Jewish St. Louisans were early pioneers in fight for reproductive rights

Stacey Newman

During the High Holidays, we look to Judaism for inspiration, from the Torah, ancient prayers and from our congregations. We look for guidance and answers from our faith or to at least point us in the right direction. In our quest for social justice, we strive not to forget or repeat atrocities and repression of the past. 

With presidential impeachment on the table, vulnerable communities struggling to survive and our democracy seemingly at risk, the  concept of tikkun olam (repair the world) is literally screaming at us to do something.

As a longtime advocate for reproductive rights, I’m concerned about those rights vanishing in our state. We’re waiting for federal courts to definitively decide whether physicians should be criminalized and whether access to abortion will be outlawed in Missouri. Jewish law values women’s bodily autonomy, first evident in the Book of Exodus,  yet many current elected officials believe otherwise.

During months of researching St. Louis birth control and abortion history, I stumbled upon fascinating details. Plowing through worn handwritten notes in box after box of early 1900s archives at the Missouri Historical Society, I was able to reassemble a story long forgotten.

Many believe the fight to legalize abortion arose from the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, but it actually began decades earlier.  

Abortion was common, legal and practiced in every culture, even in the early years of the United States. In 1820, however, abortion began to be outlawed by states (Missouri was second) after the American Medical Association lobbied for physicians to take sole control of the procedure. By 1900, abortion was banned in every state, yet women with access to a doctor easily obtained abortions for “therapeutic reasons.” If you were poor or of color, your only choice in terminating a pregnancy was to risk a self-induced abortion. Many women died tragically in desperation.

When we were younger and facing trouble, we were taught to “look for the helpers,” those champions who step forward when others know not what to do. Buried in those archived boxes, I discovered Jewish helpers in our own backyard. 

Dr. Frederick Taussig, a Washington University School of Medicine graduate and the son of a Jewish immigrant from Prague, published a medical textbook in 1936 advocating legalizing abortion. His book, “Abortion, Spontaneous and Induced,” quickly garnered national attention in medical journals and reviews. He believed existing abortion bans to be “ridiculous and harsh statutes, antiquated and unjust,” and argued that the life of the mother, not the life of the unborn fetus, should be the primary concern of physicians. 

Eighty-three years later, I read from his book at the Washington University Becker Medical Library, a revolutionary textbook taught in medical schools for decades.

A St. Louis OB-GYN, his words seem timeless: “With the spread of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement throughout the world and the newer economic independence of women, the revolt of womankind against the age-long domination of man has finally materialized.”

Taussig’s social justice mission continued. With his physician brother Albert, neighbors, friends and colleagues, they met at the Coronado Hotel in the early 1930s to form the, Maternal Health Association of Missouri (MHA). Within a few months, the group opened the first contraception clinic at North Euclid and McPherson avenues. 

The clinic faced obstacles similar to those faced by Missouri abortion clinics today, fighting government officials to retain its city permit and then to renew its medical license. With massive public support, the Central West End clinic prevailed each time. 

Other Jewish helpers stepped up to aid the new MHA and raise funds to expand and lobby for federal birth control bills. 

Taussig’s wife, Harriet, took on the MHA leadership, hosting meetings twice a month. Elsie Langsdorf, the wife of the dean of engineering at Washington University, was involved before becoming the first St. Louis woman elected to the Missouri House in 1942. She recruited the university chancellor’s wife to join. Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman preached sermons on birth control, which aired on KMOX radio, and he remained a prominent board member and advocate into the 1960’s.

The MHA clinics worked closely with national birth control champion Margaret Sanger, who founded the American Birth Control League in New York in 1921, which became Planned Parenthood in 1942. The following year, the MHA became affiliated with Planned Parenthood  and adopted its name.

Physicians and advocates continue Taussig’s mission today, as his words still ring true: “There can be no question that more consideration must be given to the right of women to control their own bodies.”

History clearly repeats itself, most evident in Missouri’s latest ban on legal and constitutionally protected abortion rights. As Jews, we must trust our faith, heed the Torah and carry on the work of those pioneers whose social justice mission helped thousands of families.

Tikkun olam. Repair the world. Do something.