Have you heard the one about the back alley abortion?
Yeah, it isn’t a joke. And it sure as hell isn’t funny. It’s an actual question: Have you heard it? Roe v. Wade made abortion legal throughout the USA in 1973 – so as of the last census in 2010, slightly over 60% of the population never knew a time when abortion was illegal. And as the population ages, many of those people may never even have known anyone who lived through those dark, bloody times.
Federal judges on all levels are increasingly willing to deny women their reproductive rights. Appeals court judge and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh would have denied access to abortion for an undocumented teenager, writing that undocumented youth in custody are not entitled to “abortion on demand” – favorite words of the anti-choice movement. His view didn’t prevail in the appeals court – but will it prevail, sooner or later, in the Supreme Court?
All of this means it’s time to tell the stories. Again.
Let’s start with this chart:
|The number of deaths from abortion has declined dramatically since Roe v. Wade.|
Source: The Alan Guttmacher Institute, Trends in Abortion in the United States, 1973-2000, January 2003.
Remember, there is no way to give an accurate number of deaths from illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade, because abortion was a crime and a scandal and abortion deaths were usually covered up. The National Abortion Federation estimates up to 1.2 million illegal abortions per year, with thousands of women who died or were grievously injured from back alley or self-induced abortions. And hospital emergency rooms stopped seeing these patients after abortion became legal.
But as with anything, statistics don’t tell the story. Human stories tell the story. As one article said about gathering the stories of Holocaust survivors, “The act of absorbing history often requires peering backward and forward at once,” and stories of illegal abortion matter for the same reason: so that we understand, and so that we never go back.
We ask you to share these stories. Tell people who don’t know what it was like. Tell your elected representatives that you’re not willing to give up any of your reproductive rights, and you’re not willing to accept judges who would be willing to compromise them:
- Sen. Dianne Feinstein: email; (415) 393-0707 • DC: (202) 224-3841
- Sen. Kamala Harris: email; (415) 355-9041 • DC: (202) 224-3553
And if you have a story, or if you know someone who has a story, we invite you to share it here. All submissions will come to us anonymously and we will publish everything anonymously. It’s crucial to show how many of these stories there are – so that we keep there from being more of them.
- It was an honest to God back alley abortion, in an honest to God back alley, on a dirty kitchen table covered with a not very clean sheet. He had alcohol on his breath and his hand wasn’t very steady. He told her to spread her legs and told her not to spread them next time, which he found very funny. She had an infection and was horribly sick but she survived and later had a family. Some of her friends weren’t so lucky.
- He was successful and well-known and nearly fifty when his elderly Irish Catholic mother told him: when he was a toddler, she and her husband just couldn’t afford another kid, and she had an abortion. She had never told anyone before, but the Supreme Court kept issuing anti-abortion rulings and people were telling their stories – and she asked him to tell hers.
- It was the 1950s. She and her friends were young working women in New York. They had the name of a doctor in Pennsylvania who was very expensive but was supposed to be clean and reputable. When anyone in their crowd needed an abortion, they all pooled their money and went without lunch for a while. And the women who went to him came back. She said she had no idea what they would have done if they hadn’t had jobs and a support network.
- It was the 1940s. She and her husband were Italian Catholic and dirt poor, and they had several very young children and couldn’t afford another. The illegal abortion killed her. In those days, when a mother died, the father rarely raised the children; at least one of the little girls was brought up by relatives who treated her badly, and when she had children, she had never really had a mother of her own.
- The Academy Award-nominated documentary When Abortion Was Illegal features powerful stories of women who had abortions, their families, and the health care providers who witnessed the devastating effects of illegal abortion. Available here in English and Spanish, for purchase or on Vimeo.
- Actress Sally Field discusses her illegal abortion in Tijuana in her recent memoir, In Pieces, and talks about it in her September 11, 2018 NPR interview.