Women’s History Month: Ruth Barnett


Ruth Barnett, picture from Words of Choice’s 2015 blog post

Ruth Barnett, an abortionist in the first half of the 1900s, was an example of a self-made woman. After becoming pregnant at the age of 16 and obtaining an abortion from a doctor, she became convinced that all women who sought to have an abortion deserved the right to get one. She connected with Dr. Griff, a female physician in the Pacific Northwest, who trained her and eventually allowed her to perform procedures herself. Eventually, Barnett partnered with the doctor who performed her abortion, a Dr. Watts, who taught her multiple abortion techniques and assisted her in receiving a medical license. After becoming a certified chiropractor with a focus on naturopathy, she bought out practices of retiring physicians and began her own abortion clinics. As police only pursued charges of abortion if a maternal death was involved, she was allowed to practice in peace through the Great Depression (when many women could not afford to have more children) and boasted the highest safety record in the area.

Barnett provided services for women of all economic backgrounds, and believed in In the post-WWII era, however, abortion laws became enforced and abortionists were prosecuted under the law, resulting in several stints in jail. Between 1918 and 1968, Barnett performed 40,000 abortions without any abortion-related deaths despite the illegality and 15 years of off-and-on incarceration. Despite the constant threat of being arrested, Barnett continued to perform abortions and only retired in 1968, 33 years after opening her clinic, due to old age.

RHAP is inspired by the work that Barnett has done throughout the pre- Roe era; and hopes that in the current administration, we continue to train and support clinicians to make reproductive health care accessible to everyone. 


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