My Abortion Before Roe v. Wade

The restrictions on abortion have flung me back to a terrifying time in my own life half a century ago, one I never expected women today would have to face.

Protesters holding signs that say "No Return to Back Street Abortion"
Evening Standard / Getty

Roe v. Wade is in peril. New restrictions on abortion exist in a dozen states. Providers are threatened with jail. And this week, the Supreme Court heard yet another attack on abortion rights with the Louisiana case June Medical Services v. Gee. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, the ruling may leave the state’s 1 million women of reproductive age with only one legal abortion provider. And many other states stand ready to follow suit.  This rush into the past has flung me back to a terrifying time in my own life half a century ago, one I never expected women today would have to face.

In late December 1965, I was 19 and in Brooklyn, home from college for the holiday break. I was also pregnant. I knew exactly how pregnant I was because I’d spent Thanksgiving with my boyfriend, Mark, who was in graduate school in Indiana.

I don’t remember everything about this time, but my memories of many of the details are extremely vivid.

On a freezing Monday morning just before dawn, I was standing by myself on a street corner in Rahway, New Jersey. In my pocket was a white envelope filled with five $100 bills that my parents had willingly given me to pay for an abortion. I kept checking to make sure the envelope was still there, as I waited for a stranger to pick me up and take me someplace—who knew where?—for the abortion I’d scheduled the Friday before.

The person I had made the appointment with warned me that the driver would not stop if he thought he could be followed, so Mark was parked out of sight around the corner, waiting for me to return. The person on the phone also told me that I would likely lose blood and that I would need red meat. At home, my mother was waiting to cook me a steak.

That is, I thought, if I got home. Would anyone ever see me alive again? A day earlier, I’d read a story in the paper about a woman named Rita Shea. She’d been found dead in her car, which had been left parked in front of her home. She was the victim of a botched abortion performed in an airport motel near JFK. The medical student who had performed the abortion had been arrested. Would I be taken to an airport motel too?

I had heard the stories of women being so desperate for an abortion that they used coat hangers. Yet as a middle-class college student, I was lucky enough to have access to some money, so I found my way to the underground network that existed for girls like me. But having the means to have an abortion was only the first step. I needed to find a doctor who was willing to perform a procedure that was illegal. A physician caught doing it risked jail; I’d seen footage on the nightly news of doctors doing a perp walk with their coats over their heads.

Dr. Robert Spencer, in Ashland, Pennsylvania, was the savior of many girls like me. Even women on the West Coast—I was a student in Berkeley, Califorinia—knew he provided abortions for girls in trouble. But when I called his office, the woman who answered told me that he had just retired, and that no, sorry, she didn’t have any suggestions about other options. I had heard that girls could get abortions in Puerto Rico, but I didn't have a connection there. My parents, whom I told right away about the pregnancy, had even asked our family doctor, a friend of my father’s since childhood, if he knew anyone. But no, he didn’t.

Abortions were not only illegal; they were deeply shameful for unmarried women, so seeking help had to be done in whispers from friend to friend to friend. As the word went out about my situation, my closest friends, including my roommates, revealed only that the request was to help “a friend of a friend.” Promising leads didn’t materialize, but within a few days, a single scrap of paper—with a scrawled New Jersey phone number—made its way under our dorm-room door. I never knew exactly from whom it came, but I knew right away what it was. And it was all I had.

Back in New York for Christmas break, I called the number on a Wednesday. The woman who answered asked only for my first name before making an initial appointment for me the next day. She gave me a doctor’s address in Union, New Jersey, and told me to bring $100 in cash. She also told me to find a payphone in my neighborhood and to call her back with that number, warning me to be sure it was a working phone, because I’d be getting a call there on Friday at 2 p.m. with information about the next steps. Mark found a phone at a gas station close by while I waited, stationed at my family’s home phone. He called me and then, to be absolutely sure, I called him back.

When Mark and I got to the doctor’s waiting room on Thursday afternoon, every seat was taken, mostly by girls my age, all looking pensive. Some were alone. Others were with friends or older women who might have been their mothers. A few made wary eye contact with me. No one seemed to look at Mark, who was the only male in the room.

He was a good guy, loving, supportive. He wanted us to get married and have this baby. Even with a wife and child, he could continue in graduate school. I was an ambitious undergraduate at a college thousands of miles away from Indiana, and I was only a semester away from graduating. With a baby on the way, I’d have to drop out and leave behind the life I’d worked so hard to shape. I felt colossally guilty, and Mark felt colossally hurt. Much later, he told me how hard he’d struggled to understand why I would choose this dangerous, unknown procedure over a life with him. Yet he recognized that this was complicated—for us both—and he supported my decision.

From the waiting room, I was taken to an office, where the doctor came in and asked me if I’d had a pregnancy test (yes, I had). He examined me, and then he left. Abortion was never mentioned.

When the gas-station payphone rang the next day, a male voice gave me the salient information. They would use sodium pentothal, so I’d be anesthetized and unconscious during the D&C. I shouldn’t eat anything after 9 p.m. on Sunday. He told me to be at an intersection in Rahway that Monday at 7 a.m. and to bring a white envelope with five $100 bills.

