What Abortion Was Like Before Roe V Wade, As Told By Women Who Lived Through It
Marcela Howell didn't know her best friend was pregnant.
It was 1963 — ten years before the Supreme Court would make abortion legal throughout the United States — and the girls were in high school in New York City.
Howell, who went on to become the executive director of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women's Reproductive Justice Agenda, saw her friend at school on Friday.
On Monday, she went to school and learned her friend died. She said,
They never actually said why or what caused it, just that she died over the weekend from a serious illness, I think is what the nuns said.
It wasn't until Howell talked to her best friend's sister that she found out she died after hemorrhaging from an illegal abortion.
Even as a teenager, Howell knew there was a woman in her neighborhood who provided abortions.
No one really talked a lot about it unless someone needed to get an abortion.
But Howell is black and her friend was Hispanic — they lived in different communities, so Howell didn't know who her friend had gone to for the abortion. Fifty years later, she told Elite Daily,
She was one of my best friends that I had been a friend of since we were in the third grade. She was 15 when she died.
So I followed Roe v. Wade and the decision very closely.
This was the reality of abortion before the Supreme Court decided on Roe v. Wade on January 22, 1973.
Just because abortion is illegal doesn't mean it doesn't happen. It just means it becomes more dangerous, especially for low-income women.
In that reality, “if someone had had an abortion and lived through it, that [provider] was a good recommendation,” Dr. Pega Ren said, describing how she found someone to give her best friend an abortion in 1968.
It was all cash and all done at night and it was seedy, seedy, seedy.
Ren's best friend, who was about 20, was pregnant by Ren's boyfriend (the best friend and boyfriend were together before Ren started dating him).
Ren and her boyfriend were students at Ohio State while her best friend was a shopgirl, and having a baby would've been “the end of things for her.”
They found a provider charging $500. Her monthly rent was $50. But they found the money. She said,
Privilege really played here, because we're all able-bodied and white and well enough off that we're in university, you know?
Ren drove her to some shacks by a railroad, where her friend had to go in alone for the procedure.
You get desperate. You do something unsanitary. And you get sepsis.
After the abortion, her friend suffered from a raging infection and had to go to the hospital, where she was given a hysterectomy.
She was in the hospital for two weeks — “but she lived.”
Despite the stigma, friends sometimes helped each other get an abortion before 1973.
Karon Hardy and her best friend Katie Bug pulled off a miraculous feat in October 1972, a story she told as part of the 1 in 3 Campaign.
They were in the Texas Panhandle. When Hardy asked her mom for birth control, her mother called her a whore and refused. Between a lack of sex education and contraceptive access, she ended up pregnant.
She was 17 and smoking weed with her guy friends when she joked around about one of them hitting her in the stomach to end the pregnancy.
But the truth was Hardy was seriously determined to end it. She said,
I was not going to carry that pregnancy. I would've killed myself or tried to self-abort because I was not going to have a baby. I just wasn't.
Hardy and Katie Bug flipped through ads in Rolling Stone magazine to find an abortion provider in New York who could help them.
They got $600 from her brother, lied to their parents about making a college visit and went to New York, to a clinic where Hardy had a safe procedure.
Katie Bug and Hardy went to prom together, even closer to each other than ever after pulling this feat off.
But not everyone had friends to help them out.
Fran Moreland Johns, author of “Perilous Times: An Inside Look at Abortion Before – and After – Roe vs. Wade,” became pregnant as a result of a workplace rape when she was 22, unmarried and working in 1956 Atlanta.
She found an illegal abortion provider charging $100. She was making $92 a month. Johns asked the man who raped her for the money.
According to her,
Pregnancies were caused by rich and powerful men who took advantage of women and said, ‘Call this number and here's $100.'
She was told to wait in front of a movie theater. A man picked her up and gave her a blindfold before driving around and stopping somewhere for the procedure.
He put a straw up my vagina and said you'll start bleeding very soon, within 12 hours or something.
She went home and was bleeding heavily. Eventually she went to her OBGYN, who was able to save her.
Johns didn't tell anybody about it. That's how deep the stigma ran.
After helping her friend in 1968, Ren was on her own when she had an abortion in 1971.
She'd moved to Toronto with a draft dodger she was seeing. They had a kid in 1970, but knew they couldn't support one another when she became pregnant a year later.
Ren was actually working at CARES — Canadian Abortion Referral and Education Services — so she knew how to get an abortion, which was legal in Canada.
But it was legal for privileged white women who had their own private doctors and lived in urban centers that had hospitals that provided abortions, and there weren't many of them.
She did what she had to do: She wrote a letter saying she'd kill herself if she couldn't get an abortion and went before a board of three men who ultimately decided she could get one.
The procedure required women to stay in the hospital for three days (a long time Ren still doesn't understand).
No one, count them, zero people — not my husband, not either of the people we lived in a house with, not my very best friend, not even anybody that I worked with — came to visit me in the hospital. I was in the maternity wing, by the way.
It was so political, it was so shameful, no one would talk about it, no one would recognize it. It was really hard — and I had it easy!
As Ren saw, the stigma continued even after abortion became legal.
Roz Jonas, who went on to become the chair of NARAL Pro-Choice America's board of directors, had an illegal abortion in 1966 Maryland, when she was 19.
It cost $600 (“a great big fucking amount of money”), which the boy's parents paid. She couldn't tell her own parents.
Jonas was picked up in front of a movie theater, like Johns, by a stranger in a sedan with a dog.
