As state after state proposes restrictions that test the limits of Roe v. Wade, it can be difficult to remember this simple fact: 43 years ago today, the Supreme Court affirmed a woman’s constitutional right to get an abortion in The United States. With that decision, hospitalizations and deaths related to unsafe, illegal abortions effectively evaporated, although many women still face significant, at times humiliating hurdles when it comes to accessing abortion care.
To understand what is truly at stake when politicians come after abortion rights, it is important to remember how difficult and dangerous things were for women before the landmark ruling. Here, two women share their stories of what it was like to get an abortion before Roe v. Wade.
I was in a foreign country with two men I didn’t know. I didn’t have a passport with me, and nobody that cared about me in my entire life had any idea where I was… But I had a goal, and my goal was to not be pregnant.
In 1965 I was barely 19 and at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I had a steady boyfriend, but I wasn’t ready to get married and I certainly wasn’t get ready to have a child. The birth control pill was fairly new, and I wasn’t even aware that it could be available to me, so we relied on rhythm and condoms.
When I found out I was pregnant, my boyfriend arranged for an abortion in Tijuana, Mexico. I don’t know how he did it, and I never asked him. I’m sure he got the information from some of his fraternity brothers. I’m sure there was a network of "knowers" at the college.
We drove to Tijuana, to a bar. A guy came up to us and collected $300, which is about $2,200 today. Then, and here’s where my panic began to set in, the man told my boyfriend he couldn’t come with me.
I followed the man, and got into a little, nondescript car driven by another man. They took me on a really circuitous route, like they didn’t want me knowing where we were going — it could have been right around the block for all I know. It was all I could do to control my panic. Your mind starts up, "What are the 25 terrible things that could happen? And is there even one good one?" You’re going, "Oh my gosh, I’m never going to see my family again. I’m done." I was in a foreign country with two men I didn’t know. I didn’t have a passport with me, and nobody that cared about me in my entire life had any idea where I was. It was the height of vulnerability. But I had a goal, and my goal was to not be pregnant.
Things took a turn for the better when we pulled up to a gated house in what appeared to be a pretty affluent neighborhood. When we got inside, I was relieved, because it was a fairly sterile-looking place and it was busy with women.
The abortion itself was pretty simple. There was some heavy discomfort, and I think they gave me some kind of mild sedative, because I was hazy. I honestly don’t know if it was a doctor performing the abortion. No one explained what was going on, but the staff appeared to be medically knowledgable. After, they drove me back to the bar, and that was it. In the next few weeks, I had no complications. I was one of the lucky ones.
I’ve had a career in technology and I’ve been an avid pilot. I’m married, I have two daughters. I’ve lived a full life that would have been totally impossible if I had not had an abortion in 1965.
There’s no comparison between how things were before Roe v. Wade and how they are now. I feel so badly for women and their partners that have to run these gauntlets going into clinics now, but my goodness, if I could have done that instead of what I went through? I would in minute. What I want to know is, why there aren’t more women of my generation coming out and talking about this? What can anyone do to us now? We’ve all lived our lives. Women who can attest to how awful it could be if things go south in the courts should be speaking out. — Anne Hopkins, 70
I’m not what many people think of when they think of abortion. I was married. I had a child at the time, and I had more after. I’m a grandmother. That’s precisely why I decided to speak out.
In 1968, an acquaintance of mine called one night and asked to speak to my husband. He had a niece who was a college freshman and she was pregnant. Because this man knew my husband had been single and living in a major metropolitan area for a while, he suspected he might know how to get his niece an abortion in a hospital. And his suspicion was correct, my husband did know — or at least he had a list of possible physicians.
A few days later, my husband and I ended up taking this young woman to a physician in New York City, which was legal — if the life of the mother was in danger. The physician handed the young woman a document that said she was feeling suicidal and if she was forced to carry this pregnancy to term, she would kill herself. She looked at it and said, "I’m not signing that. That’s not true!" The doctor said, "I know, but the hospital will not permit me to do this operation unless your life is at stake, and the only way I can demonstrate that your life is at stake is if you sign this document saying you’re suicidal."
She wouldn’t sign. A few days later, she and her aunt flew to Puerto Rico and she had the pregnancy terminated in the office of a physician there. I was horrified. I could not believe she was not willing to tell this lie in order to end the pregnancy safely, but I was also horrified that anyone was required to lie in order to not give birth to someone she was not prepared to care for. That turned me into an abortion activist.
I got an abortion two years later in 1970, which is the year it became legal in New York State. I had a child already. My husband and I wanted to have a big family, and I loved being pregnant the first time. I loved being a mother. However, I discovered I was pregnant again when my first was about 18 months old. With my first pregnancy, I got a six-month unpaid maternity leave and I was promised my job back, which was unheard of at the time. My husband had an income, so it worked. When I got pregnant again, my husband was starting a business and had no income. We had a mortgage and had to pay for childcare and there was no way I was going to be able to take six months without pay. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to welcome this child with the same utter joy that I welcomed the first one.
I had an abortion very early in the first term, in the same hospital, with the same doctor that had just delivered my baby. It was amazing to me, lying there and realizing how blessed I was that I didn’t have to lie in order to get this abortion. That the doctor did not have to pretend he was doing something he wasn’t doing. I was in a really good hospital. I said, "This, just two years later, is a whole other universe."
I’m not what many people think of when they think of abortion. I was married. I had a child at the time, and I had more after. I’m a grandmother. That’s precisely why I decided to speak out. If I could speak to members of the Supreme Court I’d say, "Roe v. Wade became the law of the land in 1973, and since you have let states pick away at what you said was constitutionally legal — for decades. What do you think that does to women? What do you think that does to how we view the court?" — Ruth*, 75
These accounts have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
*Last name has been withheld to protect her identity.
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