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Dear Dr. Spencer: Abortion in a Small Town
Directed 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." The Los Angeles Times

"Powerfully evokes what life without legal abortion would be like." 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

"Not to be missed!" The Village Voice

"A standout; a model of populist history detailing the work of a small-town doctor who performed tens of thousands of pre-legal abortions for women of every age, race and class and, most surprisingly, was fiercely protected in his endeavors by the townspeople."
San Francisco Weekly

"Recommended! Not anti or pro abortion. It is the story of a fiercely independent doctor who committed himself to service for his patients and his community. An effective insightful chronicle of one man's life and the impact he had on the community around him."
Educational Media Reviews Online (EMRO)

Emmy Nomination, National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences
Finalist, International Documentary Association
Best Documentary Short, Nashville Independent Film Festival 1998
Certificate of Merit, San Francisco International Film Festival 1998
Audience Choice Award, ImageFest 1998
Margaret Mead Film Festival 1998
Human Rights Watch International Traveling Film Festival 1998

25 minutes / Color
Release: 1998
Copyright: 1998

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

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