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Inez Burns' Abortion Clinic Was One Of San Francisco's Worst Kept Secrets


A secret abortion clinic, hidden cash, police raids and Hollywood stars. At the center of it all, Inez Burns, who made a fortune performing illegal abortions. Chloe Veltman of member station KQED explores her life.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: For decades, Inez Burns lived in a jewel box mansion in San Francisco's Mission District. Jeff Cerf owns the house now. He likes to show off Burns' medical instruments, which were found after her death, including a pair of slender, Victorian-era forceps.


VELTMAN: In the first half of the 20th century, Burns was one of California's most sought-after abortionists. She's said to have terminated 50,000 pregnancies during her long and lucrative career at a time when doing this could land you in prison. Cerf shows me nooks in his home where Burns stashed her money.

JEFF CERF: There's a part of the wall, you know, the baseboard opens up. So she had a little hiding spot there, but we haven't found any money.

VELTMAN: I'm in the home with author Stephen Bloom, who has a recent book, "The Audacity Of Inez Burns." Bloom tells me Burns was born in San Francisco to a poor German immigrant family in 1886. She learned her craft as a teenager, from her first lover, a prolific abortionist by the name of Eugene West.

STEPHEN BLOOM: Dr. West realized that Inez had the touch and really was able to perform the abortions as well as Dr. West.

VELTMAN: Word got around. She became much in demand. In 1927, Burns set up her own clinic. Local law enforcement took kickbacks and turned a blind eye as she and her staff operated on up to 20 women a day. Bloom says patients ranging from housewives to celebrities, like film star and Olympic skater Sonja Henie, came to Burns for help.

BLOOM: So she really was one of the worst-kept secrets in San Francisco.

VELTMAN: As we walked down the street from Burns' former clinic, Bloom tells me the abortionist's enormous fortune bought her friends in high places, including politicians and lawmakers. But she couldn't buy off ambitious district attorney Pat Brown, who ordered three raids on her clinic in 1945. The first two times, Burns was tipped off. The third time, she was arrested.

BLOOM: Police confiscated oxygen tanks, instruments, actual beds. They were all hauled over to the courthouse and were used as exhibits during the trial.

VELTMAN: Bloom says putting Inez Burns behind bars wasn't easy because some people saw what she did as a valuable service.

BLOOM: The grand jury met twice, and they found nothing wrong with what she was doing, or at least, there wasn't enough evidence to indict her.

VELTMAN: But the abortionist's luck finally ran out. At the age of 61, Burns began serving the first of two state sentences for performing illegal abortions. Bloom says there were federal convictions, too, for tax evasion.

BLOOM: The feds come with a vengeance and take away everything - her Persian carpets, her alabaster bust, all of her furs.

VELTMAN: Meanwhile, DA Pat Brown's quest against corruption and vice paid off. He was elected California attorney general and then governor. Bloom says Burns ended her days penniless and in pain.

BLOOM: She is broken at this point. She's racked with arthritis. She can't perform any more abortions. She wanted to, but her fingers were so riddled with arthritis that she wasn't able to perform them to her satisfaction.

VELTMAN: Inez Burns passed away in 1976 at the age of 89. Three years earlier, the Supreme Court legalized a woman's right to an abortion. For NPR News, I'm Chloe Veltman.


Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.
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