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‘The abortionist’: Portland woman shares story of grandmother imprisoned for performing abortions

It’s estimated that Dr. Ruth Barnett performed 40,000 illegal abortions in her lifetime. Most of them in Portland.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Amid a growing pattern of new state laws restricting abortion rights across the country, an Oregon woman is resurrecting the story and legacy of a doctor who, half a century ago, nearly died in prison.

Her name was Dr. Ruth Barnett, and it’s estimated she performed 40,000 illegal abortions in her lifetime. Most of them were in Portland.

“My grandma was one of these women…She didn't give up, she didn't give in, and she never backed down,” Nina Glover said.

Glover remembers her grandmother as an outspoken, well-dressed lover of racehorses and fishing. She also remembers knowing, from a young age, what her grandmother did for a living.

“She was very well informed about women’s issues,” said Glover. “She was a naturopath. She'd gone to naturopathic college and had that degree. They called her ‘Dr. Ruth’ to the end of her days.”

Old newspaper articles and photos preserved by the Oregon Historical Society and the History Museum of Hood River County tell the story of Dr. Ruth’s life.

Photo gallery of newspaper clips

Her career is also well-documented in books, including The Abortionist, written about her, and They Weep On My Doorstep, written by her. The latter is no longer in print.

Born and raised in Hood River, Barnett wrote about her own abortion as an unwed teenager. The older man who got her pregnant, she wrote, wanted nothing to do with her or their unborn baby. It lit a fire.

By 1918, Barnett had her degree and was practicing out of a clinic on the eighth floor of downtown Portland’s historic Broadway Building, which currently sits a block north of Nordstrom.

“Her clientele was often the very, very wealthy,” said Glover. “It could be women who have had children and didn't want more. It could be a woman who's married and maybe gets caught pregnant, and it's not her husband's. And then there were the young girls who would come.”

Whether it was because of the Great Depression, World War II or willful ignorance, Glover says police turned a blind eye.

But eventually, the world changed, and in the early '50s, the raids started.

“She was very surprised that they were coming after her, and she knew it was all political,” said Glover. “Whenever there was an election year, she knew they were coming after her, and they did. She never took the stand on her own behalf ever. It was just a different time.”

For nearly 20 years, Dr. Barnett was in and out of jail and prison on various charges, including manslaughter by abortion.

Credit: Maggie Vespa/KGW
Nina Glover

Glover remembers telling friends at school her grandmother was on vacation.

“We were having recess, and we were playing kickball and one of my girlfriends, she came up behind me,” said Glover. “And she said, like feeling sorry for me, 'Nina, don't you really know what your grandma does for a living?' And I turned around and looked her right in the eye, and I said 'Yes, I've always known.'"

But after each release, with her clinic closed and her license revoked, Dr. Barnett kept working. In her later years, she performed abortions in her basement.

“The housekeeper would wave us off,” said Glover, waving her hand. “And that meant ‘Keep driving.’”

She kept working because clients kept coming, Glover noted.

“My grandma couldn't have done what she did if she didn't have the referrals from all the doctors in Portland and all the people who knew of her work,” she said. “She was a very busy woman.”

Dr. Barnett died in 1969, months after a judge let her out of prison on the condition she promise not to perform another abortion.

Roe v. Wade came four years later, and Glover believes it wouldn't have happened without people like her grandmother.

Now, watching as new life is breathed into this old battle, she's bringing the story of Dr. Ruth Barnett back into the spotlight.

“We didn't always have Roe v. Wade. We didn't have the right to decide what we wanted done with our own bodies,” she said. “I mean, I often say she would just roll over in her grave to know that women are fighting right now for what she fought for 50 years ago.”

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