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An Era of Tragedy for Women

When Abortion was Illegal

by MICHELLE BOLLINGER

Abortion was criminalized throughout the U.S. between the late 1800s and 1973. But during that time, millions of women sought and obtained abortions anyway.

Of these, tens upon tens of thousands died from illegal abortions or complications arising from them. One 1932 study estimated that illegal abortions or complications from them were the cause of death for 15,000 women each year. Current, more conservative, estimates of the death toll still stand at between 5,000 and 10,000 deaths per year.

Some of these deaths were the result of the abortions themselves, but many more were from infection and hemorrhaging afterward. Because of the fear of being punished and socially ostracized, many women–and their doctors–kept their real condition a secret.

The right wing has gone on an organized campaign to discredit such statistics, going as far to claim that deaths from illegal abortion were "just" a few dozen a year–and that the anecdotes of items such as coat hangers being inserted into women’s bodies to cause an abortion are false. In reality, coat hangers were just one horror among many during the years of illegal abortion.

* * *

While abortion was illegal for decades, not all eras of illegality were the same.

In the 1930s, for example, abortion was widespread and extremely common. There was still tremendous risk involved, given that penicillin and antibiotics were not available until the Second World War. But even at this time, abortion was increasingly safe, relatively speaking.

The Great Depression produced an economic crisis that sharpened the need of women to control childbearing. Due to the 1920s campaign to make birth control available, by 1937, 80 percent of American women approved of using birth control. Moreover, the labor movement and socialist movements of that era produced an environment that largely supported women’s reproductive rights. The fact that Russia following the 1917 revolution had been performing safe, legal abortions influenced radical doctors in the U.S.

In 1939, 68 percent of medical students in the U.S. reported that they would be willing to perform abortions if they were legal.

Many did. As Leslie Reagan describes in her excellent book When Abortion Was a Crime, clinics operated in open defiance of the law, and were often run by trained doctors, nurses and midwives. One such clinic in Chicago performed about 2,000 abortions a year between 1932 and 1941.

For these and other reasons–such as the availability of sulfa drugs–maternal mortality declined in the 1930s. Illegal abortion accounted for 14 percent of maternal mortality.

But by the early 1960s, the situation had reversed dramatically. In New York, for example, deaths resulting from illegal abortions accounted for 42 percent of the maternal mortality rate. There were fewer abortionists in 1955 than there were in 1940. Across the U.S., larger and larger numbers of women died from illegal abortion after the Second World War than before.

In the post-Second World War era in the U.S., there was a backlash against women’s rights, and women working outside the home and living independent lives. Central to this was a crackdown on illegal abortion that drove it underground and ushered in an era of tragedy and horror for women.

Clinics and midwives’ homes and offices were raided and their patients’ lives exposed publicly in show trials that mirrored the worst of the anti-communist witch-hunts of the McCarthyist era. Women were accosted by police detectives outside clinics and forced to testify against those who performed abortions. Anyone who didn’t cooperate was likely to wake up the next morning with details of their personal lives splashed all over the pages of the newspaper.

As a result, most illegal abortions were increasingly self-induced by women, or performed by a back-alley butcher.

Both were nightmares in their own right. Women often tried to induce abortion or cause a miscarriage by throwing themselves down stairs or inflicting violence on themselves. They ingested, douched with or inserted into themselves a chilling variety of chemicals and toxins–from bleach to potassium permanganate to turpentine to gunpowder and whiskey. Knitting needles, crochet hooks, scissors and coat hangers were all among the tools used by women who had no choice but to resort to these means.

Thousands of women died from poisoning and injury. Thousands of others lived, but with the pain of permanent injuries and disfigurement.

Women who sought abortions from back-alley butchers encountered similar horrors. Because of the crackdown, the clandestine nature of illegal abortion meant that women who sought them were often blindfolded, driven to remote areas and passed off to people they didn’t know or couldn’t see. Leslie Reagan’s book contains stories of women forced to get abortions from drunk abortionists, using unsanitary tools in filthy rooms and even the backseats of cars.

The humiliation and isolation imposed on women because of the illegal nature of abortion meant that many women, after receiving one, feared going to a doctor when they suffered complications.

In Reagan’s book, one woman recalled how a fellow college student who had an illegal abortion "was too frightened to tell anyone what she had done. She locked herself in the bathroom between two dorm rooms and quietly bled to death."

Some women didn’t suffer this fate–because of their class. Nearly all middle- and upper-class white women who sought abortions were able to obtain one in hospitals or outside the U.S.

But the vast majority of women faced deplorable conditions, and women of color suffered the worst. Nearly four times as many women of color died from illegal abortions as white women. Before 1970, when abortion was legalized in New York City, Black women accounted for 50 percent of deaths due to illegal abortions. Puerto Rican women accounted for 44 percent.

The history of back-alley abortion is full of countless horror stories.

In 1964, 28-year-old Geraldine Santoro bled to death on the floor of a Connecticut hotel room after she and her former lover, Clyde Dixon, attempted an abortion on their own. Dixon, who had no medical experience of any kind, used a textbook and some borrowed tools. When things went terribly wrong, he fled the scene, and Santoro died alone.

Meanwhile, after Roe legalized abortion, every restriction passed has meant that more women die.

In 1977, Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, banning federal Medicaid funding for abortions for poor women. Shortly after the law went into effect, Rosie Jimenez, a 27-year-old student and single mother, couldn’t afford a private abortion. She obtained an illegal one and died from infection. A decade later, 17-year-old Becky Bell got a back-alley abortion because of restrictions under Indiana’s parental notification law. She suffered a horrific infection and died as a result.

And these are just a few of the better-known stories of the victims of the war on women’s reproductive rights.

* * *

THE MASS social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s–in particular the movement for women’s liberation–created the context for the Supreme Court to uphold abortion as a constitutional right for women in 1973.

After Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, women’s health improved significantly. Entire wards of hospitals dedicated to aiding women suffering from complications from botched abortions could be devoted to other uses. In New York City, after abortion was legalized in 1970, maternal mortality dropped by 45 percent. Women were finally freed from the terror of the back alley.

The legalization of abortion was a shining moment in the struggle for women’s liberation. For one, the shame and nightmares that often accompanied illegal abortion had been overcome. But also, by winning abortion rights, the women’s movement placed the demand that women alone must control their own bodies at the center of the broader fight for liberation.

Under capitalism, women cannot be equal to men without having control over reproduction. Ultimately, women bear the physical, emotional and financial burden of bearing and raising a child. And women–working-class women in particular–bear a "double burden" of both wage labor at work and domestic labor at home. This dynamic drives the sexism that permeates our society.

Any fundamental challenge to the inequality faced by women must have the struggle for women’s reproductive rights at its core.

MICHELLE BOLLINGER writes for the Socialist Worker.