Throughout history, women have had unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. And throughout history, women have found ways to terminate those pregnancies.
But what has not always been guaranteed is whether they can do so legally, with the medical care necessary to protect their health–or if they must seek illegal, “back-alley” abortions.
In the years just before abortion became legal in 1973, hospital wards were filled with women seeking abortions–who either had been injured or become sick obtaining an illegal abortion under dangerous conditions, or who had tried to induce the abortion themselves.
Desperate women used a number of dangerous means to terminate pregnancies. Some sought abortions from back-alley abortionists, with usually humiliating and sometimes deadly results.
Other women tried to induce abortions with homemade means–such as a bleach douche, or inserting sharp instruments into her cervix. This is why the now almost forgotten image of the wire coat hanger became the symbol of the abortion rights movement.
“In Chicago, at Cook Country Hospital, there were about 5,000 women a year coming in with injuries bleeding resulting to illegal abortions, mostly self-induced abortions,” Leslie Reagan, the author of When Abortion Was a Crime, said in an interview. “They had an entire ward dedicated to taking care of people in that situation. Those wards pretty much closed up around the country once abortion was legalized.”
Some women were able to obtain legal abortions by traveling out of the country–or, later, to the handful of states where anti-abortion laws had been repealed. This, of course, required money. “There was such a huge range of what was possible for anyone who felt the need for an abortion–from superb medical care in a hospital to doing it themselves at home with drugs or some kind of instruments, and people injured and dying,” says Reagan.
Mardge Cohen was a member of the feminist Chicago Women’s Liberation Union in the 1970s and is now a physician at Cook County Hospital. “I was a medical student in Chicago in 1972,” Cohen says. “I was aware of whole wards at Cook County Hospital used for women who had serious hemorrhaging and infections because of back-alley abortions.
“A lot of people don’t even realize that there were entire wards where women who had either been butchered by people who were taking their money or had self-inflicted wounds to deal with unwanted pregnancies. That was something that many health care workers were aware of at the time. It was part of what helped people get galvanized to say there has to be a different way.”
In Chicago, some activists set up an underground network–called Jane–to provide abortions to women. They began by connecting pregnant women to someone who knew how to provide abortions. Later, they conducted the procedure themselves.
* * *
THE BUDDING women’s right movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s made repealing anti-abortion laws a central demand.
“The right to abortion, both concretely and ideologically, symbolized a control of one’s body,” explains Cohen. “If one couldn’t make decisions oneself about whether you wanted to be pregnant–what to do if you got pregnant when you didn’t want to be pregnant–you couldn’t control your life. You couldn’t control what was going to happen to you–where you could get resources to take care of yourself and your children, you couldn’t finish school, you couldn’t get the jobs you wanted.”
Between 1969 and 1973, tens of thousands of women and men held protests across the U.S. for women’s rights. The right to abortion stood alongside equal pay, child care and an end to discrimination among the movement’s central demands.
Within just a few years, the political climate in the U.S. over women’s issues was transformed.
“I graduated from high school in 1967, so coming of age in that particular time, we didn’t have access to contraception, we didn’t have education about birth control, and abortion wasn’t an option,” says Phyllis Prentice, who became a nurse a few years before the Roe decision. Prentice is a lifelong women’s liberation, prisoners rights and anti-death penalty activist.
“Roe v. Wade came out of the momentum of the women’s movement in terms of demanding birth control. The pill became accessible, women were taking charge and saying we have options here.
As Reagan explains, “There’s a long history of women accepting abortion and understanding it with each other, but there is not in the U.S. a long history of people talking about it and saying this is acceptable–it’s alright for women to do this for whatever reason they need to, for their children, for their families, for themselves.
“They’re the ones who have the capacity and have always had the responsibility to think about the consequences of pregnancy and childbirth, and make decisions. That’s actually a moral responsibility and duty women have always had, and taken quite seriously. That kind of history comes out a lot more into the public in the ’60s and with the legalization of abortion.”
For many activists, the question of reproductive rights was not only about the right to decide to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, but to have a child if you wanted to. This was vital for poor women–usually African American and immigrant women–who were regularly sterilized without their consent, and sometimes without their knowledge.
In an eight-year period at the Chicago Lying-In clinic, 67 percent of the women who had therapeutic abortions were sterilized at the same time, according to Reagan’s When Abortion Was a Crime.
Gynecologists around the country would only perform abortions as part of a “package deal”–an abortion and sterilization. But this didn’t apply to all patients–not those better off, and mainly white.
An Illinois legislator went so far as to propose legislation threatening that welfare recipients be forced “off public aid or undergo sterilization operations if they have more than two children.”
