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Dear Dr. Spencer
A Film by Danielle Renfrew and Beth Seltzer
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From the early 1920s until his death in 1969, Dr. Robert Douglas Spencer practiced medicine in a small town in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. Dr. Spencer treated colds, set fractures, and provided basic medical care. But he was unique. He performed illegal abortions.

Dr. Spencer performed his first abortion, his patient a poor coal miner's wife, in 1923. Soon after, the doctor's reputation spread. He began receiving letters from women across the country, asking, sometimes pleading, for his help. Ashland, Pennsylvania, a town of church-goers, grateful to him for his dedication to the mining community, quietly allowed the doctor to practice. The citizens seemed to ignore the steady stream of young women going to and from his office, the out of state license plates, the ever-increasing number of one-night guests at the town's hotel. They even protected him each time the state police tried to shut his practice down. Dr. Spencer was arrested three times but never convicted. Historians estimated that he performed more than 40,000 safe abortions during the course of his career.

"A model of an illuminating documentary."—Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

"Powerfully evokes what life without legal abortion would be like."—Liz Mermin, IndieWIRE

"It is stirring to see the faces of ordinary elderly working men and women as they talk with candor about a community that recognized, respected, and rallied around a principled man who was breaking the law."—New York Business Women's Calendar

"Perfect for eliciting debate and discussion on abortion rights and related issues."—Booklist

Emmy Nomination, National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences
Finalist, International Documentary Association
Best Documentary Short, Nashville Independent Film Festival/Sinking Creek
Bronze Apple Award. National Educational Media Network
Certificate of Merit, San Francisco International Film Festival
Special Achievement Prize, Huntington International Independent Film Festival
Audience Choice Award, ImageFest 1998
1998 Margaret Mead Film Festival
1998 Human Rights Watch International Traveling Film Festival

25 minutes / color
Release: 1998
Copyright: 1998
Sale: $248

Subject areas:
American Studies, Bioethics, Ethics, Health Issues, History (U.S.), Life Sciences, Medicine, Women's Health, Women's Studies

Related Titles:
Casting the First Stone: Focuses on six women who regularly confront each other from opposite sides of a police barricade—three believe that abortion is an inalienable right, three consider it murder.

Vulva 3.0: Comprehensive and unflustered research into the history and biology of the female anatomy.

The Clitoris: A close look at that part of the female anatomy that exists purely for pleasure, and how this highly sensitive organ has long been ignored or misunderstood in the medical literature.

Mothers: A gripping cinema vérité documentary that shows how China's one-child policy plays out in the daily lives of women in one Chinese village.

The Good Breast: Explores the cultural and emotional roots of the loss of the breast through the intimate stories of four breast cancer patients and their surgeons.

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Last Updated March 30, 2017
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