The idea of reproductive rights and agency over one’s own body remains a troubling and consistent issue for life in the US. When news came in mid-December 2017 that the Trump administration was proposing the banning of certain words at the Center for Disease Control (CDC), seasoned observers of contemporary political life were not surprised. That among the list of words were “fetus”, “transgender”, and “vulnerable” only served to solidify the sinking feeling that the health and welfare of the most vulnerable among us — oftentimes women with no means seek help from free clinics or more dangerous venues — would continue to be in jeopardy.
In San Francisco’s Queen of Vice: The Strange Career of Abortionist Inez Brown Burns, California State University at Fullerton history professor Lisa Riggin provides an interesting biography of a time (the ’20s through to several trials into the mid-’40s Burns proved to be a singular figure in the history of reproductive rights. The reader may be correct in assuming this is a rash conclusion to make. It probably goes back to how we introduced this topic. Words matter. Phrasing can make all the difference. After nearly 20 years and approximately 150,000 abortions, Inez Brown Burns’s luck ran out on in September 1946. She and her co-defendants were sentenced to two-to-five years in prison. Appeals followed for several years, Burns lost most of her money to the IRS, and she spent the last 20 years or so of her life (before her death in 1976) as a bitter recluse.
Again, the diligent reader might wonder about terminology, about reputation and legacies. Was Burns’ work a necessary evil? Through several marriages and an apparent inexhaustible willingness to continue with her work, this shrewd and always elusive woman served a need, no matter how that term was (and continues to be) defined. Here was a woman who never stopped fighting against the graft-ridden city of San Francisco and the endless deals made by the men in power. Here was the city’s newly-elected district attorney Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, eventual California Governor (1959-1967), father of California’s current Governor Jerry Brown, making a name for himself by tirelessly trying to put Burns in jail. Brown’s early success in vanquishing Burns was his stepping stone to political success and a sure sign that there would be no shift in power. California might have legalized abortion in 1967, six years before the landmark Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision making it legal nationwide, but the work to level the playing fields between those who need unobstructed abortions and those enabled to provide them would remain unbalanced.
While Riggin does a thorough job with the story of Burns and her fight to provide abortions, it’s difficult for the reader to get a clear picture of this subject, and it makes for a frustrating reading experience. Perhaps that’s unavoidable. Born in 1886, Burns came of age during San Francisco’s Great Earthquake 20 years later. She set herself up as a Tarot Card Reader as a way to draw an audience and make a quick dollar. She had both small toes removed in order to fit into heels that would accentuate her legs and backside. She was on her third husband when Brown became the newly-elected district attorney, and the battle lines were drawn. Riggin makes clear that the issue wasn’t denotation so much as connotation:
“The battle only began with elimination abortionists. In San Francisco the scandal ‘was not in the idea of having an abortion,’ another of Brown’s assistant district attorneys, Norman Elkington, said, ‘but the corruption that went along with it.'”
In other words, as Riggin makes implicitly clear through, the fact of abortions was less reprehensible than the troubles that surrounded the procedure. That it was illegal meant it was unregulated, but money could (and did) get one Burns’ services, regardless. Riggin elaborates by noting that Burns kept meticulous records as to who received her services and when and why.
“Brown described Burns’ notebooks as a powderkeg, replete with the names of prominent women… the list included such Hollywood greats as Rita Hayworth…”
There’s a great deal to consider in San Francisco’s Queen of Vice, not just regarding the act itself and the actions that had to happen in order to maintain its presence in the seedy underclass of California at the time (and probably still today.) The characters of onetime acting mayor Warren Shannon and his would-be socialite wife Gloria Davenport Shannon seem straight out of central casting. They are all connected, all complicit, all with an equal amount of blood on their hands. Gloria writes a 10,000 word manuscript called My Memoirs in the Midstream of Life After an Intimate View of San Francisco’s Slaughterhouse for Babies, from which Brown collects much of his evidence against Burns. The Shannons seem to feel slighted, though, and the huffiness can be heard in such comments as “We are unappreciated confidential agents working for the people of San Francisco.”
If there are considerations of words and their meaning here, another consideration should be the idea of morality. Take this passage from William Burkett, California’s newly appointed state director of employment. It’s 1954. Burns is serving time in jail, and Burkett delivers a speech entitled “Howe Much Morality Can There Be in Government?” He discovers that Burns had been making payoffs to the police in the amount of $125 a day while providing abortion services. He reports it, but nothing happens. Interestingly, it seems the biggest transgressions or sins of a moral nature are financial rather than violations of “God’s plan”.
By the time Burns reached her dotage, she was asked (in 1971) about the possible consequences of the then pending Roe v. Wade case before the Supreme Court. ” ‘It will be many years before physicians will be trained properly for this type of surgery… in order to do it well and safe.” Alone yet still alive and apparently unrepentant, Burns slipped this mortal coil in 1976 in a United States that was different for women than 50 years earlier. Our world in 2017 features a government that not only wants to tightly constrict female reproductive rights but also re-write the words used to describe them in national health circles. Riggin’s San Francisco’s Queen of Vice: The Strange Career of Abortionist Inez Brown Burns is a compelling examination of a woman whose work may not be liked, but was necessary. It’s a powerful addition to the history of a colorful state and a difficult time for women that may, or may, not be recurring.