Daring to Remember: My Illegal Abortion Gave Me My Life Back

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.

I was 19, a sophomore in college. An unintended pregnancy, the circumstances aren’t important. But I will say that when I told my sometime-lover he immediately dropped out of sight. I was left to figure it out on my own.

The gynecologist who examined me was unhelpful, referring obliquely to “some doctor someplace in Pennsylvania.” But that was all she could offer me. This was 1966. Abortion was illegal. Luckily, a good friend of mine had just had her abortion two weeks prior to this, so I had the name of a doctor. He was a pediatrician in West New York, New Jersey. My friend told me to tell him, when he asked if I knew how much it would cost, to say $400. That’s what she paid, and I’m assuming if I hadn’t quoted that amount it would have been much more. Back then, $400 was a huge amount, especially for a broke college student. I borrowed the money. It took me two years to pay it back.

There was an initial visit to confirm the pregnancy, and then an appointment for the procedure the following week. I was told to come alone, and to make sure whoever brought me parked very far away. I was fortunate that I could confide in my mother, who drove me and waited for many hours in the car. (She later told me how fearful she was that if I died she’d never know the details, or even find my body.)

Pro-choice activists demonstrated at a women’s lib march in August 1970 in Washington, D.C. (U.S. News & World Report collection at the Library of Congress / Creative Commons)

The waiting room was dark, the shades drawn. There were five of us: three college girls and two married women. One of the college girls was, like me, an urban hippie type. The other was a Christian cheerleader, a sorority “good girl” who told us she was probably the last person anyone would expect this to happen to. The married women, both already mothers, simply didn’t want to have any more children. We didn’t talk much as we waited—several hours, it turned out—for the doctor to arrive. I think this was one of his precautions to protect himself in case the police were watching his office.

After he arrived, we were taken one by one into the procedure room. I was lucky, in that the doctor was competent and kindly, with two nurses assisting him. (Several young women I knew had abortion experiences far more dangerous and life-threatening than mine. My mother confessed to me that she too had had an abortion, actually two abortions, and that one of the doctors, a sadist to be sure, said to her: “If you scream, I’ll stop.”)

I remember getting up on the operating table, shivering with fear, feeling trapped and scared, terrified of what was about to happen. My friend had warned me there would be no anesthetic, just an antibiotic shot to prevent infection. The procedure, a simple D&C, took around 30 minutes. It was extremely painful—the most pain I’ve ever experienced—and I tried not to scream. I recall whimpering the entire time and begging him to finish. One of the nurses held my hand throughout the ordeal, and when it was finally over the doctor kissed me on the cheek and told me I had been very brave.

I felt relief. Not regret. Not grief. Not loss. Not guilt. Just relief. My body, my life, had been returned to me. I was young and there was no reliable man in my life. I wasn’t ready to become a mother and have the arc of my life change into something I didn’t want. It was, simply, the wrong time.

When the circumstances were right, and I was a grown woman of 32, with a loving husband in a stable marriage, I chose to become pregnant. The birth of my wonderful daughter—a wanted child—was the most joyous event of my life. Her birth, her very existence, would not have happened but for my abortion 13 years earlier.