The Way We Were
This first-person account by Bridget Potter, who found herself pregnant at 19 in the pre-Pill days of 1962, speaks for itself.
Here are some excerpts. But please read the whole chilling thing.
Sociologist Rickie Solinger in her book Wake Up Little Susie, describes what it was like to have an unwanted pregnancy in 1962. The woman might be “futilely appealing to a hospital abortion committee; being diagnosed as neurotic, even psychotic by a mental health professional; expelled from school (by law until 1972); unemployed; in a Salvation Army or some other maternity home; poor, alone, ashamed, threatened by the law.” There was also an acute social stigma attached to an unwed mother with an illegitimate child; maternity homes were frequently frightening and far away. All counseled adoption. The only alternatives were a shotgun wedding or an illegal abortion.
According to a 1958 Kinsey study, illegal abortion was the option chosen by 80 percent of single women with unwanted pregnancies. Statistics on illegal abortion are notoriously unreliable, but the Guttmacher Institute, a respected international organization dedicated to sexual and reproductive health, estimates that during the pre-Roe vs. Wade years there were up to one million illegal abortions performed in the United States each year. Illegal and often unsafe. In 1965, they count almost two hundred known deaths from illegal abortions, but the actual number was, they estimate, much higher, since the majority went unreported.
Emily Perl knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who had been taken care of by a woman in an apartment on West 86th Street. When Michael and I arrived, she put the chain on the inside of the door and peeped through the crack. She let me in but demanded that Michael wait in the lobby. The room was dark, overheated, and smelled of boiled cabbage. I glimpsed a big Victorian wood-framed, red velvet couch and a round, oak pedestal table through the dinge. In her fifties, the woman had an Eastern European accent, suspiciously black hair, and smeary scarlet lipstick. She was curt.
She would “pack” my uterus and send me home where I must rest. For a day or two. When I started to bleed I must return and she would take care of it. What would she put inside me, I asked clumsily. “Stoff,” she replied. Where would she “take care” of it, I asked. She pointed to a door. “In ze udder room.” I must “svear” not go to a doctor or a hospital. I understood the chilling threat. “It’s nowting,” she said. “If you wanna now is fine. Five hunnerd dollars. Cash.”
My rent was sixty dollars a month. I earned sixty dollars a week, forty-seven dollars after taxes. I could barely make it Friday to Friday. I thanked her and fled. There had to be a cheaper, safer way.
Written in pencil was a name and an address. My dress was wet, my tarmacked shoes stuck to the ground as I walked. I had proud long hair then that I ironed straight. It frizzed in the humidity. I handed a cab driver the paper. He spoke no English but I could tell that he thought I was mistaken, that I didn’t want to go there. That it was far. Yes, yes. I nodded emphatically at the paper, taking it back from him and pointing with my finger at the address. Finally I understood his words: twenty dollars. I handed him money and off we went, out of San Juan, on dirt roads for what seemed like hours, to a small village built around a grassy square. The square was still, empty save for a few mangy looking dogs, a couple of chickens, and two old men sitting on a bench playing a board game. He dropped me in front of an open building, which appeared to be someone’s house.
A small man glanced at me from inside, and pointed to the whitewashed stairs that rose along the wall. At the top stood a second man, dressed in white pants and an undershirt. His massive shoulders and arms were those of a wrestler. He must be a bodyguard, I thought. But he immediately started talking about the money in fluent, barely accented English. He could take care of me but traveler’s checks were no good to him. I didn’t have enough money for the cab fair to the hotel and back again on top of the two hundred and fifty dollars that he was demanding. Are you alone, he asked? Yes, I said. We agreed on two hundred dollars. He would wait. I returned in the twilight with the cash.
A wooden table, no anesthesia, a scraping sound, and a newspaper-lined metal bucket. I moaned. Be quiet, he demanded. Or did I want him to stop? No, no. Go on. Please. Go on.
In the New York Times in June 2008, Waldo Fielding, a retired gynecologist, described his experience with incomplete abortion complications.
“The familiar symbol of illegal abortion is the infamous ‘coat hanger’—which may be the symbol, but is in no way a myth. In my years in New York, several women arrived with a hanger still in place. Whoever put it in—perhaps the patient herself—found it trapped in the cervix and could not remove it… Almost any implement you can imagine had been and was used to start an abortion—darning needles, crochet hooks, cut-glass salt shakers, soda bottles, sometimes intact, sometimes with the top broken off.”
Three years after my trip to San Juan, illegal abortion officially accounted for 17 percent of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth in the U.S. It is speculated that the actual number was likely much higher.
Today, about sixty-seven thousand women worldwide still die each year from abortions, mostly in countries where the procedure is illegal.
Did I happen to mention that PM Stephen Harper doesn't think that contraception, never mind abortion, has anything to do with maternal health?