4 Women on Having Abortions Before They Were Legal

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Before Roe v. Wade, illegal abortions happened often.Photo: Aleksandar Nakic/Getty Images

When Donald Trump was asked about abortion access in a November 13 interview with 60 Minutes, he said that if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, women seeking abortions will simply “have to go to another state.” His vice-president-elect, Mike Pence, was even more blunt. Speaking at a campaign event in July, he told supporters, “We’ll see Roe v. Wade consigned to the ash heap of history where it belongs.”

Whether or not Trump and Pence will take away a woman’s legal right to get an abortion remains to be seen, but it’s clear that neither appreciates the implications of banning the procedure. In fact, outlawing abortion doesn’t actually reduce the abortion rate — in countries were abortion is illegal, the number of abortions per woman is slightly higher. Instead, it forces women to seek out secretive, unsafe, unregulated abortions and in some cases to pay hundreds of dollars to get them. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, only women of means — women who can afford to “go to another state” — will be able to get an abortion. In many states, women’s health care will look much as it did before 1973.

Which means that the stories told in Back Rooms: Voices From the Illegal Abortion Era will be depressingly apt. Joanne Michaels, a New York–based journalist and publisher, decided to release an updated, revised edition of the book — which was written by Ellen Messer and Kathryn May and originally published in 1988 — months before the election. But under the Trump administration, the stories it contains will serve to remind readers what it was like to get an abortion in “the bad old days.” Below are four excerpts from Back Rooms, which is available upon mail-in request.*

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Caroline, 44, on her abortion in 1963:

When it happened, I knew right away that I was pregnant. It was the summer between my junior and senior year of college. I didn’t really know what to do. I knew, though, that having a baby would ruin my whole life.

I don’t know when I really started to think about an abortion. I had earlier helped a friend get an abortion. It had seemed to be a fairly easy thing to do. [But] things at that time in Cleveland were very tight. It was 1963, and when I followed up on the few leads there were, it seemed that it was absolutely the worst possible time in about five years to have an abortion in Cleveland. I finally located an abortionist in Youngstown, Ohio. It was going to cost $100.

This so-called doctor — this man who called himself a doctor — had two businesses. He was a bookie and he was an abortionist. He was an elderly man in a ramshackle little house in a disreputable, shabby section of Youngstown. It in no way fit my image of a doctor’s house and office. But that was my only option, and I was very desperate to go through with it. He had a room with a chair and stirrups set up. I went in and it was all very, very secretive. I do know that when I finally aborted I was alone in my room at the dormitory at school. I went through at least twelve hours of labor alone in my room. It was more terrible than I ever imagined. I was timing the contractions and I just didn’t think I could bear any more. I didn’t feel I could cry out for help, and I just remember thinking, I’m going to get through this.

I know it went on for at least twelve hours. I remember noticing that the contractions were getting more frequent, and then there was a lot of blood and there was a fetus. I was really beside myself, and terrified. I didn’t know what to do. There was more blood than I ever imagined. I was terrified of someone discovering me, of being arrested.

I managed to get through that night and morning. Somehow I thought then it would be over, but it wasn’t over. I kept hemorrhaging and it just wouldn’t stop. It went on for days and days and I didn’t know what to do. I had become pregnant in August, and it was close to Thanksgiving, and I continued to bleed. When I finally saw [a] doctor, I got really frightened. He was so appalled at my condition that he said, “Do you realize you could’ve killed yourself?”

Emily, 50, on her abortion in 1955:

It was the end of 1955. I was living in Philadelphia, alone in a basement apartment. I was working part-time in Horn & Hardart to support myself. I was going to high school at night to get a diploma to qualify for college. I was, I guess, 20. I was having a relationship with a young man — my first actual experience with a man — and I found myself pregnant. I knew that I could not take care of a child. I knew that I was frightened and alone and impoverished. I had dreams about my life, so there was absolutely no way that I would give up what I was going to become. I didn’t feel I could take care of a child — I was a baby myself.

At that time it was impossible to get an abortion in Philadelphia because there had been a recent tragedy. The daughter of an upper-middle-class family had just died on the abortionist’s table. Everyone was terrified. There was absolutely nothing to be done. [So] I went to New York looking for an abortionist. I happened to bump into someone on the street that I had gone to high school with, so I asked her if she knew of an abortionist, not for me, of course, but for my friend. She had a friend who was going to Cuba to have an abortion, and maybe my friend wanted to go with her friend. So I did.

