As we near January 22, 2023, the fiftieth anniversary of the Roe decision, I’ve been asked how it felt on that day in 1973. Initially I felt relieved. It was a weight off my back. If birth control failed or wasn’t used, I wouldn’t have to be shamed or maimed. I wouldn’t have to endure the anguish of those who started impossibly dangerous searches for an illegal abortion. Finally my sex life, my reproductive life was my own. No one else should know or care. My body didn’t belong to the government or the medical establishment.
And I felt elated. Happy to have been a small part of the struggle. Grateful to the women who pioneered the movement. So proud that women had done this. Yes, the Supreme Court made the decision but, in the years leading up to this moment, women had organized, had fought in the courts, in state legislatures and on the streets. We had moved public opinion. We had established bodily autonomy as a citizen’s right.
For the first time in over a century women in America breathed a collective sigh of relief. We were finally equal partners in the democracy.
The pregnancy counseling service where I had volunteered would close. I would no longer have to sit with desperate women and try to help them figure out where the money was coming from. For a short time in the early 70s state and federal programs extended coverage to low-income women. Legal, safe abortion was accessible across class lines.
In 1971 Dr. David Harris said that the maternal death rate in New York City had been cut in half since the state’s abortion laws were repealed. Gradually the hospital wards set aside for septic abortion care closed.
Whatever our reasons for an abortion, it was of no concern to anyone but ourselves and whoever we chose to share it with. Women who had abortions in the 70s shared these comments with me.
“We had just started a business. We were working seven days a week. We were sad but the timing was bad. “
“It was a new relationship; we needed more time.”
Women felt more comfortable having an abortion. There was less shame involved because it was legal, safe, and available and no one needed to feel bad about it.
“I saw my regular gynecologist, and he made the appt. right away.”
“I got the appt. within that week.”
“Everybody was fine”. I didn’t feel branded in any way.”
“I remember I didn’t feel any stigma about it or anything like that from them. It was a medical procedure.”
From a woman who had an illegal and later a legal abortion.
“I remember going to the Women’s Center … It was very nice and they had recliners out in the recovery area and you could have cookies and juice and what have you. I mean it was definitely 100% better. … they interviewed me and then they made an appointment to come back. I can remember the doctor was lovely and I had these wild socks on, and he was teasing me about it when he was actually doing the procedure (for) which they gave me numbing agents. … I have to say it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. It was totally different…”
Now that we really were equal, we could turn our attention to other issues. There were so many issues—childcare, lack of females in textbooks, health care for and by women, equal pay, rape, spousal abuse, access to all the rights that white male citizens had. There was a lot more to do and there still is.
I will honor January 22, 2023, by attending a Bigger Than Roe rally and continuing the work we need to do to ensure all women wherever they are in this country have the right to a safe, legal abortion.