The Way It Was: A MUST read on the impact of Roe v. Wade
This article from the Mother Jones archives (September/October 2004) is painful to read in many ways, but for someone like myself who (mostly) grew up in the post-Roe v. Wade world, I think it’s a must.
It’s a long piece and the author doesn’t pull any punches, so steel yourself for some unpleasant truths. If you’re a woman, or someone who has ever loved a woman or girl, you owe it to yourself to read it all the way through.
WARNING: Towards the end of the first page there’s a very graphic police photo from 1964 of a young mother of two who didn’t survive a motel room abortion. Keep in mind that this is the era the GOP would like to send women back to.
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.
Like some ugly old wall-to-wall carpeting they’ve been yearning to get rid of, they finally, finally loosened a little corner of Roe. Now they can start to rip the whole thing up, roll it back completely, and toss it in the Dumpster.
On November 5, 2003, three decades after Roe v. Wade established a woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, President George W. Bush signed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban bill into law. We’ve all seen the photograph: The president sits at a table with a modest little smile on his lips. Nine guys—senators and congressme—stand behind him, watching that signature go onto the paper, giddy grins on their faces. They look almost goofy with joy.
Two of these happy fellows are actually Democrats: Jim Oberstar and Bart Stupak. The rest are Republicans to their marrow: the bill’s sponsor, Rick Santorum, as well as Steve Chabot, Orrin Hatch, Henry Hyde, Tom DeLay, Mike DeWine, and Dennis Hastert.
Be assured that it’s not just “partial-birth” abortion they’re so happy about passing a law against. It’s all the law heralds. Like some ugly old wall-to-wall carpeting they’ve been yearning to get rid of, they finally, finally loosened a little corner of Roe. Now they can start to rip the whole thing up, roll it back completely, and toss it in the Dumpster.
A doctor friend there said he couldn’t help her himself, but sent her to a local prostitute who did abortions. The prostitute had her own speculum. The procedure was done on the prostitute’s bed: The catheter was inserted through the cervix and left there.
Since lurid descriptions of partial-birth abortion have been so effective in rallying support for the bill, perhaps some balance is needed. I’ve read and heard hundreds of accounts of pre-Roe abortion, and there was a wide range of danger, squalor, sanitary conditions, provider skill, follow-up care. The well-heeled and well-connected often flew to Puerto Rico or Sweden and checked into clinics. Of the ones who couldn’t do that, some were lucky enough to find competent, compassionate doctors. Some were treated kindly and recovered without incident. The other extreme was pain, terror, and death worthy of the Inquisition. A typical picture emerges, though, and it matches up just about perfectly with a story told to me by a woman I know.
After a date rape (by a “poet”) during a trip to Paris in 1967 when she was 23, she found herself pregnant. She tried the usual “remedies”—scalding hot baths, violent jumping, having someone walk on her belly. When she got home to Minnesota, she was two months along. A doctor friend there said he couldn’t help her himself, but sent her to a local prostitute who did abortions.
The prostitute had her own speculum. The procedure was done on the prostitute’s bed: The catheter was inserted through the cervix and left there. After four days of high fever, chills, bleeding, and passing big chunks of tissue, she landed in the hospital. They said her uterus was perforated, that she had acute peritonitis and an “incomplete” abortion. She was given a huge dose of penicillin and treated as if she were some sort of contemptible lower life form. The emergency-room doctor snarled, “What have you done to yourself?” Later, she realized that the first doctor—her friend—had known all along that she’d probably get desperately ill. Only then could a hospital legally give her a D&C.
She recovered—sterile, violently allergic to penicillin, and so “paralyzed and ashamed” by the experience that she stayed away from men for four years. Who says deterrence doesn’t work?