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I Had a Pre-Roe Back-Alley Abortion. Let Me Tell You Where Republicans Are Trying to Take This Country.

It happened in Louisville in 1959. It was a nightmarish experience. It’s shocking to think that we’re going back there.

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I am 80 years old and survived a back-alley abortion when I was in high school, more than 60 years ago—some 14 years before Roe v. Wade. I have never regretted the decision, but the shame created by the horrific circumstances became embedded in my very being. I’m sharing this story so that people will know what’s in store for desperate pregnant women and little girls if we go back to the misogynistic and dangerous medieval period of the twentieth century before the protection of Roe. Many women my age have never told anyone about their abortions because it is so painfully personal.  

When I was in high school in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1959, I realized I was pregnant. I didn’t know how many months, but I did know that I was going to end this pregnancy no matter what. I knew that abortion was illegal. I don’t think I allowed myself to think about the fact that I was risking my life because I didn’t care. I was desperate. I would not tell my parents. My mother was helplessly depressed because my father, a doctor, had left our family to live with his mistress, and I knew he wouldn’t be helpful. He would just be angry. 

The guy I had a sexual relationship with was several years older and was used to skirting the law. After many weeks of delay, he found a doctor in Indiana who performed illegal abortions. I skipped school, and we drove to his office; however, the doctor turned me away after a quick exam because he said “I was too far gone,” and that was that. (I didn’t know how many weeks—I didn’t care.) We then drove to Lexington, Kentucky, where we met someone at a popular college beer hangout, and he connected us to someone who would do the abortion for $200. Fortunately, I had the money. That evening, after dark, the boyfriend (for lack of a better word) drove me to an alley where I got out, climbed the steps to the back door of an apartment, while he waited in the car parked in the alley. 

A woman met me at the door, took me into a bedroom, had me lie on the bed, and did the procedure—I had no idea what she was doing, but it was not painful. The pain came later. I remember seeing a crucifix on her bedroom wall and thinking how ironic that was. I was told to go to a motel room and wait it out, where I was to abort. The woman told me that when the pain came, I was to sit on the edge of the bathtub to expel the fetus. The guy and I checked into a motel room where we waited. I don’t remember if I aborted that evening or morning, and I didn’t look at the fetus. The guy wrapped the fetus in newspaper and dumped it in the trash bin outside. It was a horrifying experience. I had no one to comfort or advise me.

Fortunately, the instruments must have been sterile because I did not get an infection. (I later learned that my older brother, during that same year, had taken a girl to the emergency room because she was hemorrhaging from a botched abortion.) 

I missed a day or two of school and was called to the Dean of Girls’ office because I had an unexcused absence. I don’t recall what I said; I just remember how ridiculous it was to be admonished for an unexcused absence. And that same week, I was sitting in class and someone pointed out that my blouse was wet at my breasts. Evidently, my pregnancy was advanced enough that my body was creating colostrum, which I knew nothing about (it’s the first milk your body produces during pregnancy). I ran out of class to the restroom and tried stuffing my bra with toilet paper. Then I had to return to class and act as if nothing had happened.

Since I was completely numb, in denial about the experience and ignorant about my body, I did some strenuous yard work at our home that week, which brought on heavy bleeding. My mother suspected something was wrong since she had been seeing huge amounts of Kotex pads in the waste basket, but I refused to talk to her. I knew there was nothing she could do since she was emotionally and intellectually incapable of helping, being almost a child herself.

Fortunately, I survived, went to college and graduate school, and went on to raise two much-loved children, unlike the thousands of women and girls who didn’t, especially low-income women who died leaving children without a mother. (You can see these appalling mortality statistics on the Guttmacher Institute’s website.)

Today, I live in West Virginia, where the legislature is considering “updating and clarifying” a statute passed in 1882 that criminalizes abortion. This statute is based on a similar 1849 law in Virginia, from which West Virginia seceded in 1863. The bill under consideration is to make abortions illegal, no matter how early in the pregnancy, with very limited exceptions. Numerous concerned citizens spoke to the state legislature about the dangers and inequity of the proposed bill. These citizens included medical and social work professionals, and others who received legal and safe abortion care after having been raped or whose medical conditions put them at risk. I was the only one who described having an illegal abortion.   

We were each given 45 seconds. Sixty-nine speakers opposed the bill; 21 supported it. The day after the public hearing, we listened to the legislators debate a bill that had no exceptions for rape or incest and would imprison doctors. Some Democratic lawmakers argued strenuously against the extreme restrictions, trying to mitigate the harm by adding amendment after amendment. The floor debate revealed how determined some of the Republican legislators were to impose their own fundamentalist religious views on all of us, relegating all women to second-class citizenship. Several male legislators—not health care providers—talked about women’s menstrual cycles and speculated about when a woman should know when she is pregnant. That was a ludicrous scene—the makings of a Saturday Night Live skit. When one legislator contended that young girls might have romantic feelings about their adult sexual abuser, there was such a cry of outrage in the public galleries that the chairman ordered the galleries cleared.

History shows that women have always had abortions and will continue to do so. If the Republican supermajority in West Virginia is successful, desperate women and girls will once again resort to drastic unsafe measures. Those with money will find a way, but low-income women and girls in one of the poorest states in the country are the ones who will die or suffer physical or emotional damage for the rest of their lives. It’s outrageous to think that we’re going to go back to women and girls having to go through what I did 63 years ago.