I Had An Illegal Abortion Before Roe v. Wade. This Is Why Women Of My Generation Must Share Our Stories.

We are the ones who understand firsthand why the right to obtain safe and legal abortions is so important.
The author, now 74, had an illegal abortion at age 23.
The author, now 74, had an illegal abortion at age 23.
Carla Nordstrom

At 74, I am well past the age of worry about an unwanted pregnancy. In many ways, the bad old days before Roe v. Wade have faded from our collective memory. Women of my generation have rarely told our stories of illegal abortions, perhaps because we are embarrassed. But our reticence has prevented others from learning from experiences like mine.

I never expected that we would go back to illegal abortions, but current legislative actions in a number of states have opened up that possibility.

When I was 23, I had an illegal abortion arranged by the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion. I was young, in no position to raise a child, and had gotten pregnant by a man I barely knew. The Clergymen’s Committee was a group of ministers and rabbis who arranged for physicians to provide safe, albeit illegal abortions in different cities in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Though I lived in New York, mine was scheduled in a city about an hour’s flight away.

My parents helped pay for the procedure and my friends knew about it, but I chose to go to this appointment alone. What I was doing was illegal and I didn’t want to implicate friends or family. I flew to Pittsburgh and caught a bus to the center of town, near the hotel room where I met the doctor. He was an older gentleman, a respected doctor at one of the local hospitals, and though he was pleasant as he explained what he would be doing, I noticed that his instruments were wrapped in a soiled cloth.

At his instruction, I removed my underpants and laid down on a table in the middle of the room. He used what was called the vacuum method, which was dilation and curettage (commonly referred to as a D&C) assisted with a suction tube. No anesthesia was offered, and I didn’t ask. I knew that I had to be conscious so that I could leave on my own as soon as we were done. The pain was unbearable, but the procedure was fast. As I got back on the bus to the airport, the same driver who had brought me into town commented with a wink, “Not staying very long, are you?”

By the time I reached the airport, my body had begun to shudder and shiver. I was having some sort of reaction to the procedure but couldn’t risk seeking help. I worried about hemorrhaging and got on the plane figuring that the airline would take care of me if things got worse. Fortunately, by the time I landed at Newark Airport an hour later, my body had begun to calm. A friend met me at the terminal to drive me home.

My story was typical for the time among those I knew; one friend went to the same doctor in Pittsburgh. I was also fortunate; I was white, college-educated, and had a job. I had the support of family, friends, doctors and an amazing committee of clergymen. In those days, concerns about the dangers of coat hanger and back-alley abortions led good people to support those of us who chose abortion, even though it was illegal.

“It can be hard to lose a pregnancy even when it is your choice, and to add the stigma of illegality makes it much worse.”

This experience, however, was not the only time I suffered because abortions were illegal. When a state outlaws abortion, unintended consequences arise.

One morning, six months prior to my experience in Pittsburgh, I woke up bleeding with excruciating cramps. I thought that I might be pregnant, but was in denial because I was in no position to have a baby. The pain was so bad I called in sick and spent the day in bed with my knees scrunched up to my abdomen, and when I was still in pain later that afternoon, I made an appointment to see my doctor the next day.

In the morning when I went to use the bathroom, I experienced a sharp pain followed by a plop as something fell into the toilet. I had no idea what it was and barely looked down as I flushed. During my appointment the doctor said, “Too bad you flushed, it would have been better to have retrieved it and brought it in.” “It” was the result of a spontaneous abortion, a term that was used for a miscarriage in the first trimester.

I needed a D&C to prevent infection. But before the procedure could be performed, my doctor was required by law to give me a pregnancy test. If I tested positive three times, I was considered legally pregnant and could not be given the D&C. My doctor warned me the test would probably come back positive because of tissue left in my body.

A couple of days after my first positive result, I went back for a second test. Though the doctor was very kind, his receptionist was unsympathetic because I was unmarried. She yelled out the “Miss” in my name as loud as she could when she took my urine sample. Once again, the result came back positive, and I began to wonder if I would need to have an illegal abortion despite having just miscarried. I think the doctor had the same concern because he sent the third test to his own private lab. The result was negative, and he was able to perform the D&C in a hospital with anesthesia.

There were no good options available to me if the third test had come back positive. Luckily I had a doctor who was going to do whatever he could to protect me and help me heal.

Emotionally, it can be hard to lose a pregnancy even when it is your choice, and to add the stigma of illegality makes it much worse. When Roe v. Wade was approved by the Supreme Court, it meant that women could deal with an unwanted pregnancy on their own in a way that was most comfortable for them. It was no longer the state’s business.

Years later, when I became the mother of a wonderful daughter, I realized that I don’t want any woman to be forced by the government to have an illegal abortion.

Draconian abortion laws have nothing to do with protecting life; they are enacted to punish women. Though we may come from a more private era, women of my generation should take a cue from our social media-loving children and grandchildren and overshare a little. We are the ones who understand firsthand why the right to obtain safe and legal abortions is so important.

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