ASHLAND, Pa. — He was known as The Angel of Ashland.
Before abortion was legalized, Dr. Robert Spencer quietly treated thousands of patients, developing a reputation all over the world. But what that reputation means depends on who you ask.
Dr. Robert Spencer practiced medicine in Ashland for nearly 50 years, beginning in the early 1920s.
Vincent Genovese, the author of The Angel of Ashland, says Spencer first worked at the local miner's hospital. If there was an explosion, he'd go where no other doctor dared.
"Dr. Spencer would get in his car and go right up to the mine. He'd go down in the mine and do whatever he could to keep people alive and get them to the hospital," said Genovese.
Spencer later opened a private practice at 531 Centre Street. He was renowned for his innovative medicine, but he'd soon be known for something else.
A friend of the family learned her daughter was pregnant and begged the doctor to perform an abortion.
"Dr. Spencer was an athiest and did not believe there was anything wrong with terminating a pregnancy," said Genovese.
Spencer practiced safely and discreetly, often providing his services for free. He would open his doors to patients for abortions from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. before opening his practice for the day.
In the decades that followed, Spencer performed "over 100,000 illegal abortions, all before Roe v. Wade," said Genovese.
Spencer was only arrested once and never spent a night in jail. Genovese says the doctor was always tipped off ahead of state police raids.
"Virtually everybody, both locally and nationally, owed this man. There were some very famous people pulled into Ashland, Pennsylvania at 11 o'clock at night in limousines," Genovese said.
Spencer died in 1969, four years before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal.
"He was the Angel of Ashland to some people because he got them out of a heck of a mess by performing an abortion. To other people, mostly the Christian community, he was the Angel of Death," said Genovese.
Genovese says he knows firsthand just how controversial the issue of abortion is and continues to be. He finished the manuscript for his book on Dr. Spencer 30 years before it he was able to get it published.
He says he wrote the book simply to share the history, not to make a judgment one way or the other.
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