He could've been an axe murderer, except that he had a dog in the car.
So I thought, ‘OK, this has to be better than me driving off a bridge,' because I didn't have any other alternatives.
Jonas got the abortion, “and that was that.”
But after she got married in 1973, she and her husband had trouble getting pregnant.
Jonas told her doctor about the abortion, and he immediately decided she was infertile.
After ten years of testing and trying, a new doctor mentioned maybe her husband should try boxer shorts. Jonas was pregnant a month later.
That discriminatory behavior on the part of my doctor cost me hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in medical testing, all because of his bias.
Abortion, unintended pregnancies and sex in general were normally not discussed before Roe.
Mary Anne Thompson, who was an educator in 1973 and is now 79 (and is the grandmother of an Elite Daily staffer), said,
When I was a teenager and in college, if a girl got pregnant, it was not talked about, and she just kind of disappeared.
Some girls were sent to homes for pregnant girls and then had their children put up for adoption.
In college, “girls disappeared for a week or two from campus and came back.” You'd hear “they were ill,” which really meant they had gotten an abortion.
It was very much divided by class. Thompson explained,
People whose families sent them off to either have the baby or have a procedure were in the more upper strata of income, because they could afford to go to a proper place.
Whereas the lower incomes, they couldn't afford to go to an abortion clinic, so they had to stick it out. And people would criticize them that the welfare system was supporting them.
This silence came from stigma — around sex and reproductive health — and also, of course, the legal repercussions of having an illegal abortion.
Rickie Solinger, a historian who has written extensively about reproductive rights, explained that police and district attorneys used to follow a “no death, no prosecution” principle with illegal abortion providers.
Most of the providers were reliable, despite the horror stories of deaths and sepsis, according to Solinger.
But in the 1940s — incidentally, when women entered the workforce in earnest thanks to WWII — law enforcement began to crack down.
Police would raid a makeshift clinic, with newspaper reporters and photographers alongside them. Solinger said,
We see these trials which are designed to and pursue the most hideous kinds of humiliation of women.
Then there would be a trial where women were asked invasive questions — ‘Why didn't you marry that man? How far apart were your legs spread on the table?'
The message was unmistakable and certainly it was very clear to these women testifying … not only was the humiliation fatally profound, but they were learning the law was the greatest danger to their dignity and their human rights.
Then came the decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Karen Mulhauser, who went on to become the executive director of NARAL in October 1973, was working at Planned Parenthood in Seattle when the Supreme Court announced its decision.
She had been involved in abortion activism for years — from volunteering at a pregnancy center to advising the high school students she taught who needed advice and contraceptive education.
Mulhauser lobbied for abortion rights with her baby in her arms, landing on the front page of the Boston Globe.
This was a personal issue, too. She self-induced an abortion in 1964, as she told 1 in 3, by sticking something into her cervix. It's a decision she now calls “silly, inasmuch as I think my parents would've helped me.” Instead, Mulhauser risked her life.
I was just fortunate there was no infection after a few days. I'm still here, all these decades later.
When Roe was announced, Mulhauser explained,
There was a rush of many feelings all at the same time — that girls would not have to do what I had done a few years earlier, that girls and women were going to be able to find legal and safe option.
At Planned Parenthood, she said,
We cheered and celebrated and knew we'd have to change all our training materials.
Because of Roe, the conversation on abortion opened up a little. At this point, Medicaid was allowed to pay for abortions.
Women thought the argument over abortion was done with Roe.
There was nothing wrong with it. It was not until a couple years later that the Catholic Church and others started making people feel guilty about it.
Three years after Roe came the Hyde Amendment, which cut federal funding from going to abortions.
Marlene Fried, founding president of the National Network of Abortion Funds, became passionate about activism after the Hyde Amendment.
She was pregnant at the time, so she felt a profound connection to the importance of bodily autonomy. She said,
Hyde really crystalized [activism]. I, too thought, ‘Oh we're done, we've won abortion rights, now we can work on all these other issues.'
Hyde was one of the factors that made women realize this was far from the end of the argument over abortion.
Howell, from In Our Own Voice, said,
There was such a backlash against Roe v. Wade. You think about it, it's like we've been fighting to keep that decision in place for forty-something years.
We may end up fighting to reverse whatever a Trump court does, if he does indeed get enough justices to reverse Roe.
The women expressed sadness and frustration with the direction Trump wants to take abortion access, as well as frustration with the direction states have already taken it.
Before Roe, whether you got an abortion depended totally on who you knew, where you lived, how much money you had, how old you were and we're kind of going back to that time.
There is still a noted difference in access for low-income women. Howell said about the possible limited rights,
It will be low-income women who suffer, and low-income women are predominantly women of color and immigrant women.
The women spoke to me about hoping our generation establishes safe underground networks for abortions, although now we have medication abortion to use, not just the procedure, which is generally seen as safer for self-inducements.
Roz Jonas worries,
It's not over. It's starting all over again, and it makes me so, so sad.
They worry women in our generation don't realize how hard reproductive control was pre-Roe. Johns didn't tell anyone about her illegal 1950s abortion until she realized the importance of making sure we knew. She said,
We realized we were dying off, so I set out to write a book about those experiences.
You would like for no one else ever to have to go through that, and the direction we're heading, a lot of people will — and they already are.
… Here we are again. I'm really sad, but here we are.
Hardy, who pulled off the trip to New York, expressed the feeling succinctly:
We just can't go back. We just can't.
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