The Hard, and Hard-Earned, Truths About Abortion

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Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Here’s the truth about abortion. Since the beginning of civilization women have had unwanted pregnancies and found ways to end them. There’s no reason to think that Amy Coney Barrett’s presence on the U. S. Supreme Court will change that reality. Prohibition did not put an end to the production of alcohol. Overturning Roe v. Wade will not end abortions.

Many years ago, I wrote a column in The Seattle Times in support of maintaining a woman’s right to a safe, legal abortion. I told about my own abortion years earlier. Not many women had “come out” publicly at that time, which probably explains the intense reader reaction, an outpouring far greater than anything in my 10-plus years of writing opinion columns.

It was 1992 and email had not yet come to the newsroom. Instead there were phone calls and letters – handwritten notes on beautiful cards, plain postcards, typed one-page letters, multi-page essays some typed, others neatly handwritten – from women inspired to tell their own stories. Of course, others decried my “selfish act,” and a few issued the familiar scold about avoiding the pregnancy in the first place. Most of the letters were from the Seattle area, but several came from distant places after the column was picked up by newspapers all over the country.

In my memoir, “Leaving the Boys,” I write about my own experience as a young college graduate faced with the lack of an abortion option, and the impact it had on my life and early career. The book was published in July and reviewed recently by Jean Godden. 

The voices of those letter writers are as pertinent today as they were in 1992. Here are excerpts:

 A Seattle reader wrote that in the 1960s she shared a friend’s agony as she searched for a lead to a back-alley abortion. The friend got a tip from “a friend of a friend of a friend, who happened to be a Seattle police officer.” The letter writer accompanied her friend and described the “horror” of the office – the filth, the stench, the so-called doctor’s dirty nails. When he insisted on pre-payment, “I grabbed her hand and pulled her out of there.” A relative guessed at the friend’s predicament and told her about a place the “wealthy women used” across the street from Frederick & Nelson. The relative wrote a check for the abortion that was four times the cost of the back-alley provider.

 A writer in Renton said my column made her think about what growing up would have been like if her mother’s health “had not been ruined by a botched abortion…We were denied so much – the pleasure of a brilliant, healthy, fun-loving mother – because she did not have a safe option.” 

A woman in Santa Barbara wrote “my abortion took place in 1938 in a back-alley abortion mill. It was crowded with desperate women and the ‘doctor’ in the back room was raking in the money…My feeling afterwards was intense relief.”

Too many women today cannot find that “intense relief” and a reversal of Roe v. Wade will narrow their options even further.      

Here’s another truth about abortion in America: It was legal for much of the nation’s early history. Under English common law, the cornerstone of American jurisprudence, abortions performed prior to “quickening” (the first perceptible fetal movement) were not criminal offenses. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the leading research and policy organization on sexual and reproductive rights, the quickening rule was the law of the land, and for first third of the nation’s history no state enacted contrary legislation. Massachusetts enacted the first law making abortion – at any stage of the pregnancy – a criminal offense. By the turn of the century most states had laws severely restricting a woman’s right to an abortion. According to Guttmacher, 14 states “explicitly made obtaining an abortion, as well as performing one, a crime.”

Reforms began in the 1960s, after untold numbers of women facing unwanted pregnancies had obtained an illegal abortion. Estimates range from 200,000 to 1.2 million a year in the 1950s and 1960s. Some women died, especially before antibiotics were developed to treat the infections caused by many illegal abortions.

Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision of 1973, which held that government has no role in a woman’s reproductive decisions in the early months of a pregnancy, essentially restored English common law as adopted by our nation’s founders. Today that early recognition of limited government control over a woman’s body still represents the fairest, most sensible, most humane public policy.

Now, however, it seems more likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will take us back to fewer, not more, freedoms for women in their reproductive years. If Roe is overturned, pro-choice advocates estimate that abortion could be made illegal in 17 states. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that future.

Wealthy women like those in Seattle who knew how to find the illegal provider across the street from Frederick & Nelson would still know how to find a provider. For some it would mean traveling to a state where it remains legal, assuming the end of  Roe leaves an option for states to act individually. Washington state legalized abortion in 1970 and would probably continue to be a provider state. Nationally, the end of Roe means a two-tier system of reproductive services, making life even more challenging, often desperate, for disadvantaged women.

Years ago, in that column I wrote of my anger at the 1992 Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which preserved Roe, but endorsed government intrusions – lectures, pictures, waiting periods, record-keeping – into a woman’s life at a time she is making the most private and sensitive of decisions.

Anger is one more truth about abortion. Denial of access to early abortions makes women angry. Thousands of Polish women have been marching in protest for two weeks against a court decision to ban nearly all abortions in that country. Those scenes could be in America if/when Roe v. Wade is overturned or essentially gutted by the Supreme Court.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for focusing on the reality that abortions happen no matter what the current law. I covered a pro choice March in DC years ago and remember interviewing a man whose mother died from an illegal abortion and hearing similar horror stories from other marchers. Many of those now seeking to restrict reproductive justice have no memory of a time when women were dying from back alley abortions or couldn’t get contraceptives.

  2. Thank you for writing about this. I remember your 1992 column very well. It was brave and brilliant. I can’t believe that, after so many years of admittedly uneven and unsatisfactory progress toward recognizing the reproductive rights of women, we’re still fighting this battle. But we are.

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