There was a time in the early 60s when women’s lives were governed by “couldn’t”s. Women couldn’t get a mortgage, a loan, or a credit card in their own name. Women couldn’t serve on juries, become astronauts, attend an Ivy League school, be appointed to a military academy, or be hired by a major law firm. Women couldn’t get birth control or continue to work when they became pregnant.
It was a time when women knew little or nothing about how their bodies worked. We were taught to distrust our bodies, to be ashamed of them. Society, school, and parents all conspired to keep it that way. Our reproductive lives were a mystery. One woman described it this way, “I was like nineteen going on fourteen when it came to any kind of knowledge about sexuality or getting pregnant or any of that.” 1
If we followed our natural impulses, fell in love, and had sex, we were sluts. The fear of pregnancy was real. Every time you had sex you had to wonder. Did the condom work? Did he wear it?
If a pregnancy resulted, it was our fault. No male ever lost a job, got kicked out of school, or lost a scholarship because they impregnated someone.
This was all about control, the less we knew, the more shame we felt, and the more that others could control us. Birth control was rarely an option for an unmarried woman and even difficult to get for married women.
If a married woman became pregnant, she often had to quit her job or was fired. For a single woman, it was much worse. To avoid shame, she might be forced into a misbegotten marriage or hidden away in homes for “unwed mothers” where she worked, gave birth, and gave the child up for adoption. One woman who went through this process described it this way, “…I was like a commodity, producing another commodity.” 2
If a woman had money or was well-connected, she could get a legal abortion if she could convince three male psychiatrists that she was suicidal. This rarely happened. For low-income women, and women of color, this was not an option
Most women who chose not to continue an unwanted pregnancy sought out illegal abortions or self-aborted. Frightened but determined women pursued any and all options. To raise money they sold possessions, and borrowed from relatives and friends. They went alone to strange cities where they stood on street corners waiting to be picked up by unknown persons, blindfolded,
driven to a place where the abortion was performed and then dropped back on the street corner.
Women whose choices were limited by race, lack of funds, and geography resorted to other more dangerous means. They drank toxic substances, inserted sharp objects into the uterus, and used harmful douches. Some committed suicide.
Large city hospitals in Chicago, New York, Washington, DC, and other cities set aside entire wards for women who were suffering from the complications of illegal or self-induced abortions.
In an article for the New York Times, Dr. Waldo Fielding explains that during his time working at two large city hospitals in New York city he saw and treated every complication imaginable from self-induced or badly executed abortions.
Dr. Fielding said, “The patient…did not explain why she had attempted the abortion, and we did not ask. This was a decision she made for herself, and the reasons were hers alone. Yet this much was clear: The woman had put herself at total risk, and literally did not know whether she would live or die.” 3
The landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision opened a window of opportunity for women. Roe allowed women to complete their education, keep scholarships, begin a career, change jobs/careers, and devote time to the children they already had. More importantly, it saved lives. Dr. Mildred Hanson, a director of Planned Parenthood in Minnesota, told medical students that “the three greatest lifesaving medical innovations of the 20th century were vaccines, penicillin, and legal abortion.” 3
Since Roe was decided in 1973 states have enacted an astounding 1300 restrictions including wait times, unnecessary procedures, prohibition on using state funds or Medicaid to pay for abortion care, and restricting abortion coverage in private insurance plans. These restrictions impact those who can afford it the least, young women, Black and Hispanic women, indigenous women, and low-income women of all races. All this adds up to an already unequal system where reproductive rights in many states are only for people who can afford them.
And now the Supreme Court has reversed almost fifty years of precedent to overturn Roe imposing the beliefs of the religious right on an entire country. As of today, as many as 26 states will ban abortion outright. Women in those states will have to travel hundreds of miles to access a clinic. They may face prosecution for leaving their woman-hating states to get a safe legal abortion.
Women who are miscarrying or suffering from an ectopic pregnancy may have abortion care refused, denied, or delayed as has already happened in Texas where doctors are fearful about being prosecuted for providing life-giving care.
With Roe reversed women will again die or suffer the adverse effects of an illegal or self-induced abortion.
Others may be prosecuted for “feticide”, for crossing the border to get misoprostol, or for receiving the pills in the mail. Any woman who wants to control or direct her own sexual life, who does not want her life controlled by legislation, who wants to make her own choices about her reproductive life will be a target.
Women have become marginalized second-class citizens again. As a young woman in Texas said a year ago “…there is a war on my body and a war on my rights, a war on the rights of your mothers, a war on the rights of your sisters, a war on the rights of your daughters. We cannot stay silent.” 7
1Interview with “Mary” for my book.
2 Diane Schulder and Florynce Kennedy, Abortion Rap, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1971), 26.
3. Waldo Fielding, MD, “Repairing the Damage, Before Roe, New York Times, June 3, 2004
4 Stacey Burns, “Remembering Trailblazing Abortion Provider Mildred ‘Millie’ Hanson”, rewire news group, March 10, 2015, 6:02pm.
5 Adam Sonfield, “Seeing the Whole Pattern: Coordinated Federal Attacks on Birth Control Coverage and Access”, Guttmacher Institute, July 8, 2020.
6 Adam Sonfield, “By Funding Texas’ Harmful Antiabortion Crusade, the Trump Administration is setting a dangerous precedent.” Guttmacher Institute, March 10, 2020.
7 Christine Hauser, “As Texas Abortion Law Nears, Opponents Amplify a Valedictorian’s Speech”, New York Times, June 3, 2021.
Thank you for articulating what it took to get to abortion rights and all we have lost. We can not go back, we have to fight.
This is a great recounting of the days before Roe.
Thanks for this and your ongoing activism