Daring to Remember: The Women I Met Underground

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.

In the mid to late 1960s I conducted an underground abortion referral service in the Midwest. Originally I thought I would be assisting women who were students at the college I attended. But word spread and desperate women from the community, and then from places further away, came to a college kid with no medical training for help.

I once drove a woman to Chicago and left her on a street corner—from which she was picked up, blindfolded and driven to a not-very-clean apartment where she endured a D&C with no anesthetic on a kitchen table. She developed a fever on the trip back, required medical treatment for the infection she developed, and was unable to conceive some years later when she very much wanted a child. On another occasion, after paying $600 up front, a woman was required to come up with another $200 when the abortionist stopped mid-procedure and refused to continue without further pay.

Activists hold “Abortion on Demand and Without Apology” signs at a protest. (Steenaire / Creative Commons)

I finally made a connection with a qualified medical doctor who lived on Long Island and performed safe procedures under sterile conditions in a clinic attached to his house. I also developed a source with Dr. Henry Morgenthaler, a dedicated Canadian physician who provided safe care to countless women until he was arrested and sentenced to a long prison term—a monstrous injustice.

The women who came to me for help were not flaky kids who made bad decisions. They were people for whom contraception failed, and who were not in stable relationships or otherwise able to assume responsibility for a child.  They were women who were date raped or violently raped or in one instance gang raped, who couldn’t imagine prolonging the horror of their experience with a child resulting from assault. They were women who had young children and couldn’t imagine taking care of another baby, women who had a disabled child who took all their energy and attention and feared that the new pregnancy might yield another disabled child, women who already had more children than they could afford and knew how unfair it would be to their existing families to stretch inadequate resources even further. Never did I see a woman who thought abortion was desirable. It was the best of bad options. It was the only way out of an untenable situation.

A few years later, I myself became pregnant after a diaphragm failure.  I was recovering from an injury from a car accident and had just started law school.  I was lucky that a reputable, experienced physician provided abortions openly in my community.  I shudder to think about the likely consequences to my physical or mental health or my potential career if I had not been able to terminate that pregnancy safely.  I included my name in the 1973 Ms Magazine listing of women who went public about their abortions. I have always been grateful for the opportunity to defer pregnancy until I was physically, emotionally, and economically ready to be a parent, and I treasure my three children who were subsequently born at a time when I could welcome and care for them.

I am outraged beyond words that women are threatened with a return to the shadowy underworld of unscrupulous providers of unsafe procedures.