Abortion-rights groups are up-in-arms, challenging newly enacted statutes in several Southern and Midwestern states that restrict a woman’s right to choose.
Right-to-life groups, however, welcome the challenges. Their goal is to have Roe v. Wade overturned by the Supreme Court and then, if these states’ historical reluctance to cover contraception of any kind is a guide, a crackdown on the morning-after pill and other chemical options will come next.
The primary purpose of these abortion bans is not merely to overturn Roe, but to go back to the way it was before that landmark decision, in 1973.
So, what did it look like when women were forced to get illegal abortions? Scholars estimate that between 20 and 25 percent of all pregnancies still ended in abortion and, frequently, there were dangerous complications.
It was extremely risky, particularly if you were young and without resources. Geography mattered. Women in certain states, and especially those living in larger metropolitan areas, had an easier time accessing information about where to obtain a “safe” illegal abortion. Even so, there were numerous tragedies, especially if you were financially strapped. Hundreds of women died each year; for far too many, the saga of a back-alley abortion was a tragic reality.
Most of the time women survived physically intact but went home to deal with the emotional trauma on their own. Many, however, did not escape harm. If they were alive, they were brought to a hospital where an entire women’s ward might be filled with patients under treatment for an assortment of medical ailments that came under the all-purpose heading of “botched abortions.” Serious infection was the most common complication, but perforated uteruses—damaged by untrained abortionists or by a woman attempting to perform the abortion on herself—were a frequent result (ofttimes permanent).
Before 1973, abortion was legal in just eight states, and only when the mother’s life was at monumental risk—no matter rape, incest, or diagnosed debilitating defects. Yet, a pregnant woman with $2,500 and suitable connections could enter a private hospital for a procedure where sympathetic physicians would classify with an acceptable label. Without big bucks and connections, however, women floundered in emotional agony, forced outside the margins of legitimate medicine.
In 1969, a distraught young girl—a recent graduate of a prestigious Catholic high school in the Bronx—was given a slip of paper by her local priest after Confession. A telephone number was scribbled across the top and, as he slipped it to her, he whispered that she must use a pay phone to make the call.
The person who answered her call identified himself as the Rev. Howard Moody, a Baptist minister. He made an appointment to see her in his office at Judson Memorial Church and told her how to get from the Bronx to the church, which was across from Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.
She and her boyfriend were led into Rev. Moody’s study, after waiting in the anteroom for about an hour. The Reverend asked lots of questions, and the three spoke for quite some time. She was insistent that she could not possibly tell her parents and that she was not ready to be a mother. He listened.
While she sat frightened and vulnerable, Rev. Moody wrote down very specific directions: Buy two roundtrip tickets to San Juan on Eastern Airlines. Both of you will leave on the last flight out tomorrow night, which will land about midnight. Take a taxi to the San Juan Hilton and sit in the lobby facing the door. At 6 a.m., a taxi driver wearing a blue shirt and Panama hat will come inside and stand by the revolving door. When you see him, follow him out to his car. Once in the car, he will give you both eye masks that won’t allow you to see where he’s going. Don’t take them off until you reach the destination. After the procedure, go directly back to the airport and leave on the 7 p.m. plane.
Borrowing money from her older sister, she and her boyfriend boarded a flight to Puerto Rico late the following night.
When the taxi ride ended, the driver directed them in broken English to take off the masks and walk into the Borinquen Pharmacia, just across the street. Once inside, they were sent up another flight of stairs into a large waiting room. There, she was interviewed by a woman in nursing garb and asked for $500. Then, they waited.
She remembers there already were about 10 girls in the room, all looking anxious and afraid: one with her mother, another with her boyfriend or husband, and the rest alone. Over the next several hours, one after another was prepped and sent into an adjoining room. Bloodcurdling screams could be heard soon after each girl entered—they lasted only a minute or two but shook the room to its core. After a time, the girl unsteadily exited the room and was escorted down the stairs and out the front of the store, where another taxi was waiting for the return to the airport.
She was last, and when they climbed into the taxi, the girl who had preceded her into the operating room was there, too, looking teary-eyed and sad. The three ate together quietly at the airport and exchanged phone numbers. She remembers that the girl was from Ohio. Both girls would be returning home to resume their lives, outwardly pretending this never happened; inwardly, suppressing feelings of shame, guilt, and cold fear; always remembering …