Daring to Remember: Two-and-a-Half Illegal Abortions

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 1968, I had two and a half illegal abortions for the same pregnancy. I was 19. Back then very few doctors were willing to give you birth control pills and there was no sex education for women or men, except that which we gave each other. No one was supposed to be having sex. You certainly didn’t tell anyone if you were.

My boyfriend did everything right. He asked me to marry him and was relieved, though he didn’t say so, when I said no. How is it possible that I was smart enough to say no? He then offered to pay for it, which he did. $250 was a heck of a lot of money back then and we were both paying our own way through college. I don’t know where he got the money. I never asked him.

A friend knew of a guy in town who did abortions. The guy had been a medical resident who got addicted to morphine following a car accident and kicked out of his residency. He now traveled the country, going from college town to college town, doing abortions for terrified and naive young women. At least that’s what he told us. He did what was called “packing” for me. It was, as I remember it, a bunch of gauze pads inserted in my vagina that had been soaked in something that caused a spontaneous abortion a few days later. I think abortionists liked to do that because it wasn’t such an invasive procedure, which meant less chance of problems for them.

Activists protesting anti-abortion candidate Ellen McCormack at the Democratic National Convention in 1976. (Warren K. Leffler / Wikimedia)

The next day I had bad cramps, bled a bunch and thought it was over. I called the abortionist like I was supposed to, and he was surprised at how little pain I had had. That was the end of it—until a couple days later I was at the public library downtown, a few blocks from my apartment when I started bleeding very heavily and having excruciating pain. I was having contractions, although at the time I had no idea that’s what they were. I knew I had to get home and I knew I couldn’t ask for help or tell anyone what was happening. I managed to get out of the library and walked diagonally across two huge parking lots, stopping at each row of meters to hang on and bend over in pain. I was terrified the blood was going to drip down the legs of my jeans and out onto the sidewalk and I would get caught and arrested for breaking the law.

When I finally made it back to my apartment, still bleeding heavily, I tried to call my boyfriend but he wasn’t home. Thank heavens one of my roommates came home. We decided I needed to go back to the abortionist to get help. We called him and drove to the farm where he was staying. There, in this lovely old farmhouse, was an all white “operating room” with an operating table and all sorts of medical equipment. This wasn’t the “operating room” used for the first procedure—that was close to my apartment where lots of students lived in run down old houses that had been cut into two or more apartments. He checked me and said I was still pregnant, so he did a D&C, which meant he scraped out the inside of my uterus. It hurt like hell.

When I got back to my apartment, there was a note on my bed, in the middle of all the blood, from my boyfriend—saying he had stopped in to see how I was doing. He was pretty worried about the entire idea of an abortion being done by a morphine addict. But he hadn’t turned on the lights in the apartment, so he didn’t see all the blood all over the floor, in the bathroom, on my bed, even on the walls. I loved him so much. I have always been so grateful he didn’t turn on the light.

I risked going to a licensed doctor a few days later. He told me I was no longer pregnant—and offered me birth control pills.

I’ve never written this down before. No one has ever asked me about it. I honestly don’t know how I feel now about having had an abortion so many years ago. I do know it’s all wrapped up in shame. Back then, nice girls didn’t have sex. Back then nice girls did not get pregnant.

After it was all over, I put together a list of licensed doctors who would perform safe abortions. There were lots of them—some who believed strongly in the right of women to choose and some who did it for the money. There were doctors in Madison, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, even a clinic in England where it was legal. Airfare was so cheap; one could fly to England, have the abortion, stay in a hotel for a few days and fly home for what it cost to have an illegal one in the states. All kinds of “nice girls” contacted me, desperate for help. I felt good about that. They wouldn’t have to go through what I did.

I know that if I had it to do over, I’d do the same thing. I have never regretted doing it, not once in all these years.