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Reviews |  Personal stories of the “Dark Ages” before Roe

This is the first in a two-part series of readers’ personal stories.

For the editor:

As an 18-year-old college student in 1962 who had just ended a relationship with my first sexual partner, I was devastated to learn that I was pregnant. It took me so long to find a doctor who would perform an abortion that when I was examined by one of them, he told me that he could not help me because I had entered in the second trimester.

Words fail to describe my utter desperation, and this kind man was moved enough to call his wife and then take me to his home in Washington, DC at the end of his work day. After confirming that I would not tell my strict parents about my pregnancy and that I had absolutely no intention of giving birth, he arranged for me to travel by train to a woman who was going to perform the abortion . He gave me a bottle of antibiotics and wished me luck.

What I didn’t know was that she would be drunk, use her kitchen table for the insertion of a catheter to induce labor, and lock me in a room alone for 36 hours. I’m almost 80 now and still consider that abortion weekend the scariest time of my life. This is what motivated me to be a pro-choice activist for the rest of my life.

When the Supreme Court made de Roe v. Wade the law of the land, I breathed a huge sigh of relief that backstreet abortions would never be needed again. My heart breaks for all future women with unwanted pregnancies.

Suzanne Wallis
Manzanita, Oregon.

For the editor:

I was an unwanted fetus. I was a fetus that brought disgrace and forced geographic relocation, torturous upheaval, and premature adulthood that no one was ready for. It’s tricky because nobody wants to admit they wish they weren’t born, but I have to say what nobody wants to admit: it’s hard to enter a world where you’re unwanted, where parents are kids who made a mistake and now they have to pretend they’re in love and everything was “meant to be”.

It begins a lifetime of pretending. Pretending to want a baby. Pretending to want to get married. Pretend you’re ready to quit school and give up all your dreams to your parents. Pretend your dress isn’t tight by wearing a sheath. Pretend to be happy. How terrifying it must have been to have no way out.

You think I haven’t absorbed this shame? I did it. I absorbed my parents’ shame deep into my inner core. I still wear it. Their shameful secret has become me.

Please let me be anonymous. I’m almost 69 and my parents had no choice. Revoke Roe v. Wade at this point would be an inadmissible setback. Let’s not flood this country with more unwanted children without the medical, financial and educational systems in place to support them.

Masked name

For the editor:

In 1971, just before the Roe v. Wade, I was a freshman at Princeton Theological Seminary, working on my Masters of Divinity. A former Catholic, I was assigned a part-time academic position at the State Home for Girls in Trenton. Many teenage residents were there because a parent or guardian declared them troubled or incorrigible.

It was a terrible place, full of young girls unable to defend themselves. I was asked to pastor these girls, many of whom had been sexually abused by their mothers’ boyfriends.

Two of my first cases involved girls who had been pregnant in their early teens. A girl, whose mental capacity was far below her age of 12, became pregnant after a neighborhood boy offered her a lollipop in exchange for sex. Another 15-year-old girl had been placed in solitary confinement after trying to abort a pregnancy caused by her mother’s boyfriend.

As they unlocked the doors for me to enter their quarters, I decided never to believe in the absolutism of the Catholic position on the right to life. Whose rights? Living ?

Randi Schmidt
Phillipsburg, New Jersey

For the editor:

I’m 83 years old and was in college in the late 1950s. I saw women, both friends and acquaintances, simply disappear from classes and dormitories. Some left to get married before their pregnancies “showed up”; some went to Canada for an abortion; some have gone into hiding until delivery and adoption.

My own surprise pregnancy came with a man I had seen and then married (and divorced). But I knew a respected obstetrician who performed an abortion (illegally); I had the means and the family support to have an abortion in Canada; and I also knew that my family would support me financially and emotionally if I chose to have the baby.

I chose to have the baby, now a wonderful girl. The key word is choice. I had choices because of my family and their stable economic situation. There are millions of women of childbearing age who have no such choices.

It is appalling and wrong for the government to eliminate these choices and force women to carry babies for which they are not prepared. It is indeed barbaric.

Kay Oppenheimer
Aiken, South Carolina

For the editor:

I saw a 13 year old girl have a hysterectomy! It was 1960 and I was an OB-GYN resident. Following a clandestine abortion, this poor child developed an antibiotic-resistant pelvic abscess which, to save her life, required the removal of her uterus, rendering her unable to bear children.

Before 1973, I saw the incredible damage that women from all socioeconomic strata inflicted on themselves to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies. Can you imagine the damage that acid injected into the vagina can cause? Unsterilized wire hangers self-inserted or manipulated by untrained abortionists caused virulent infections and death. Roe v. Wade basically ended this horror in the United States.

The majority of Americans want access to safe abortions. But persistent pressure from the well-funded Catholic Church as well as some ultra-conservative groups is, with the help of a Trump-laden Supreme Court, likely poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and send women back to the dark ages.

Women have always found and will always find ways to terminate unwanted pregnancies. A civilized society should make this as safe as possible.

What can we do? The answer is at the ballot box. All candidates for public office should be required to declare their position on a woman’s right to choose. Candidates who support this right should receive our votes.

benjamin kendall
Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.
The author is a retired obstetrician.

For the editor:

I got pregnant when I was 17, in 1968, the summer after I graduated from high school. I had what was called a “therapeutic abortion”. It was the only legal and safe way for a woman to get an abortion at that time, and I was only able to get it because my mother stepped in and arranged it for me.

To have the procedure done, I had to see three different psychiatrists and tell them specifically that I would kill myself if I were to have this baby. The abortion was performed at a large private hospital in Chicago.

If I had been forced to have this baby that I didn’t want and was in no way prepared to have, I wouldn’t have gone to college or college. I wouldn’t have had my career. I wouldn’t be married. My life would have been ruined and I wouldn’t be the woman I am today.

Pro-choice is anti-abortion, but not in the way the radical right envisions it.

Bronwen W. Davis

For the editor:

For over 40 years, my grandmother hid the secret of her abortion from everyone in our family. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, a few years before her death, that she shared what, in her mind, was the most shameful moment of her life.

Never mind that her pregnancy was the result of sexual assault by her alcoholic and violent ex-husband. Yet my grandmother was convinced that her abortion, performed hastily by a local woman with little medical training, was a stain on her soul.

I was of course saddened to learn from my mother of my grandmother’s ordeal, including the guilt and fear she had borne in silence for so many years. But I found some comfort in knowing that times had changed and that few women in her situation would ever face the difficult choices that my grandmother faced.

Now, thanks to the Supreme Court, a new generation of powerless women may well follow in her footsteps.

Richard J. Conway
Massapequa, NY

NEXT: More Abortion Stories.

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