As the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade approaches on Jan. 22—and with the Supreme Court set to revisit women’s fundamental right to access abortion in the Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole case, the most serious threat to abortion since 1992—the Ms. Blog decided to look back at the realities of illegal abortion pre-Roe, and for women today who lack access to proper care.
As part of our #WeWontGoBack campaign, Ms. Blog readers are sharing their own stories, or the stories of friends and family members who have resorted to illegal abortions because they had no choice. Use the hashtag to share your story on social media.
Note: This article includes images that may be disturbing to some viewers.
My grandpa, besides being a doctor and a musician, was one of the most meticulously organized people I have ever known. In our family, he was the not only a collector of stamps, sheet music and classical recordings. but also of memories. He had photo albums upon albums lining his study walls. A few years before he passed away, my aunt decided to go through the albums so she would know the story behind the pictures, the people, the places, the memories. She would ask him questions and then she’d log into his computer all of the information. That way, she figured, all of the meticulous chronicling of his life, as well as of our family, would be understood for generations to come.
A few Hanukkahs ago, my aunt brought out a box of things she thought the great-grandkids might be interested in. We had long cleaned out and sold my grandparents’ condo, but she had stored all of my grandpa’s albums and such in her garage. As we sifted through it all, the kids lit up with the treasures inside: a dance card GG Pa inscribed to GG Ma; his high school letter from his letterman’s jacket; a voter registration card from the 40s; and his dog tags from WWII. Then my aunt handed me an envelope thinking I might have interest in what was inside.
Intrigued, I pulled out two small photos. At first I thought it was an image of a human heart. I was confused. There were two views, a top and a bottom. I guess I didn’t pay enough attention in biology class because I was baffled. I thought I was looking at a heart, but instead I was looking at a uterus! Why would my grandpa have a picture of a uterus, and why had he kept it all these years? Yes, he was a doctor, but this didn’t seem like him.
When I looked again I saw that something sharp was piercing through the uterus, perhaps a hook. Along with the pictures was a description that grandpa had dictated to my aunt during her many afternoons of chronicling with him:
There is a story behind these two photographs. Until very recently, abortion was illegal. In the past, many abortions were self-induced. One of the techniques for self-induced abortion was using a crochet hook, inserting the back end and tying a string to the hook so that it could be pulled out after the abortion. As you can see by the photographs, something went wrong, and instead of the hook being pulled out of the uterus, it perforated through the wall and into the abdomen. Once we saw the position of the hook on the x-ray it was obvious that we would have to do a hysterectomy. This way the woman’s life was saved, but during those years when abortion was declared illegal, many women using this or similar methods to induce abortion died. It is very disturbing to me and to other physicians who have seen this kind of thing happen, to see the radical right, even now, attempting to overthrow the right of women to decide for themselves whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term.
Although the picture was taken in the ’50s and his comments were transcribed in 2005, it is incredible that here we are in 2015 worrying about Roe v. Wade and the state of Planned Parenthood.
My grandpa was not an extreme liberal nor at the forefront of the soon-to-emerge free love culture of the ’60s—quite the contrary. He did, however, believe in the right for women to decide about their own bodies. He also believed that no woman should need to suffer the fate of this woman or even worse.
I’ve been sitting with these pictures for the last three years just certain I would find where I could share them. With the state of a woman’s right to choose in flux, it felt only right to make it a priority to get my grandpa’s story and these images seen by others. May theses pictures always be a part of the past.
Photo of crochet hooks courtesy of Flickr user Nuwandalice licensed under Creative Commons 2.0
Anissa Siegel is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Sherman Oaks, California. She is a wife, the mother of three teenagers and cherishes a house full of friends, family and animals.