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The Way it Was

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tags: feminism, abortion, womens history, medical history, reproductive rights



In 1959, when I was a precocious smarty-pants still in grade school, I wrote a fake letter to Doris Blake, the New York Daily News advice columnist. I pretended to be a teenage girl “in trouble.” I spun a tale of a liquor-soaked prom night and passing out in the back of a car. I included a cast of entirely fictional characters—a worthless boyfriend, a mentally unstable mother, a strict, brutal father. I ended my letter with: “Now I think I am pregnant. Please help me. I am desperate.”

I’m not sure what I expected, but my letter was not printed, and no advice was forthcoming. The silence was utter. Possibly Miss Blake, like Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, had a drawer where such letters were tossed. If so, the other letters in that drawer were no doubt a lot like mine—except that they were not written by wiseass children. They were real. And for the writers of those letters, the silence was real. And I remember thinking: Gee, what if I really were that girl I made up? What would I do?

One summer night some years later, when I was not quite 18, I got knocked up. There was nothing exciting or memorable or even interestingly sordid about the sex. I wasn’t raped or coerced, nor was I madly in love or drunk or high. The guy was another kid, actually younger than I, just a friend, and it pretty much happened by default. We were horny teenagers with nothing else to do.

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That year in the 1960s, several thousand American women were treated in emergency rooms for botched abortions, and there were at least 200 known deaths. Comparing my story with others from the pre-Roe era, what impresses me is how close I veered to mortal danger in spite of not living under most of the usual terrible strictures. Unlike so many of the women I’ve read about and talked to, especially the teenagers, I was quite unburdened by shame and guilt. I’d never, ever had the “nice girls don’t do it” trip laid on me. I came from a religion-free background. I wasn’t worried in the least about “sin,” was not at all ambivalent about whether abortion was right or wrong. I wasn’t sheltered or ignorant. I didn’t face parental disapproval or stigmatization of any kind. I had no angry husband. My mother would have leapt in and helped me at any point. There was no need at all to keep my condition secret and to procrastinate, but I did it anyway. What does this say about how it was for other young girls and women who didn’t have my incredible luck? I was luckier than most in another department, too—being raped by the abortionist was a major hazard of the era. I merely got diddled by a couple of disgusting old men. It was nasty and squalid, but it certainly didn’t kill me. As I said, I got off easy.

Ironically, it was the medical profession, which had made abortion illegal in the first place, that started to speak out. Doctors treating the desperately sick women who landed in hospitals with raging peritonitis, hemorrhages, perforated uteruses, and septic shock often had to futilely watch them die, because the women had waited too long to get help—because they were confused and terrified, because what they had done was “illegal” and “immoral.”

One doctor’s “awakening” is vividly described in The Worst of Times, a collection of interviews with women, cops, coroners, and practitioners from the illegal abortion era. In 1948, when this doctor was an intern in a Pittsburgh hospital, a woman was admitted with severe pelvic sepsis after a bad abortion. She was beautiful, married to someone important and wealthy, and already in renal failure. Over the next couple of days, despite heroic efforts to save her, a cascade of systemic catastrophes due to the overwhelming infection culminated with the small blood vessels bursting under her skin, bruises breaking out everywhere as if some invisible fist were punching her over and over, and she died. Being well-to-do didn’t always save you.

Her death was so horrible that it made him, he recalls, physically ill. He describes his anger, but says he didn’t quite know with whom to be angry. It took him another 20 years to understand that it was not the abortionist who killed her—it was the legal system, the lawmakers who had forced her away from the medical community, who “…killed her just as surely as if they had held the catheter or the coat hanger or whatever. I’m still angry. It was all so unnecessary.”

Read entire article at Mother Jones

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