‘I've Had Three Abortions’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s how this 67-year-old reader begins her story:

I had the first abortion in 1968 when it was illegal, dangerous, and considered shameful and taboo. I was 19 and we were still in college and not ready to be parents. We didn’t have a clue where to turn, but luckily my boyfriend learned about a man, Bill Baird, an early abortion advocate (and my hero) who might be able to help.

It was like a covert criminal mission—from the first meeting with Bill in a rundown strip-mall to get the name of a “doctor,” to driving to an underpass in Queens to borrow $300 (a fortune for two college students), followed by driving from our middle-class life on Long Island to Newark into a neighborhood that looked like the last place we’d find ourselves.

We both walked into the rundown house and were met by a black man who said he was the doctor. He told me to go to the kitchen and get undressed and told my boyfriend to wait for me in the car. Naked and terrified, lying on the kitchen table, he gave me anesthesia. The next thing I remembered was waking up on the table.

I waited for him to return to tell me what to do. I waited like that for an hour until my boyfriend came into the house in a panic after waiting in the car for four hours in scorching July heat. Neither of us knew that after the procedure the “doctor” had left the house by the backdoor. We drove home in silence.

The next day I was hemorrhaging in my bedroom, trying not to let my parents know. I had a fever and severe abdominal pain and it was days before I left my bedroom.

That is the story of my first illegal abortion. While it was a horrible, terrifying, and dangerous experience, I never regretted it. Having a child at my age and maturity would have been a disaster. And now I know that carry a gene that gave me a 50 percent chance of having a special needs child, so I especially know I couldn’t have handled it.

My second abortion was in 1969 by a brave doctor in Washington, D.C, who was performing illegal abortions. I furtively went to his office for a “GYN appointment.” The procedure was sterile, professional, and a world apart from my first.

My third abortion was also in D.C., in 1970. It was still three years before Roe vs Wade, but based on the changing laws within the District, I walked into the same doctor’s office to have that abortion in a safe place. I knew I could now make this critical choice without the fear and shame I felt with the first abortion only two years earlier.

I think the biggest lesson of my three stories is the dramatic evolution of what I went through in two short years as the laws changed.

Yes, I’m not proud that I had to experience this three times. The first happened the second time I had sex, the second while taking birth control pills, and the third by a person who lied to me about being infertile—all during a time when getting pregnant was considered a disgrace and totally unacceptable.

I believe each person should have the right to determine what is best for themselves—as I did—even though a bit of the pro-life belief enters my thoughts as I think about the three souls I might have brought into this world.

This earlier reader also discusses the three abortions she had, post-Roe.