How would my friend know where to collect me after the procedure?

I would be taken back to the same spot three or four hours after I’d been picked up.

On Monday, Mark dropped me off at the designated intersection, then drove around the corner to keep an eye on me. A few minutes after 7 o’clock, a black four-door sedan pulled up and the driver, a small, dapper man in a black overcoat, got out and walked briskly around the back of the car toward me.

I handed him the envelope, which he opened right away to inspect the bills. Then, with a quick nod, he opened the back door. Two people were already in the car—in the back, a girl about my age in a red parka, and in the front, a woman who seemed to be older, maybe in her 30s.

I slid into the back seat, next to the girl, who I thought I remembered from the doctor’s waiting room. We smiled weakly at each other in recognition.

After 10 minutes on the road, the driver turned into an underground parking garage. We weren’t at the airport, but where were we? The three of us got out and followed the driver to the elevator, and once we got off, I could see we were in an apartment building.

By now, I was visibly trembling. The girl in the red parka squeezed my arm and whispered to me that everything would be okay. I smiled at her gratefully.

The driver headed for the door right next to the elevator and unlocked it. No one saw us. Inside the apartment, the first thing I noticed was a long kitchen table—no chairs or tablecloth or salt and pepper shakers in sight—bringing to mind, in a rush, every story I’d ever heard about bloody abortions performed on kitchen tables. But the driver passed through the kitchen and stopped at the head of a hallway. At the end was a bathroom with a door on either side.

We waited. After a minute or two, a man in blue scrubs and a surgical mask stepped out from one of the rooms. Was he the doctor? He carried in his arms a woman naked below the waist, eyes closed, limp as a rag doll. A tampon string dangled from between her legs. A bloody string. Was she dead?

The man in scrubs pushed open the opposite door with his shoulder, the inert woman in his arms. A minute later, he emerged empty-handed and nodded to our driver, who waved us down the hall.

I glanced in the room that the man in scrubs first exited. No one else was there. Was he actually a doctor? Whoever he was, he was alone. I saw an examination table, and on it, a sheet with big blotches of fresh blood. In the second room were six cots, lined up barracks-style perpendicular to the wall.

Women were in three of the cots. I could now see that the newest arrival was breathing, though still unconscious; a second woman was lying on her side, semi-conscious and groggy; and a third, conscious, was sitting up, her sheet wrapped around her. Even at dawn, we hadn’t been the driver’s first run of the day. Soon he would take these girls back to wherever he’d picked them up.

Meanwhile, the man in blue scrubs assigned us each to a cot, and told us to take off all of our clothes except our brassieres. With his surgical mask off, I could see he wasn’t the doctor I’d met on Friday. Did doctors say “brassieres”?

He told us to place our clothes under our cots and put on hospital gowns. Then he gave us each a plastic sandwich bag with pills, telling us they were antibiotics that we should put in our jackets now because we would be too groggy to remember afterward.

Then he left, and when he came back, I was the only one who had finished undressing, so he gestured to me to follow him across the hall. I saw that he had removed the bloody sheet from the examination table and replaced it with a clean one. A huge plastic pail filled with sheets and bleach, now tinted pink, was a few feet away. The smell was overwhelming.

Patting the table, the man told me to climb up and lie down. There was nothing to do but comply. Then I remember him telling me to count backwards from 10.

After that, I don’t remember much of my time there, except a flash of returning consciousness in the cot room, the waves of nausea I felt as the man in scrubs hurried us into our clothing and out of the apartment, and the driver holding the door open as we got back into his car. I’d been the last picked up and would now be the first out. When I got to my stop, the girl in the red parka leaned over to hug me, and I hugged her back. She told me she remembered me from the doctor’s office and asked whether that had been my boyfriend with me. When I nodded, I saw something in her expression that seemed to confer on me an odd kind of status, and it made me want to cry.

My memories of the hours and days after the abortion are hazy too. I remember the relief I felt when I saw Mark waiting for me in his car. At home, my mother broiled a steak, but I couldn’t eat it. I couldn’t bring myself to tell Mark or my mother what had happened in that apartment. Mark stayed for a day or two and then left to spend Christmas with his family. After New Year’s, I went back to Berkeley.

In the months that followed my abortion, a numb fog settled in me, over me, and around me. In my diary, I could only bring myself to refer to the abortion as “the horror of December.” I kept talking about “wanting to tear the veil off,” by which I meant I wanted my feelings back. My period was gone too, and almost a year would pass before it returned.

That spring, Mark and I broke up.

I was one of the lucky ones. I survived. My parents knew about my decision and supported me. The $500 they gave me for the abortion would be worth $4,000 today. Mark and my friends were empathetic and supportive. Somehow my grades didn’t suffer, and I went on to graduate.

Abortion, even when legal, regulated, and safe, is emotionally complicated. Illegal abortion is also potentially dangerous. If Roe v. Wade is further gutted or repealed, abortion will once again take place in the shadows, with women forced to stand on street corners in strange cities wondering whether they’ll live ’til lunchtime.