Pregnancy Testing

Back when pregnancy tests were only available from clinics and doctors, the Pregnancy Testing workgroup provided a very popular service to women who could not afford a doctor or clinic, or were turned off by the pervasive medical sexism of the time. by Elaine Wessel

In the early 1970's, it was not possible for women to buy their own pregnancy testing kits at drugstores; that only became possible a few years later. The only places that women could get pregnancy tests were at doctor's offices and health clinics, where many women were reluctant to go. Women who were considering abortion (illegal throughout most of the United States), unmarried women, very young women, and women who could not afford doctor's fees were among the women who found CWLU's Pregnancy Testing a very useful service.

Women's health concerns, in a variety of forms, were among the major issues that CWLU dealt with throughout its' existence. In the spring of 1970, when CWLU was only a few months old, the organization decided to work on the creation of a women's health clinic as a city-wide project. This clinic, eventually given the name of Alice Hamilton Women's Health Center, never actually came about, but out of the plans for the clinic, Pregnancy Testing got started, and existed in one form or another throughout the history of CWLU.

The plans for the clinic assumed that it would be in one location, and that a number of committees would be needed to make the clinic function. One such committee was called Medical Technology, which set to work in deciding which medical tests would be offered at the clinic, and training people to do those tests. Pregnancy testing (done with urine samples brought in by the women) was one such test, and it turned out to be easy to learn and easy to perform even in settings that were not fully-equipped clinics.

Because members of the Medical Technology Committee were ready to do pregnancy tests even before the clinic opened, they decided to go ahead with pregnancy testing at several different locations. The original plans would have been to consolidate pregnancy testing in the clinic when it opened, but since the full clinic never opened, pregnancy testing continued to be done at several locations around Chicago during the course of CWLU's existence.

The first two locations were at a YWCA on the southwest side, in the neighborhood where the planned Alice Hamilton clinic would have been, and at La Dolores Women's Center on the north side. Both of these locations were in service in 1970-71; in both locations, the pregnancy testing project had to leave when the hosting location closed down. When CWLU opened up an office on the north side in 1972, pregnancy testing began at that location, and continued through several different locations of the office: on Belmont near Clark, 1972-74; Lincoln near Diversey, 1974-76; and Diversey and Milwaukee, 1976-77. In addition, a new south side location opened up in 1970's, at a church in Hyde Park.

The pregnancy test was a chemical test which looked for the presence of HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin hormone) in a woman's urine. If a woman was pregnant, HCG would be present in her urine and she would test positive. The test was "non-invasive" in the sense that the people doing the test did not have to examine the women or draw blood. The facilities needed for the tests included the test kits themselves (purchased in bulk from a medical supply house), a bathroom with a toilet and sink, a refrigerator, and a sturdy work table with good light.

Most of these facilities were already available in the various rented or borrowed locations where pregnancy testing was done, which is one of the reasons why pregnancy testing was easier to set up than some other medical tests. The chemical tests were fairly easy to learn, even for people without much background in the biological sciences, and succeeded in demystifying medicine (at least for the women who were active in the pregnancy testing project). 

Elaine Wessel is active in the CWLU Herstory Website Committee and was a member of the Pregnancy Testing workgroup. Her photographs of CWLU activities may be seen throughout our site and in our Gallery section. She is presently working as an audio-visual specialist in the education field.