ACLU-MO History Spotlight: Reproductive Freedom

Access to Abortions at City Hospital

On August 16, 1974, when a St. Louis City resident (“Jane Doe”) had complicated health problems, doctors at the public City Hospital No. 1 told her to obtain a medical abortion elsewhere before returning for a needed hysterectomy. This required her to undergo surgery twice instead of once.

Although medical abortions in the first months of gestation were legalized by Roe v. Wade in 1973, they were not offered at the city’s public hospitals. John Poelker, mayor of St. Louis at the time, was strongly against abortion, as were most City Hospital doctors, who were affiliated with Saint Louis University.

flyer "Court riles city hospitals must perform abortions"

[click to view full flyer]
From the ACLU-MO Records (wua00355), series 3, box 17, folder: employment discrimination

Poelker v. Doe

The ACLU of Eastern Missouri went to court on behalf of “Jane Doe,” after learning she was turned away from care. Lower courts ruled for Doe and ordered that city medical centers must perform abortions. However, the city appealed, and in Poelker v. Doe (1977), the Supreme Court ruled that the city could choose which procedures to offer or decline to offer.

legal documents

From the ACLU-MO Records (wua00355), series 3, box 16, folder: Doe v Poelker

Long History

Defending people’s rights to make their own decisions about reproductive health has long been a core issue for the ACLU of Missouri—from Roger Baldwin helping Margaret Sanger speak about birth control in 1916 to the court challenges that continue in the 21st century.

Below are a just a few documents from the past 100 years of this work (click each image to enlarge and read):

newspaper clipping "City Club Asked to Forbid Speech on Birth Control"

When Margaret Sanger tried to speak in St. Louis, her theater reservation was canceled and police refused to let her lecture on the sidewalk to a public crowd. Roger Baldwin was one of the local activists who helped her reschedule the talk at private clubs. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 23, 1916.


typed letter

In 1949, the St. Louis Civil Liberties Committee helped the Planned Parenthood Association of St. Louis secure a permit to operate.
From the ACLU-MO Records (wua00355), series 1, subseries 2, box 2, folder: 1949

woman wearing hat above words "Free women!"

Flyer for an ACLU event about the Women’s Liberation Movement, April 20, 1970. From the ACLU-MO Records (wua00355), series 3, box 17, folder: employment discrimination

typed memo. To File. From Joyce Armstrong. Date: Oct 9, 1989. Re: Current Abortion Clinics in Missouri. St. Louis 1. Reproductive Health Services 2. Women's Care (Roitman and Palmer) 3. Dr Escobedo. Springfield: 1. Women's Community Health Center 2. Dr. Scott Barrett. Columbia 1. Planned Parenthood Central MIssouri. Kansas City 1. Planned Parenthood of Kansas CIty. Two hospitals are known to perform abortions in St. Louis 1. Barns Hospital 2. Jewish Hospital. It is unknown at this time if there are any other private hospitals in Missouri that perform abortions.

Research gathered by executive director Joyce Armstrong about abortion clinics in Missouri as of October 9, 1989. From ACLU-MO Records (wua00355), series 4, subseries 1, box 1, folder: Abortions and Webster Case.


ACLU of Missouri Records, Series 3, Box 16. Read a selection of digitized documents from the folder Doe v. Poelker

Brayer, Patrick C. “Roger Nash Baldwin and the St. Louis Civil Liberties Trail: Celebrating 100 Years of the ACLU with a Search for the Organization’s Conceptual Founding.” Wash. U. Journal of Law & Policy 59 (2019).

Taylor, Clara. “A Study of a Year’s Prenatal Work in Connection with the Washington University Dispensary.” Public Heath Nurse Quarterly 49, no. 4 (1917): 335 -346.

Taylor, Clara. “Observations of a Nurse.” The Birth Control Review 2, no. 5 (1918): 12.

Sanger, Margaret. “A Birth Control Lecture Tour, Aug. 9, 1916.” Malthusian, (Sept. 1916): 83-84. Reprinted by the Margaret Sanger Project.

Roe v. Wade, 410US113(1973)

Poelker v. Doe, 432US519(1977)



About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.