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photo Dear Dr. Spencer
By Danielle Renfrew and Beth Seltzer

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.

25 minutes
© 1998
Purchase $248.00 DVD
Order No. QA-564

"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

Awards & Conference Screenings
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

Related Films
The Secret Club: Six women discuss how they made their decisions about whether to have an abortion, and about the emotions they experienced afterwards. A nurse and counselor give suggestions about coping.

Second Opinion: Several women, as well as the authors of the well-known book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, examine the unequal ways in which women are often treated by the medical system.

All in One Basket: Follows three women through the process of paid egg donation, to explore ethical questions about the use of hormones, genetic selection for preferred physical traits, the role of money in reproductive medicine, and informed consent.

The Good Egg: Becoming a paid egg donor: it started as a way to finance her first film, but became an engaging journey through some of the personal and ethical realities of today's reproductive technology.


Awards & Screenings

Related Films

Web Resources

To rent or purchase this film, please visit the Icarus Films website