“I think it’s extremely important to think of these things together,” says Reagan. “Women need to be able to have children when they want to, and they need to be able to avoid having children when they don’t, for whatever reason. Even the word ‘want’–it’s not solely desire. It’s also about their assessment of their situation.
“In LA, if a woman was Spanish speaking, and she’d had a couple of kids, during the process of delivery, some doctors would do the sterilization without her knowledge. There were a lot of these cases. The other side of what we’re facing now is the attack on mothers and the attack on welfare, and they’re really two sides of the same coin–targeting primarily different classes and races of women, and stigmatizing Black and brown mothers, and single mothers and their children, and having them live in poverty.”
* * *
ONCE ABORTION was legal, the fight for access remained. Finding a reputable abortion provider still remained a big question for most women–not to mention being able to afford the procedure.
“Everyone was surprised after Roe v. Wade was passed, and then the main activism came around access afterwards,” says Coral Norris, who was in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union in the 1970s.
“When it was first passed, there were only abortions in the cities, and it was expensive. They were $200 or $300–that would be about $600 today–and it was hard to get to these clinics. Immediately after abortion was legalized, the right wing began their attack, and the first thing they did was to work to cut off Medicaid funding.”
The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976, cut off all federal funding to abortion services to poor women. Since legalization, the religious right has attacked abortion one restriction at a time–from targeting particular procedures, like late-term abortions that they call “partial birth,” to targeting groups of women, like teenage girls.
“You have to pay attention not just to whether something stands or doesn’t in the law, but all the laws that surround it, and all the things that make it so that it’s possible to have reproductive rights or not,” says Reagan. “So you could have Roe v. Wade, but you could have so many things hampering access that it’s essentially the same as it was before. And abortion being illegal never meant that nobody had an abortion. There were always exceptions.”
Part of the right wing’s offensive on abortion has been ideological–to shift the terms of the debate to where abortion is once again considered shameful.
“That’s the purpose of a lot of anti-abortion tactics–to make it shameful, so that even when it’s legal, many women who are obtaining abortions are getting them in conditions where they feel extremely isolated and ashamed, and don’t even know there is a long history of women like them, of every religion, every social background, getting abortions,” Reagan said.
Meanwhile, the party that has traditionally said it stood for abortion rights–the Democrats–wants nothing to do with a real fight to defend a women’s right to choose.
The job of turning back the political climate–in favor of women’s right to choose what they do with their bodies, without apology–falls on our shoulders. The stories of life before legalized abortion–and the struggle that made it the law of the land–have to be told.
That’s how we can begin to turn the table on the anti-abortion lies, and build the movement we need to defend abortion rights.
Victims of anti-abortion laws
MARLENE MARTIN is a nurse in Chicago. She describes her introduction to what conditions were like when abortion was a crime.
MY FIRST job after graduating nursing school in 1984 was working as an RN on a GYN floor at Boston City Hospital.
My head nurse had worked on the unit for more than 30 years. One day, she walked me down the hall and explained that before abortion was legal, beds on the unit would be filled with women who were admitted with infections related to trying to abort their pregnancies. Some douched with Drano, some inserted knitting needles into themselves and wound up hemorrhaging.
One of the main procedures we did on my floor at that time was second-trimester abortions. These were abortions performed after 16 weeks–on women who in most cases were too poor to afford to have an abortion earlier.
Doctors would insert a prosteglandin suppository into the woman’s uterus, where it would dissolve and make her uterus start contracting. They would also insert laminaria into her cervix to make it dilate.
This procedure would start in the afternoon. Not long after, the pain began. We gave Demerol for the severe cramping, diarrhea and vomiting that ensued from the prostaglandin (not only did it make the uterine contract, but it made other organs contract, too).
After many hours of agony, usually in the middle of the night, the woman would pass the products of birth while sitting on a bedpan, hollering in pain and sometimes losing a great deal of blood. The next day, they would be taken for a D&C to clear out the uterus of any leftover products of conception, and sent home.
These abortions didn’t have to happen this way. In fact, there was one room at the end of the hall for “special” patients. Their names weren’t on the census. Their pregnancies were past 16 weeks, but they were quietly whisked off for a D&C and sent home later that day.
No prostaglandins, no laminar, no unnecessary discomfort. These were patients who had money, who had connections with administration.
So even though abortion was legal, women didn’t have equal access. The poor–and mostly minority–women on my floor could have had a simple D&C, too.
But it was thought that women having to go through this excruciating ordeal would never get pregnant “by mistake” again. It was the unspoken justification for treating these women like that–something they would never have had to go through if they were better off.
ELIZABETH SCHULTE writes for the Socialist Worker.