Playboy Magazine’s Unlikely History of Abortion-Rights Activism – Sierra Tishgart@sierratishgartSeptember 28, 2017 5:26 pm


Playboy, May, 1963

Much will be said about Hugh Hefner’s legacy, the polarizing man who created Playboy in 1953 and who died Tuesday at age 91, but a largely unknown story is Hefner’s critical role in the fight for women’s reproductive rights. Playboywas the first major national consumer magazine to advocate for legal abortion on demand. Its coverage began in April of 1963 (before even Planned Parenthood joined the abortion-rights movement) when Sex and the Single Girl author Helen Gurley Brown responded to a question about abortion in an interview. “It’s outrageous that girls can’t be aborted here,” she said. “Abortion is just surrounded by all this hush-hush and horror, like insanity used to be.”

You’d assume that Playboy supported abortion rights only to mitigate the consequences of sexual freedom for men. But Playboy first wrote about abortion from a public-health standpoint, publishing letters from women that detailed the emotional and physical pain caused by botched and illegal abortions. Readers debated the issue of abortion in the Playboy Forum, the magazine’s current-events section. Over 350 letters about abortion appeared from 1963 to 1973; women wrote about a third. Many chose to remain nameless as they shared their gruesome stories.

Here’s one from the September 1966 issue, titled “Abortion Butchery”:

“The horror stories about illegal abortion in The Playboy Forum are certainly typical of the butchery that goes on…. I was forced to seek an abortion from the first butcher I could find… Consequently, I wound up in the hospital as a result of the bloody job that was done on me.” — Name withheld by request

And another from the January 1967 issue, “An Easy Abortion”:

“The operation was simple. It took exactly 12 minutes. I had no aftereffects other than normal cramps. Again, I say that I was lucky. But how about the girls less lucky than me, who must go to the butchers and risk their lives? When will this cruel and senseless law be changed?” — Name withheld by request, Coral Gables, Florida

From 1965 to Roe v. Wade in 1973, Playboy covered abortion in almost every single issue, and advocated for the legalization of abortion on demand with no restrictions. This same year, the American Law Institute recommended that a woman be entitled to an abortion if her physical or mental health were endangered, if she had been the victim of rape or incest, or if there were fetal deformities. The restrictive idea of therapeutic abortion gained force. In its December 1965 issue, Playboy published its first official editorial response on the topic, in response to an anti-abortion letter from a reader:

“A pregnant woman is faced with choices—and we think she should be allowed to decide which alternative is preferable under the circumstances—whatever the circumstances happen to be … If the pregnant woman decides to have an abortion in America at the present time — and over 1,500,000 did this year — she must, in most cases, resort to an illicit operation, performed under circumstances conducive to both physical and emotional pain.”

Abortion was a tricky subject for any magazine to take on in the 1960s. Yet the decision was an easy one for the Playboy editorial staff. There was no heated office discussion. No dramatic proclamation by Hefner. The decision to cover such a disruptive topic happened very quietly. “At that time, abortion was controversial, but we all felt the same way and forged ahead,” former Playboy editor Nat Lehrman told me when I interviewed him while studying Playboy at Northwestern in 2011. (He died in 2014.) Lehrman joined the staff of Playboy in 1963 and edited the Forum. “I never really talked about it with Hef, to tell you the truth, but I’m quite sure he was receptive. He would have raised hell if he wasn’t.”

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