Dr. Curtis Boyd: A Lifetime at the Borders of Abortion’s Legality

Before Roe, Dr. Curtis Boyd provided illegal abortions. Post-Roe, he and other “doctors of conscience” remain committed to providing a safe space for those seeking abortion.

Abortion rights supporters at a rally for reproductive rights at the Texas Capitol on May 14, 2022, in Austin. (Montinique Monroe / Getty Images)

Is abortion legal in the United States? How should we even respond to that question?

One way is by telling the stories of those who have lived at the borders of abortion’s illegality—such as Dr. Curtis Boyd, one the of the few surviving “doctors of conscience.” The term, coined by Carole E. Joffe, refers to physicians who provided safe, illegal abortions out of a sense of moral duty prior to the 1973 passing of Roe v. Wade.

His story may not provide a direct answer, but it can help us productively reframe the question.

Boyd, now 85, provided illegal abortions to patients in the pre-Roe era. Post-Roe, he successfully ran two abortion clinics—one in Dallas and one in Albuquerque, N.M.—devoting much of his career to crossing and re-crossing the Texas-New Mexico border alongside his wife and business partner, Dr. Glenna Halvorson-Boyd, a reproductive rights activist and trainer of abortion counselors.

Today, his Dallas clinic can no longer offer abortions. They recently changed their name from “Southwestern Women’s Surgery” to “Southwestern Women’s Clinic,” and must limit their services to (important!) things like giving pregnancy diagnostics and information, miscarriage management and emotional support for patients.

Boyd’s Albuquerque clinic, Southwestern Women’s Options, continues to provide abortion care to domestic and international patients. It remains one of the only places where one can legally get a third-trimester abortion.

Southwestern Women’s Options in Albuquerque has been providing abortions in all trimesters since 2010, when Dr. Susan Robinson and Dr. Shelley Sella (both now retired), ob-gyns and former colleagues of Dr. George Tiller, joined the practice. (Courtesy of Southwestern Women’s)

The Boyds lived through Roe’s establishment, controversy and ultimate demise. Now, they fight to help Texans access abortion care, collaborating with the New Mexico Coalition for Reproductive Choice on a travel program for pregnant Texas women and other patients who need abortions but cannot get them at home. Through this initiative, funding and logistical support is provided to those Texans who must seek abortion care out of state but cannot afford to do so.

“Texas wants to do anything they can to keep abortion from occurring,” Boyd said. “They want to prevent women from leaving the state.”

I met with Boyd in April, just before Roe was overturned, to discuss his life’s work. His Albuquerque abortion clinic was clean and bright, with streams of sunshine illuminating the large plants displayed around the waiting room. A sign on the wall read: No one should be forced to have a baby, or give the baby up for adoption, or get an abortion, it’s your choice. A few patients with small suitcases quietly awaited their appointments. 

Dr. Curtis Boyd tells of how he came to open the first legal abortion clinic in Texas, at the Dallas City Performance Hall on Sept. 16, 2016.

Boyd’s earlier professional history—also situated at the margins of abortion’s legality—is just as turbulent as his present-day struggles to provide abortion care.

Boyd, a former child preacher in the Primitive First Baptist Church of Predestinarian Faith and Order, also known as the “foot-washing Baptists,” was born in Crossroads, Texas, which he described as a conservative, deeply religious town publicly identified by two roads that literally cross one another. Religion, he said, offered him a space to explore how to lead a life of service, compassion and obligation toward the poor and disadvantaged—values he has imported into his abortion care.

In high school, Boyd’s school burned down, and he was transferred to a different school in Athens, Texas, where his father worked as a state auditor. During Boyd’s sophomore year, he developed a crush on a girl in his algebra class and planned to ask her on a date—but Boyd was discouraged by other kids from asking her out because she was rumored to have gotten pregnant out of wedlock. Dating her would give Boyd, a promising young student, a bad reputation.

Boyd learned the girl in question was, in fact, banned from campus during non-school hours due to her pregnancy. (This was a relatively progressive policy in the ’50s—a period when many U.S. girls who had babies out of wedlock were expelled from school and forbidden to return.) Meanwhile, the boy who had impregnated her—a senior and, Boyd said, “big man on campus”—was named captain of the football team.

“Here she was, her life was shattered, and I thought, ‘This is not fair, someone needs to do something about this,’” Boyd recalled. “And that came back much later: I think that memory was stuck in there, inside of me.”

Boyd’s high school exposure to gender injustice in Athens, later transformed into the compassion he felt for the patients he treated as an ob-gyn. During his medical school residency, Boyd tried to treat as many patients dealing with miscarriages as he could, even as his peers avoided doing so because they felt they had already learned everything medically valuable about miscarriage management.

Still, pre-Roe, Boyd faced grave ethical challenges when his emergency room patients who claimed to need medical care for involuntary miscarriages had actually induced their abortions. In such cases, Boyd, like other physicians, was required by law to report them to the police.

