What it's Like to Have an Illegal Abortion
It was summer of 1966 when my mother became pregnant at age 16. Roe v. Wade, the federal legislation permitting legal abortion, which celebrates its 46th anniversary today, was less than a decade away, but too far off to help her. Like many women did at the time (and have since), she made a life-threatening choice: to have an illegal abortion.
Born to two doting parents during a Valentine's Day blizzard, my mother entered the world a lover. Her family lived in Queens before moving out to the suburbs, a small town on the North Shore of Long Island that was supposed to be a nice, safe place to raise two young girls. The neighborhood was pretty, lined with maple trees, two-story homes, and sidewalks wide enough to bike down. It was idyllic, if not perfect. My grandmother would’ve settled for nothing less.
Years passed and my mother became a teenager. She was a swimmer, often doing laps in the ocean against the tide. One evening, a boy interested in my mother picked her up for a date. Another couple she didn’t recognize was in the car, but she thought nothing of it. As they sped toward Oyster Bay, a nearby town, my mother noticed they were heading opposite the lit, downtown area. The boys said they were going to “the dollhouse.” After parking on the street, the four of them got out and walked deep into the woods. It was then that my mother began to feel a sense of unease. They came upon a small house, and went inside. There, in that dark, decrepit structure, the boy raped my mother. She fought. He was stronger. She cried. He took her home.
Time blurred. She buried the experience and continued on with life. Summer break eventually rolled around and my mother was preparing to get her driver’s license. The next memory, she tells me, is crystal clear, despite it taking place more than 50 years ago: “I was in driver’s ed and had to run out because I felt like I was going to throw up.” From there, the throwing up began to happen with more frequency, and she wondered if she could be pregnant. After taking a test, her worst fears materialized. She hadn’t slept with anyone. The pregnancy was from her rape.
She couldn’t believe it. She’d figured the mere stress of the experience would’ve prevented something like that. But, there she was: alone, traumatized and, more than anything, terrified.
Finally, my mother told a relative and they suggested considering an abortion. Her relative worked in the city and knew some professional women who may have been able to help. The plan was set up and my mother, desperate to get out of the pregnancy, went along with it, whatever it entailed. They drove from Long Island, through Manhattan, and into New Jersey to a cheap motel.
It was dark out when they arrived. After pulling into the dim parking lot, my mother and her relative walked to the ground-level room. My mom entered alone, her relative waited outside. Once in the room, my mother recalls seeing a man and an assistant, and being offered something to bite down on to help temper the pain of the upcoming procedure. This is all she recalls about what happened; “I laid down on the bed, and they did whatever they did to me,” she says.
Though she doesn’t remember, or wasn’t made aware of, the details, here is what likely happened while my mother was in that room: a person who hopefully had some medical training (sometimes even a veterinarian) would insert a catheter into the vagina and induce a miscarriage (as in this woman’s story in RollingStone). A 1964 article in California Medicine cited on Jezebel says people with little or no medical training were terminating pregnancies using, “intrauterine injections of soap or of peroxide; insertion of coat hangers, knitting needle or welding wire; insertion of air by catheter or by a plaster straw.” Desperate measures, in no uncertain terms.
My mother tells me she was scared out of her mind, that there are no words to describe it. In that moment, she had no choice. Like many trauma survivors, she tuned out during the experience in order to survive it. When the procedure was over, the two “doctors” walked with her back to the car. My mother doesn’t recall seeing money exchanged that night, but she believes the procedure, which included some unmarked pills, cost $500.
When she finally got home, it was late and she went to bed. The next morning, she woke up in her upstairs bedroom and looked over the pills the man from the motel room instructed her to take. He’d told her they were key to passing the pregnancy tissue. She didn’t know what was in them, but she did as she was told and swallowed them. Soon, heavy cramps set in. Alone in her room, she bled and worried, and waited for the nightmare to be over. She tells me she remembers being in the kitchen making tea with her father nearby. Her dad, my grandfather, was her best friend and one true confidant. She could sense him looking over at her, concerned as she was clearly suffering something. She said it was period pain, and carried the tea upstairs. I cannot imagine my mother’s heartbreak in that moment: surviving such trauma and holding it inside.
It took many years for my mother to reckon with what she experienced: the rape, the pregnancy, the possibly life-threatening abortion. When she had me, her firstborn, she tells me she felt like she was in heaven. She says having me, and later, my brother, were the best moments of her life. I used to think she was exaggerating, that all parents say that. But after hearing her tell me, with cracks in her voice, how scared she was to walk into that motel room 53 years earlier, I know she means it.
However traumatic her experience was, my mother was fortunate. Her safety was not guaranteed and yet she lived. From the 1950s through the 1960s, the estimated number of illegal abortions in the U.S. ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Many of those were self-administered, meaning pregnant women would risk harming themselves in order to terminate pregnancies in secrecy, alone. This often meant ingesting or douching with chemicals, such as turpentine or bleach. In 1965, a year before my mother’s procedure, 17 percent of all deaths related to pregnancy were attributed to illegal abortions. For women of color, it was worse. From 1972 to 1974, the mortality rate for non-white women getting abortions was 12 times that of white women.
Since the passing of Roe v. Wade, death and injury from abortion have fallen. Today’s abortions take place in safe, medical environments, and the abortion pill has made women’s health decisions much safer (as long as it remains an accessible option). Despite this progress, anti-choice lawmakers have succeeded in making abortions more difficult to obtain, either by restricting the timeframe in which it is legal to terminate a pregnancy, or by regulating abortion providers so much they’re forced to close. As access to safe abortions decreases, unsafe abortions become more common. Interest in self-induced abortions has been on the rise once again in states where abortion is becoming inaccessible, and women are dying because of it.
My mother survived many women’s worst nightmares. She illegally terminated a pregnancy forced upon her and came out the other side healthy and in control of her future. She was able to grow up, live her life on her terms and eventually have a family she loves — and wanted — all because she made a terrifyingly important decision at a young age. Being forbidden to make that choice did not make things better for my mom, nor will it for any young woman who comes after her — but being able to choose it more safely can.