Who could have imagined this turn of events? Nearly 50 years after the Roe v. Wade decision, abortion remains the most divisive issue in the United States. This year alone, a total of 19 states have passed 94 restrictions on abortion with more laws expected from Republican-controlled legislatures.
Even more worrisome is news that the United States Supreme Court will consider Mississippi’s law banning abortion after 15 weeks. With Donald Trump’s appointment of three justices, including avowed abortion-rights opponent Amy Coney Barrett, the Court now has a 6-3 conservative split. There is real concern that the court will modify or overturn Roe v. Wade. Today that decision hangs by a thread.
What we potentially face is a return to an unimaginable and dangerous past. In years before the 1973 Roe decision, ending an unwanted pregnancy was illegal, punishable by a lengthy jail sentence. The alternative for unmarried women was bearing a child branded illegitimate or giving that child up for adoption.
Women who didn’t have the money to travel to Japan or Sweden for so-called “society abortions” often resorted to perilous back-alley operations. They tried to end a pregnancy, using coat hangers and knitting needles. They took doses of rat poison and quinine. They risked falling down stairs or taking scalding baths.
Those years when providers and women seeking abortions were criminalized doesn’t get a lot of attention today. But, although difficult to relive those times, I’m sharing a personal story. I’m hoping it will serve as a reminder of the risks that anti-choice activists would have us face.
In the days before Roe, I briefly held an elected office, serving as “corridor president” at my freshman dormitory at Northwestern University. One corridor-mate — I’ll call her Janet though that wasn’t her name — often frequented my dorm room, partly out of loneliness and then out of sheer, almost suicidal desperation. As she sobbed over the details, I was able to piece together the fact that she’d accepted a blind date at a frat house party. She had way too much to drink and, although she was blurry about particulars, she ended up (in the day’s idiom) “going all the way.”
Since then she’d missed a period and was throwing up in the morning. She thought it might be nerves, but instinctively she knew she was pregnant. What, she lamented, would become of her? Her church-going parents from a small town in Wisconsin would surely disown her. Her determination to earn a teaching degree now seemed impossible. She tried to do away with herself, swallowing an entire bottle of aspirin, but that led to difficulty waking up and more nausea.
As a last resort, Janet asked me to go with her to get an illegal abortion in Cicero, a Chicago suburb known mostly as the birthplace of gangster Al Capone. She’d heard about “the doctor” from her uncle, a lawyer who practiced in Chicago and who was the family’s black sheep. While I wasn’t keen on going, I felt someone needed to accompany her.
Janet and I spent a long Saturday morning on a bus from Evanston, eventually landing in a rundown neighborhood of two and three-story frame buildings. We saw grubby shops and bars and then, next to a convenience store, a staircase matching the address Janet had been given. We climbed a flight of steps to find a mostly bare room and a woman sitting behind a make-shift desk. She demanded Janet’s name and asked for “the envelope.” Janet had filled it with $350 in small bills, wiping out her waitress-earned savings.
After a tense hour’s wait, we were ushered into a room furnished with an old dental chair and a bureau that held a basin and a tray of instruments. A gaunt man in a stained jacket told Janet to “remove everything from the waist down.” Without preamble, he pushed her into the dental chair, reclined it and proceeded to perform a primitive D & C. My presence — I was clasping Janet’s hand — wasn’t acknowledged. The only communication consisted of his curt commands and hardly-audible expletives.
When “the doctor” finished, the area was awash in bloody towels and Janet was directed into a closet where an old-fashioned water closet was leaking fluid. After stanching the blood flow with tissues, she dressed and we scurried off. Twilight overtook us on our way back to the dorm.
Janet fortunately recovered from her rude operation. Others, brutalized by illegal providers, weren’t so lucky. Emergency room personnel at the time saw the aftermath of botched abortions and self-abortion attempts gone horribly wrong. There were permanent injuries and hundreds of deaths. This is the questionable women’s reproductive care that was available at the time. And let us be clear, those who politicize women’s health care want us to return to those days. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, abortion rights likely would be left to the states, a worrisome prospect, especially in the many states with GOP-dominated legislatures.
Like Washington, more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia have affirmed a woman’s right to abortion before viability. But even in Washington — where voters approved a woman’s right to choose beginning in the 1970s — there have been increasing obstacles. In some areas, hospital mergers have left reproductive care to the dictates of religious institutions. That’s meant uncertain access to safe abortion and has even affected women’s reproductive care like birth control.
Furthermore, if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, that may only be the first step to satisfy those who oppose choice. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes, “Just getting rid of Roe is woefully insufficient.” Aggressive anti-abortionists like Notre Dame Professor John M. Finnis believe the Supreme Court should rule abortion unconstitutional. They want the court to grant personhood to a fetus, endowing a fertilized egg with full 14th amendment rights.
Such prospects are undeniably scary, beginning with the possibility that so many American women are at risk of losing abortion access. In other words, a return to the dangers of the past. Yet, at the same time, the majority of the American public (61 percent according to Pew Research Center) favors a woman’s right to a legal abortion in all or most cases. The need for careful vetting of political candidates on these issues and for backing pro-choice forces has never been more imperative.