Boyd recalled one such situation that had a major impact on his future abortion and medical practice. A woman in her early 20s had arrived at the emergency room, claiming to have experienced a miscarriage. Upon examining her, Boyd saw that her cervix had been badly damaged by inserted instruments—he was certain she had purposefully terminated her pregnancy. Boyd, following orders, called the police. When two uniformed officers arrived, he was required to stand beside the woman’s hospital bed as they interrogated her.

“They started questioning her—they wanted to know where she had it done, who had done it and she denied having done anything,” he said.

“She said she was just having a miscarriage. And they harassed her and threatened her. Said they would put her in jail. And I’m standing there and she’s just looking at me, glaring at me, because I’m the one who reported her to the police. And I felt really bad about that.” 

After the police left (without arresting the woman), Boyd returned to the hospital room to apologize to his patient. He vowed to her that he would never again report a patient for getting an abortion.

Founded in 1973 by Boyd, the Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center (SWSC) in Dallas was was the first facility in Texas to provide high-quality, low-cost outpatient abortion care. Today, the Southwestern Women’s Clinic has been forced to stop providing abortion services, but it remains open to help arrange legal abortion options out-of-state, and to provide follow-up care and other reproductive services. (Courtesy of Southwestern Women’s)

Boyd’s motivation to provide illegal abortions in the pre-Roe era also came from his involvement in progressive social movements of the ’60s. During this time, the Clergy Consultation Service on Problem Pregnancy began referring abortion patients to Boyd at his family practice in Athens.

In 1970, he transported his practice to Santa Fe, and continued to receive referrals from clergy. Much like today, many of his patients crossed borders and traveled long distances to terminate unwanted pregnancies, often receiving financial and logistical support from religious leaders.

Roe opened metaphorical borders to abortion care, said Boyd. But it was easier to practice illegal abortions in the 1960s than it has been to practice legal ones in recent decades. Boyd attributes this shift to the strategic politicization of abortion during Ronald Regan’s presidency, the rise to prominence of Jerry Falwell, and the associated, politically organized evangelical Christian opposition to abortion care that began in the ’80s.

During this time, “life became hell,” said Boyd.

The period of 1977 to 1988 has been called an “epidemic of anti-abortion violence,” featuring a documented 110 cases of arson and bombing. Arsonists targeted Boyd’s Dallas clinic on Christmas Eve in 1998; later, his Albuquerque clinic was set on fire in 2008. Boyd has long since lost count of the number of death threats that he has received.

Boyd’s professional history may inspire doubts about the significance of Roe v. Wade as a removal of abortion barriers. After all, he found it easier, in many respects, to practice illegal abortions in the pre-Roe era. While acknowledging the harsh blow to reproductive rights and feminist organizing that Roe’s demise represents, Boyd speaks of its enduring value. The passage of Roe in 1973 meant he was legally empowered to bring his abortion practice out of the shadows. Boyd and Halverson-Boyd both emphasized Roe initiated a “paradigm shift”—a change in collective understanding of women’s moral equality with men. Even with Roe overturned, Boyd contends it remains important on a representational level.

“It’s going to be strongly symbolic of what we’ve had and have lost,” he said. “You ask: Why was that lost? Having worked so hard to get that, how are we going to regain what was lost?”

Boyd told me that Roe will become a kind of motivating slogan: “It’s going to be like, Remember Roe v. Wade. This act will never be forgotten by the majority of women in this country. Just because it’s lost, doesn’t mean it’s going to go away forever.”

So, is abortion legal in the United States? Considering Boyd’s story, should we even ask? Abortion rights are like borders on maps, constantly getting erased and redrawn at the whim of historical and political changes. Boyd himself has lived through multiple maps of reproductive freedoms in the United States.

As Chicana philosopher Gloria Anzaldúa says, borders are both material and symbolic. While Roe is now illegal, Boyd feels it perseveres as a symbol of reproductive freedom.

We also find ourselves on “sides” of both borders and abortion laws. Boyd himself shifted from someone who informed the police of a suspected illegal abortion, to a border-crossing, morally motivated abortion practitioner. And abortion laws, like the borders of maps, generate social hierarchies of gender, race and class—as marginalized abortion-seekers have long known. Instead of asking whether abortion is legal or illegal, perhaps we should ask where the lines are currently drawn.

For Curtis Boyd, our map is quite unfriendly. As Halverson-Boyd explained to me in an email when I asked if he would return to providing illegal abortions: “Curtis is 85 years old and still willing to do a lot, but not die in prison.”

But he is still challenging the borders around abortion care by aiding others who cross.

Editor’s noteAt-home abortions via medication abortion are legal, safe and available in all 50 states. The organization Plan C has a comprehensive guide to finding abortion pills on their website, which is continually updated and has all the latest information on where to find abortion pills from anywhere in the U.S. 

Up next:

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Amy Reed-Sandoval is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the author of Socially Undocumented: Identity and Immigration Justice (Oxford University Press, 2020). She is currently completing a book entitled Intimate Borders: Feminism at the Margins of the State. Her writing has previously appeared in venues such as LA Times en Español, Ms. magazine, BBC News Online, The Guardian, Salon and Psyche.