This article is part of a larger series titled “The End Of Roe.” Head here to read more.
I had an illegal abortion in September 1968.
I was 19 years old and had just returned to college to begin my sophomore year. A few weeks later I discovered I was pregnant. I immediately went into shock and my boyfriend proposed to me.
The only clarity I had at that moment was that I was just starting my life’s journey and becoming a mother and wife would be unfair to all of us. I did not yet know who I was, though I knew there was only one right choice for me: I had to terminate the pregnancy.
Still, it was overwhelmingly scary. I had heard of many horror stories of “back alley abortions” and how women were killed or maimed during them. I was determined to do it in a way that was as safe as possible and with dignity.
I learned of The Clergy Consultation Services on Abortion in New York City, an organization of clergy from many faiths who condemned the brutality that was occurring and had connections to licensed medical doctors willing to risk everything to provide safe abortions to women in need. I reached out to them while I was in New York City and was referred to the closest doctor available, who was in Washington, D.C.
I was fortunate that my boyfriend was able to get the $350 ― a great deal of money at the time ― so the abortion would be performed in the doctor’s office with a nurse in attendance. I would stay in the office overnight so that my recovery could be monitored.
At least that was how it was supposed to happen. However, I had just stepped into the criminal world.
I flew alone to D.C. with a horrible case of morning sickness. After checking into the hotel, I waited for the doctor to contact me. He finally came to collect me at midnight ― but everything had changed. All the careful arrangements were suddenly thrown out the window and my story of brutality and torture began.
I learned the doctor had been warned by a police informant that his office would be raided the next day, so he would have to perform the procedure that night ― though with changes to the original plan. His sterile office and his assistant were no longer part of the deal ― and he would not use anesthesia because of how dangerous it would be to administer it outside of a medical environment and without assistance.
I was shocked by this turn of events but still so single-minded in focus that I voluntarily went by myself at midnight with a man I didn’t know, in a city I didn’t know, to take part in an illegal activity.
The doctor snuck me out of the hotel through the back kitchen door and drove me around D.C. for an hour to confuse me, so there was no chance of me telling the police where he took me. He finally drove up to a motel, got a room and snuck me in through the back door.
He performed the abortion on the dining room table while we listened to raucous sex going on in the next room.
The pain was the worst I’ve ever felt ― before and since ― but I wasn’t allowed to yell for fear of being heard through the walls. I was also instructed to keep my legs open at all times. As there was only the two of us, I had to use every ounce of will that I had to control these instinctual things my body wanted ― needed! ― to do as I underwent the abortion.
I have no idea how long the procedure took ― it felt like hours. When it was finally over, he drove me back to the hotel and he dropped me on the sidewalk like a pile of dirty clothes.
I was brutally tortured!
There is no other word to explain what I endured ― and that was merely the physical aspect of this. Emotionally, I felt degraded and ashamed. I was dragged into this illicit underground world ― all because abortion was illegal. The doctor behaved in ways he probably never would have imagined or wanted. I was forced to do and experience horrible things I never would have imagined.
“When it was finally over, he drove me back to the hotel and he dropped me on the sidewalk like a pile of dirty clothes.”
I continue to experience the severe trauma from that night to this day. I told virtually no one about this until 10 months ago. I was so ashamed, and over 55 years later, I still remember every single detail of that night!
I, however, was one of the lucky ones. I survived. I didn’t die and I wasn’t made infertile. As a matter of fact, several years later, in the mid-1970s, I became pregnant again when the contraception I had used was ineffective. The man I was with was not my “forever man” and I would not raise a child by myself, so I, again, decided to have an abortion. However, this time abortion was legal.
That experience was a very different story. It was performed in an abortion clinic that was clean and sterile. There were compassionate people to explain what was going on. There were nurses and doctors and surgery rooms. I received anesthesia and did not have to see the fetus.
It was merely a medical procedure, and I was treated as a patient. The decision to have the abortion was still hard and I, again, felt shame at the circumstance I found myself in. However, that time I was treated with dignity!
Women and people with uteruses are always going to seek to end pregnancies ― for many different reasons. Making abortion illegal is not going to stop that. What it will do, however, is lead to them being killed, maimed, made infertile or forced to raise children who are unwanted, uncared for or unable to be provided for. It will drive people into the world of criminals and criminal-like behaviors. It will profoundly wound people by forcing them into decisions based on desperation.
To this day I do not regret the decisions I made. They were right for me. However, what I had to go through was inhumane.
I am 74 years old and still healing the trauma I experienced from that torture. I am, again, protesting and marching in the streets to support legal and safe abortions.
Because the issue remains so contentious and those against abortion are using harassment and vicious attacks, I feel the need to protect my identity. Yet, I also feel driven to share my story to make sure that no woman is ever forced to experience what I did. To solve this dilemma, I have chosen to use a pseudonym for this article. After all these many years, it is sad and enraging that we may lose access to legal and safe abortion ― and that just talking about it can be dangerous ― but this is exactly where we are.
I ask everyone to be fierce in their efforts to help everyone understand what is at stake if Roe v. Wade is overturned and the right to a legal abortion is not codified in our federal Constitution! Abortion will continue to exist ― though at what cost? And how many others will have to experience the nightmare that I did?
Diana Doris is the pseudonym of a woman who lives in New York City and had an illegal abortion in 1968. She hopes that this essay will help women and those with uteruses (and everyone who loves them) who have lived their entire lives with Roe v. Wade to understand what life without access to legal abortion could be like.