Are We Headed Back to the Dark-Alley Days for Abortions?

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Image: Wikimedia

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.

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Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and later for the Seattle Times. In 2003, she quit to run for Seattle City Council where she served 12 years. She now writes for Westside Seattle and has been a co-host on The Bridge, aired on community radio station KMGP. You can email tips and comments to Jean at jgodden@blarg.net.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for writing this. Such an important message.
    Also, there was a third option back in those days – the one I chose in less fraught circumstances: get married even if the guy was not Mr. Right. Of course the marriage didn’t last.

  2. Thanks for sharing such a compelling and personal story. In the years since 1973, Americans have become so accustomed to the availability of safe and legal abortions that it’s easy to forget the bad old days. This serves as a stark reminder.

  3. Thanks for sharing this painful story. I worked in a hospital emergency room where we saw all manner of horror related to back alley and self (or parent) attempts at abortion…and this was as recent as the 1970s and early 1980s. It’s easy to believe this fight is over. It is not.

  4. Of the 1970 vote to legalize abortion in Washington, stories should be told here. They carry lessons.
    The legalization drive was spurred by back alley abortions, and the death by bleeding of two women. It was championed in the Legislature by moderate Republicans (e.g. Sens. Joel Pritchard, Fran Holman, Charlie Elicker). When opponents succeeded in pressing for a referendum, mainstream faith leaders backed reform.
    The justice component played out. Women who could afford to went to Japan, the best known being future U.S. Rep. Jolene Unsoeld. A clinic in a venerable building on 4th Avenue did some abortions for privileged clients.
    A Renton physician, Dr. A. Frans Koome, challenged the hypocrisy head-on by announcing that he performed abortions.
    The campaign over Referendum 20 was emotional. Opponents purchased billboards showing a curled up fetus, with the message: “Kill Referendum 20, not Me.” One loomed over the U. District. In a famous prank, person/persons unknown climbed billboard and spray painted “Happy Mothers Day.”
    A missionary priest gave a an anti-abortion sermon at Sunday night mass in Assumption Church in North Seattle, only to be interrupted with a parishoner’s question about illegal abortions.
    Washington passed Referendum 20, three years before Roe v. Wade, and voters strengthened the right of choice inb 1991.
    Not so ancient history, in which we should become versed.

  5. Adding my thanks here for bringing this topic forward. I remember the look on my mother’s face when we voted to legalize abortion in Washington state — she had a patch on her femoral artery to mend an aneurysm and was told it would likely fail if she were to try and carry a pregnancy to term.

  6. Thank you for sharing this story and thanks Joel for the background on the Washington referendum. Abortions have existed throughout the centuries and outlawing them has never stopped them. The difference as Jean points out is that legalizing abortion has saved the lives of a multitude of women.

  7. Scary times when a 50-year-old recognition of women’s rights to control their own reproduction is an issue for others to adjudicate. Handmaids Tale revisited.

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