As the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade approaches on Jan. 22—and with the 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.
By Jean Panella
In late November 1970, I realized that my period had not yet arrived. It had been nearly two months and I’d hoped it was simply late. I was 16 and dating a man 5 years older. My dad died four years earlier and this guy had charmed my mom and family, so I was allowed to date him.
Starting to realize with intense panic and dread that I was indeed pregnant, the conversation between my boyfriend and I began—and we were wholeheartedly aligned on getting an abortion. Our families were churchgoers and his father a prominent member of a cathedral in Chicago, which only added to the intensity.
He was attending college and talked with a woman professor who gave him a phone number to contact, and the search for an abortion provider began. It did not take long, which surprised me. As I was so young and living 60 miles south of Chicago, he did all of the research. The folks he contacted strongly suggested that I fly to New York, where abortion had just become legal. There was no way I could leave my home, my widowed mother or our families who were closely watching us. The “people” he was talking to understood and arrangements were made for this to happen locally.
It was now December and the holidays were underway. The date was set for me to have the procedure and the timing couldn’t have been worse, as it was a traditional holiday for his family. Dressed to attend the event at his parent’s home later, we drove to the first address we’d been instructed to visit, knowing we’d later be taken to another address where I would have the abortion.
We pulled up in front of an apartment building. I felt nervous, of course, but not really scared. I was more afraid of having to go through with the pregnancy than anything else. I did not feel shame except for the fact that I did not know and understand my body. At 16 years old, I did not have clear and real knowledge of how we became pregnant and certainly not how to avoid it.
Entering the apartment was odd, yet warm and friendly. We were greeted and instructed to wait until “everyone had arrived.” Shortly after, we were given an explanation of how things would go and details about the procedure. I remember seeing an older couple that looked very sad. They had five kids and simply could not afford one more addition to their family. There was another couple and a few women there alone.
The woman who explained everything was amazing. And she did explain literally everything regarding logistics, the abortion procedure, follow-up medication, warning signs and who to call if there were any problems. She was actually happy to be helping us and used humor in her presentation. You could feel everyone relax; this woman really cared. And then it was time to depart.
We entered the car waiting for us curbside, two couples per car. Upon entering the car, we were gently blindfolded as we were told we would be. After the short ride, we were escorted into another apartment where, once inside, the blindfolds were removed and we waited our turn. We all waited patiently and watched each woman leave for their procedure and return.
And then it was my turn. The apartment was warm and cozy and I was led down a hall into a bedroom where I undressed and was given a robe. Then the blindfold went back on and we walked across the hall. It was a man’s voice I heard first, then the voice of another woman who would be assisting. It was amazing how safe I actually felt. The man was gentle and explained each step as he proceeded and he too used gentle humor. It was over before I knew it and I was gently supported in getting dressed and returning to the living room.
It was clear that the predominant feeling in the room was relief as we sat quietly, occasionally making eye contact with one another until we were blindfolded for the ride back.
The rest of the day and evening were challenging only in that we had to return to a holiday event. Yet I felt strong. We did have to deal with a good amount of upset when we first arrived many hours later than expected, but nothing could dim the joy and relief that my life was truly mine.
It was months later that I learned that the “man” who performed the abortion was not a doctor but was, in fact, trained by one who did not want to risk arrest or losing his license. And sympathetic doctors donated the medication I was given as well.
I was also told later that it was through Planned Parenthood that the connections to those who could help us were made. I have been supporting PP ever since.
One year later, I married the “man” who I got pregnant with in 1970. We were married for 15 years and we had three daughters together. I mention that because I know my abortion story is relatively mild, all considered. Once I had that powerful experience of choosing when to have a family, it made me acutely aware of the vast differences in our circumstances that bring us to making the best choice for ourselves. And I have profound empathy for the lives that have been deeply scarred for lack of resources and support during that era.
Photo via Shutterstock