Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision, the landmark ruling that guaranteed abortion rights in the US. It could be the last anniversary before it is overturned.
During Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization oral arguments last year, a majority of the court seemed ready to severely weaken or overturn Roe v Wade, allowing dozens of Republican-led states to restrict access or ban abortion altogether. A decision is expected this summer.
Such an investment would be historic. Many Democratic-led states are now likely to pass laws that strengthen abortion protections, creating oases of access to the procedure in legal and safe environments. But the options would still be much more limited.
On the 19th, he spoke to people across the country about their memories of life before the landmark decision, as well as how things have changed in the years since.
‘I could not stop shaking’
The illegal abortion was in 1966. I had just turned 20 years old. He was the first guy I slept with, and I didn’t know shit about birth control or anything else. I lived at home with deeply conservative parents who I just couldn’t tell. I had a very good friend who was at Goucher College in Townsend, Maryland. It was a girls’ school and they had a network, a conduit to a gynecologist in Baltimore.
So I came to Baltimore. [The gynecologist] she was a lovely lady. He gave me a small folded piece of paper with a phone number on it.
I call the number and a guy answers, and the arrangements are made: it’s supposed to be $600 cash. We agreed on a date and pick up point, which was on Utah Street in downtown Baltimore, across from a movie theater. We choose the date and time. And then I have to find $600. I mean, that was a lot of money in 1966.
So I borrowed $100 here and $50 there. The day before the abortion, I was $200 short. This kid was a real jerk, so I called his parents. They gave him $600 and he gave me the $200 that was missing.
He took me to Utah street and I stayed there waiting to be picked up. Finally, a man in a sedan with a dog in the back seat pulls up. He could have been a serial killer, but he had a dog. That’s how you knew it had to be okay.
I get in the backseat and we drive to a farm. There was a couple… they laid me down on a table and gave me a mask. I had no anesthesia. After a while, someone I assumed to be a doctor comes out dressed in a lab coat and performs the abortion. He leaves, and the people who are there give me some pills to dry up the milk, and some maxi discs.
And then the guy takes me back to the movie theater on Utah Street. I stayed with a friend. I didn’t go back to my parents at night. That was it. At the time, he had a job on Capitol Hill for a congressman from Maryland. And he was absolutely insane for doing this. I had done this illegal thing, and it was going to come back and, you know? But no one ever found out about that.
I was scared? I was terrified on the operating table. I could not stop shaking. Would he have changed his mind? No, I would have jumped off a bridge before I had a baby. I would have been forced to marry a completely unsuitable human being.
Rosalyn Jonas, 75, Bethesda, Maryland
‘She went for a hanger’
I graduated from high school in 1967 and, when I was 18, went straight into nursing in Brooklyn, New York: Kings County Hospital Center School of Nursing.
I wasn’t even aware of the abortion laws in New York. I mean, you heard stories of people going to some back rooms or doctors. Then someone would disappear. There was a silence that she was pregnant and would be out. So we didn’t know if she went to an aunt to have a baby or if she was pushed somewhere to get an abortion. But it was all silence, silence. We don’t talk about that at all.
I was assigned a 16 year old. [at nursing school]. I walked into the room and there were like six or eight doctors standing around this beautiful girl. I mean, I’m 18, she’s 16. And her eyes are blank. He’s squirming all over the bed. And all these documents are totally defenseless.
This child was pregnant. She went for a pill. And then she went for a coat hanger, because she wasn’t sure it was working.
She was a Catholic girl. He had no one and nowhere to go, he didn’t know where to look for help. I’m in charge of taking the temperature. The temperature is rising. It reaches 107.
Oh, it was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen in my life. She dies in front of all these doctors, and they are defenseless.
I was a Catholic teenager. But right then and there I thought that no one, no matter what kind of mistake or blunder or whatever they’ve done in their life, shouldn’t have to suffer and die like this.
It was a nightmare. And I will never forget it throughout my life. It traumatized me. But it firmly convinced me that no matter what you do in your life, no one should have to go through that.
Lorraine Saulino-Klein, 72, of Laramie, Wyoming
‘I expected to be killed at any moment’
I first became familiar with this problem when I was a medical student in 1963. Every night that I was on duty in the gynecology ward, my colleagues and I were up all night caring for women who had illegal and unsafe self-induced or poorly performed abortions. .
At the time, there was a woman who had gone to the emergency room to see if they could terminate the pregnancy. She was several months pregnant. When they refused, she went home and shot herself in the uterus and then drove to the hospital.
This is an example of the kind of catastrophic things women do to themselves. They put bleach in their vagina to induce an abortion. They literally used hangers and knitting needles. They died.
I started studying public health. What I decided to work on was population epidemiology, and that included looking at the health effects of illegal abortion.
It became clear to me that the effects of illegal abortion and abortion laws particularly affected poor women or many members of minority groups. The death rate from illegal abortion was nine times higher among black women than among white women.
I was in a preterm birth clinic in Washington DC in 1971 and learned how to do an early first trimester abortion. I wasn’t really planning on practicing medicine… but then I was in Colorado in 1973, when the Roe v Wade decision was made.
There was a group in Boulder that wanted to open a private non-profit abortion clinic. And they got my name and called me and asked if I would be willing to help them start this clinic. I had no intention of doing something like that. But when they invited me, I accepted.
The implementation of the Roe v Wade decision was extremely important. The decision itself did not get anyone to abort; it only made sense if doctors were willing to perform the abortion.
We began performing abortions in November 1973. I immediately became the target of hatred not only from the public, but also from members of the medical community. I lived in the mountains in a cabin that I bought with my father and I was very, very scared. He expected to be killed at any moment.
I love seeing patients and enjoy talking to them. And they tell me their stories. And everyone, everyone has an important story to tell.
Most of my patients now or at least half of them, sometimes more, are patients who have wanted pregnancies that have a terrible complication of fetal disorder, genetic disorder. And they have decided to terminate the pregnancy, although it is a wanted pregnancy. We see many patients with those circumstances.
We see extremely young patients, 11 and 12 years old, who have been raped or sexually abused. Victims of incest. These young women should not have to carry a pregnancy to term. It is very dangerous for them. They are not ready to be parents.
But in any case, right now as we speak, we have anti-abortion zealots in front of my office. There is a man who comes and stalks me every Tuesday morning. And I think he wants to kill me. I have to assume that, because five of my medical colleagues have been murdered.
Warren Hern, 83, of Boulder, Colo.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism