S. birth control clinic — Margaret Sanger’s Brownsville Clinic in Brooklyn — in 1916. Sanger’s clinic did not provide abortions, but by sending female officers undercover to close the birth control clinic, the NYPD attempted to destabilize and dismantle another aspect of women’s control over their own reproduction.
For the policewomen, undercover work proved a route for promotions and professional acclaim. Early female investigator Mary Sullivan recalled in her autobiography that there were “few things in the world” that were “more thrilling” than “the moment of revealing [her]self to a trapped and startled crook as a woman detective.” Success was won at the expense of other women.
Having honed these undercover methods during abortion investigations, policewomen expanded these methods to control other types of sexuality that regulators deemed to be “deviant.”
American police forces and the military had already used undercover techniques to investigate gay men, such as the Ariston Bath Raids of 1903 or the Newport Sex Scandal of 1919. In 1926, Mary Sullivan was one of two policewomen sent to investigate “Eve’s Hangout,” a lesbian tearoom in Greenwich Village. Like many of the midwives targeted a decade earlier, Eve Adams was a Polish Jewish emigre, born Chawa Zloczewer. Her adopted name referenced the gender nonconformity that she embodied. As Sullivan described her, she had “cropped hair that was combed back in a ragged pompadour, and a mannish suit supplemented with a collar and tie.”
The policewomen posed as patrons of the tearoom, visiting three times in attempt to make Adams’s acquaintance. On the third occasion, officer Margaret Leonard arranged to visit the theater with Adams where they flirted, danced and kissed. At the end of the date, Leonard visited Eve’s rooms and secured a copy of a collection of studies Adams had written, entitled “Lesbian Love.” The policewomen then orchestrated Adams’s arrest for “disorderly conduct” and authoring an “indecent” book. Officers Leonard and Sullivan later furnished the key evidence at an immigration hearing that led to Adams’s deportation.
In the early 20th century, the NYPD devised new, innovative methods to police reproductive health care, targeting marginalized residents of the city: working-class, immigrant midwives and their clientele. Thereafter, they expanded these same methods to surveil other conduct they deemed to be immoral.
Women’s entry to policing, while making apparent strides toward gender inclusivity, brought some White women into proximity to power at the expense of more marginalized individuals. They helped institutions gain access to female spaces that male officials could not reach. In this way, the coercive work of policing women’s sexuality and reproduction emerged as an obligation of this new cadre of White female professionals.
Today, as a century ago, we see the development of insidious new surveillance tactics to police abortion and further limit the reproductive health care options available to the most vulnerable in society. These methods undermine the trust networks that safe abortion depends upon on, rendering providers and patients scared and unsafe. And history shows us that these tactics have the potential to be expanded and extended.