Earlier this week I visited LAPD Discovery, all the way up on the 19th floor of City Hall, to look at very old special orders from the Chief of Police.1 I’m not sure what I was expecting, probably some combination of quaint and brutal, and that’s essentially what I got. You can look at some very few of the results here on Archive.Org.2
But there among these records I found this special order, that turned out to be the single most upsetting public record I have ever come across, and it’s not a close contest. It is almost too horrible to believe, and yet completely plausible. It’s nothing I would have predicted but after seeing it it’s obvious that it would exist. The title is “Reporting of Forcible Rapes”.
The context is the 1967 California Therapeutic Abortion Act. This law, among other things, allowed women to have abortions if they had certain medical conditions or in cases of forcible rape.3 And predictably no one in power was proposing to just believe women’s own stories about their pregnancies. The law required that abortions be performed in hospitals and that the hospitals have therapeutic abortion committees4 to approve proposed abortions.
In cases of pregnancy due to forcible rape hospital abortion committees were required to inform the District Attorney of the county, whose report to the committee that there was probable cause to believe that a forcible rape had caused the pregnancy was required for the woman to obtain the abortion.5 And the logic makes some horrible kind of sense.
Once the legislature determined that it was merciful to allow women to have abortions in certain cases but not others, and mercy was certainly their publicly stated goal,6 then they will have to have some mechanism for distinguishing between the cases. If they trusted women in the first place they wouldn’t need to forbid them to have abortions for some reasons but allow them for others.
And bringing the District Attorney into the matter also makes some sense according to the internal logic of the matter. Forcible rape is a crime, and when a crime is alleged the DA can determine if there’s probable cause to believe it was committed. None of this is good. It’s horrible. But it’s internally consistent. It’s predictable.
But the cruel twist, what I didn’t see, what never occurred to me from following the interminable discussions of modern attempts to undo Roe v. Wade, in fact what I’ve never even seen mentioned in those discussions7 is that district attorneys don’t investigate alleged crimes themselves. The police investigate them and the DAs rely on the evidence the police package up, starting with the police report. If no police report is taken, or if the reporting officer doesn’t believe the victim, the DA is unlikely to find probable cause.
So after this law was passed, after any similar abortion restrictions are passed, it turns out that not only can a woman not decide for herself whether to abort, but her doctor can’t decide to allow her to abort, a hospital committee of doctors can’t decide to allow her to abort, the district attorney is unlikely to decide to allow her to decide to abort unless a police officer has unilaterally agreed that the woman is allowed to have an abortion.
This law made a woman’s decision to have an abortion subject to the approval of a police officer. A police officer. This isn’t just my speculation, not a matter of theory at all. It is precisely the subject of LAPD Chief of Police Special Order 43, issued by acting chief Richard Simon on December 29, 1967.
It states unequivocally that “This order gives the concerned detectives responsibility for determining whether to accept forcible rape crime reports in questionable cases and in cases where the alleged offense occurred more than thirty days prior to being reported.” And it places this responsibility explicitly in the context of the new law, which “enables a female to obtain a legal abortion if her pregnancy was the result of a forcible rape.”
And if there is any group of people less suited than police to be making decisions about women’s bodies and lives on their behalf it’s hard to imagine who they are. Modern cops commonly complain, usually in the context of homelessness, that they’re not cut out to be social workers and that this is some kind of new role society is forcing on them. But 50 years ago the State of California was also placing police in what could plausibly be called the role of social workers.
As a profession, they’re so badly suited for these putative roles that the only way to make sense of the decision is to conclude that no one’s telling the truth about what the roles really are. When cops are given the responsibility for what they describe as social work with homeless people and they end up arresting thousands of them a year, it can’t be a surprise. It must be what’s intended. That’s what police do.
And when some legislators decide they’re going to be merciful and allow some women to sometimes have abortions, and the law ends up giving cops the responsibility for deciding which decisions are questionable and rejecting those, well again, that’s what police do. It can’t be a surprise. It must be what’s intended. And it’s not OK. And it is certainly not merciful. It’s appalling.
And the fact that this issue is still relevant, e.g. in relation to the recent abomination enacted recently in Alabama, is also not OK. And the next time you read about a state outlawing abortion and some people saying but at least it allows abortion in the case of rape or incest, remember that what they’re really saying is that it makes women’s right to an abortion subject to the effectively unreviewable approval of a single police officer, which is a very different thing. Here’s a transcription of the whole thing:
OFFICE OF THE CHiEF OF POLICE
SPECIAL ORDER NO. 43
DECEMBER 29. 1967
SUBJECT: REPORTING OF FORCIBLE RAPES
INFORMATION: On November 8, 1967, the Therapeutic Abortion Act became effective. This act enables a female to obtain a legal abortion if her pregnancy was the result of a forcible rape. The District Attorney’s Office investigates and approves or rejects applications for lawful abortions which have been submitted to hospital committees by the alleged rape victims.
PURPOSE: This order gives the concerned detectives responsibility for determining whether to accept forcible rape crime reports in questionable cases and in cases where the alleged offense occurred more than thirty days prior to being reported. Additionally, it activates files in Homicide Division for accepted and rejected forcible rape reports.
I. A person desiring to make a forcible rape crime report shall be referred to the concerned detectives for determination as to whether a report shall be taken when the offense is alleged to have occurred more than thirty days prior to the date reported to the Departrnent.
II. When an interviewing detective determines that a forcible rape crime report should not be taken for an offense alleged to have occurred more than thirty days prior, he shall immediately submit an Intra-Department Correspondence, Form 1 5.1, to Homicide Division.
The report shall include;
A. Victim’s name and address.
B. Date and time alleged offense reported to the Department.
C. Date and time alleged offense occurred.
D. Reasons for not accepting the report.
III. Homicide Division shall activate files for;
A. City-wide forcible rape crime reports for preceding four months.
B. Reports of rejected forcible rape crime reports.
IV. Department Manual Sections 4/252, 4/252.1 0, and 4/252.1 2 are added; and Section 2/760.04 is amended by this order.
RICHARD SIMON, DEPUTY CHIEF
ACTING CHIEF OF POLICE
- From 1950 through 1979. I only made it through 1969, though, so will have to return later.
- Very few because (a) most of these things are deeply boring and irrelevant. They’re lists of officers who are ordered to report to the doctor next week, or procedures on how to audit station vending machines, and so on. I have no doubt that a professional historian or even a gifted amateur, I am neither, could spin any number of fascinating stories out of these lists and procedures, but I can’t.
- Here forcible rape is being used to exclude statutory rape, which has some kind of complex status in the law that is interesting and appalling but too much for me to go into here. This contemporary article by Brian Pendleton from the Hastings Journal of Law explains everything, albeit from the point of view of someone who thinks that laws like this are just normal laws the finer legal points of which it’s appropriate to debate, to consider philosophically, as if they were anything other than tools of oppression.
- This sounds too crazy to be real, but it’s true. You can read about it in the above-linked article. See page 251ff for the committees.
- Again see that Pendleton article, this time on page 252.
- No one will ever convince me that their actual, their unstated goals were other than to assert even more control over women, more oppression, in some ways more even than imposed by complete bans on abortion. But again, it’s too far off the subject to argue that, and I have no evidence other than the self-evidence of the fact that no one merciful writes a law as cruel as this one.
- Obviously it could be discussed extensively. I haven’t seen it but I haven’t spent a lot of time looking for it.