I went to the abortionist with her. She had hers first, and I heard her screaming and I was absolutely terrified. I said I simply did not want to go through that without some medication, and they did give it to me. I was sure that I was never going to wake up again.

I cannot believe that a 16- or 17-year-old knows how to raise a child — I think babies deserve better. I don’t have feelings of admiration for these young kids who decide to keep their babies, I really don’t. They can only raise miserable children, and I feel bad about that. They can have an abortion now without the pain and fear that I had. They don’t know what it was like before, and what it might be like if it’s taken away. They just don’t know what it was like.

Ann, 60, on her abortions in the late 1950s:

I had two illegal abortions. The first was in 1956 when I was 25. I had lived with my husband for about two years before we went to Europe, and we got married because we wanted to go to Europe. In those days, it was not common for unmarried people to travel together. I had gotten pregnant after we were married just a few months. My husband wasn’t opposed to keeping the child, but you know who the burden would have fallen on. It would have changed my life more than his.

I don’t know how, but we found out about a place in Germany. It was a maternity hospital. We had to give the doctor $300 in cash, which in those days was a lot of money. He pretended I was bleeding and told a nurse it was an emergency and performed a D&C. I was in the hospital for five days and was treated quite well. It was just that: $300 not to have a child.

Then, when we got back to New York, about two or three years later I got pregnant again. I found out through a friend about a doctor in West New York, New Jersey. It was hard at the time to find someone who would perform an abortion. It was all very secretive, like they had a code name “Charlie” and you had to call at a certain time on a certain day. It was really bizarre that in New York it was more difficult to find somebody than it was in Europe.

I remember going to this doctor’s office on a Saturday, and the office was empty and he didn’t use any anesthesia. It was very painful, but in a way I was lucky because the woman who told me about him had to have an abortion a few months later, and she had all kinds of terrible complications from it. So even though I had two abortions, I think I was really lucky not having any side effects. It sounds really simple now, but it was not simple. It was like I wasn’t being allowed to decide my own future, and that seemed really important to me — that I could decide when I wanted to have a child.

Lila, on her illegal abortion:

I had been dating Joseph almost a year — I met him in the spring of my freshman year, and I was still dating him in the fall. He was a Catholic also, and black Catholics were really hard to find. Joseph and I had gone to dinner. We started fooling around and fell into bed. We fell into his bed and had sex, and my period did not come the next time.

I was determined not to have the baby. Joseph told me that it was my choice because he was ready to get married. I liked the guy, but I wasn’t ready. I wanted to finish my education. I didn’t want to be a married student with a baby trying to finish up college for two years. I really couldn’t imagine having a baby by this guy. I decided to ask my stepmother in Des Moines if she could help me. I told my stepmother I was pregnant and that I didn’t want to have the baby, and she says, “Fine, I’ll call you back.” In two hours she called me back. She said, “Come to Des Moines this weekend.” I said, “How much will it be?” and I think she said $100. I felt nothing.

It was a kitchen table, coat-hanger abortion. It took maybe six minutes. I got on the kitchen table. I think my stepmother gave me a drink of brandy or something, and she said, “Now this may hurt a little bit.” She held my hand and this woman stuck a piece of coat hanger into my vagina. And then my stepmother said, “Okay, now get dressed.” And what you were supposed to do was leave that in there until you started to abort. I remember walking out with this coat hanger between my legs.

That evening I started bleeding and I think I was feeling cramps. I got up very early in the morning and went to the bathroom, and there was just this passage of blood and a clot that was slightly bigger than the clots I usually passed during my menstrual period. I realized that that was the fetus. The next month my period came on time.

I think it was rarer for black women to have chosen to have an abortion back in the bad old days. One reason people cite is that having a child enhanced a black woman’s self-esteem. I would suggest that another reason is because many black women didn’t know where to find one. If it was difficult for a white woman to find one, it was impossible for a black woman to find one, especially a poor black woman.

*To receive a copy of the updated revised Back Rooms: Voices From the Illegal Abortion Era, send a check for $24.95 (includes tax and shipping) to JMB Publications, P.O. Box 425, Woodstock, New York 12498.

These excerpts have been edited and condensed for clarity.