Daring to Remember: Ms. Co-Founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin Looks Back on Illegal Abortions Before Roe

This post is part of Daring to Remember, an ongoing series of stories about life in the years before Roe v. Wade and in the face of contemporary attacks on the right to abortionIn these uncertain times, we are fighting for Roe and safe, legal abortion access with our own testimonies about life without choice. We are daring to remember what a nation without safe, legal abortion access looks like. Submit a story here.

Before Roe, women were forced to rely on their friends and the grapevine to procure abortions. Some doctors would perform the procedure, but you would have to find out about them from someone who knew—and breaking that silence could feel impossible. Even if women did find clandestine providers, many then had to travel across state lines to get the procedure. Others resorted to back-alley abortions by manipulative and abusive providers.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a co-founder of Ms. and one of the original signatories of the historic “We Have Had Abortions” petition published in the first issue in 1972, told her pre-Roe abortion story during her interview for MAKERS. Pogrebin, who faced an unwanted pregnancy as an unwed teen before Roe, had limited options—and at the time, she was intent on finding a provider or choosing death.

Women who got pregnant before Roe v. Wade had very few options. Women died. Lots of women died. When I found out I was pregnant, I was in my senior year in college. I would have killed myself. This isn’t hyperbole. If I couldn’t have had an abortion at 18, I would have killed myself—because I couldn’t see how I could possibly live my life. I had to work. I didn’t have rich parents who were going to support me. I didn’t have a husband.

I asked my dorm counselor for help, and she told me she couldn’t help me. My roommate and I found out about, through the grapevine, a fantastic, saintly doctor: Dr. Spencer, in Pennsylvania.

Pogrebin relied on the grapevine when everything else had failed. She survived because of it.


Amy DePoy is a student at Yale University and a former editorial intern at Ms. She loves feminism, reading and writing. She also loves all fruits, but especially strawberries.