Dear Dr. Spencer
Directed by Danielle Renfrew & Beth Seltzer • Documentary • With Lili Taylor • 1998 • 25 minutes
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