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Before abortion was legal, women flocked to rural Pa. to see the ‘Angel of Ashland’

Starting in the 1920s, Dr. Robert Spencer performed anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000 abortions in his three-story stone building in rural Pennsylvania. Women came from nearly every state.

Dr. Robert Spencer, insert, performed thousands of abortions in his Ashland, Schuylkill County office, often for free, for decades before a woman’s right to choose was protected. All that remains of his practice is an empty lot on Centre Street.
Dr. Robert Spencer, insert, performed thousands of abortions in his Ashland, Schuylkill County office, often for free, for decades before a woman’s right to choose was protected. All that remains of his practice is an empty lot on Centre Street.Read moreJASON NARK / Staff

ASHLAND, Pa. — Women once came to this hilly, hard coal town from far and wide to make a choice. It was long before the nation’s highest court protected that choice, a time when access to abortion in America was scarce and dangerous.

They came to see Dr. Robert D. Spencer, a Penn Medicine graduate described as the “angel of Ashland.” They repeated his address — 531 Centre St. — as they drove through the mountains and coal heaps to get to this sleepy Schuylkill County town, about 110 miles northwest of Philadelphia. For a small fee or no fee for those who couldn’t afford it, Spencer offered safe, clean abortions.

“I am in trouble,” a single 20-year-old pregnant mother once wrote to him. “I have been almost out of my mind for several weeks because I have had nowhere to turn and no one to turn to.”

Spencer, according to various reports, performed anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 abortions in his three-story stone building in the heart of town. Women came from nearly every state, even Europe, to see him. Some were poor and young, others described as celebrities and “political elites.”

The first was a coal miner’s wife. It was 1923, and the woman told Spencer the couple could barely feed the four children they already had. It changed him, and the course of his career.

“Once I realized that a woman should be the dictator of what went on in her own body, I just set out to help, and I never gave it another thought,” he told writer Michael Kaufman, a longtime journalist for the New York Times.

Kaufman, who went on to profile Spencer for Lear’s magazine, described the doctor as a man of “risk and courage.” He was arrested several times, including once after a woman died while under anesthesia. He was never convicted. Spencer died in 1969, before abortion became legal in the United States in 1973. Many obituaries never mention the word abortion.

Richard Fritz, a longtime funeral director in Ashland who met Spencer once when Fritz was a teen, said the doctor was beloved by locals for treating all the maladies miners suffered, including arthritis and the dreaded “black lung” that cut men down young. Most locals, Fritz said, likely looked the other way when it came to the abortions.

“He was too good to too many people,” Fritz said.

There have been books written about Spencer’s life and documentaries made as well. While there’s a massive statue dedicated to motherhood atop a steep, stone staircase in Ashland, there’s no marker or sign where Spencer’s office stood a few blocks away. One story claims Spencer built quarters there for Black patients who couldn’t stay anywhere else in town.

Today, his office is gone, an empty lot filled with grass and dandelions.

“There’s not too many people left who remember him,” Fritz said.

Fritz was among a group of men sitting outside the Ashland VFW on Tuesday afternoon. None of them, including the mayor, wanted to discuss the leaked Supreme Court draft that could overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision — but all of them mentioned Spencer.

“We used to see ladies come here in limos from New York City to see him,” Mayor Daniel Weikel, 75, said.

In the 1960s, when Susan Brownmiller, a feminist author and former journalist with the Village Voice, needed an abortion, Spencer was her first call. He was unavailable, she said, so she traveled to Puerto Rico instead.

“I still remember his phone number, ‘Ashland 404′; we all knew it,” Brownmiller told The Inquirer on Wednesday.

Spencer, according to the magazine profile, was a man of science, an atheist who counted Thomas Paine and Clarence Darrow as his own heroes. Spencer shared thousands of letters with Kaufman, all of them from women seeking help. Many were afraid to use the words pregnant or abortion in the letters.

“I have been sick for six weeks now,” one woman wrote.

Today, in the coal region, there’s still a strong “don’t-tell-me-what-do-with-my-body” ethos, and residents scoffed at the Supreme Court’s draft.

“I don’t want the government telling me what I should do with my body,” said Karen Geiger, a patron at the Pottsville Pub. “It’s a women’s right to choose.”

In Ashland, across the street from Spencer’s old practice, resident James Houser said he didn’t “agree with abortion,” but said it wasn’t his decision to make.

“I would prefer a child is born,” Chelsea Houser, his wife, said. “But that’s not always how it works.”

A local Christian ministry group purchased Spencer’s former office in 2017 and hoped to turn it into a counseling center for women considering abortion. The building was demolished in 2020 and that ministry group could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Fritz said he doubted a new building would rise there. Few new buildings have come to Ashland in recent decades. The town’s population — 2,679 — has plummeted steadily since the heyday of anthracite coal mining in the 1930s, when more than 7,000 called Ashland home. The nearest access to an abortion is in Reading, 50 miles south.

Brownmiller said the book should never be closed on Dr. Spencer. She visited him, just before his death in 1969, for a Village Voice piece. He was still performing abortions at 79.

“The public image of an abortionist, through books, plays, movies, articles, or whatever, was of an evil, leering, drunken, perverted butcher at worst, and a cold, mysterious, money-hungry Park Avenue price-gouger at best,” she wrote in that piece. “And then there was Spencer with his clinic on the main street of a small American town, who charged $50, who believed in abortions, and who was kind.”

Brownmiller said that visit to Ashland was more a “pilgrimage” than a mere visit.

“He was a real hero,” she told The Inquirer. “He’s someone who shouldn’t be forgotten.”