I Helped Women Get Abortions in Pre-Roe America

To think we’re going back to that world makes me angry and sad.

Image of abortion campaigners' buttons
The Atlantic; Ellen Gruber Garvey

About the author: Ellen Gruber Garvey is professor emerita of English and women’s and gender studies at New Jersey City University and the author of Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks From the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance.

When I was 16, I helped desperate women get abortions. This was in the sliver of time between New York State’s 1970 legalization of abortion and the Roe v. Wade decision three years later, which allowed women in every state to choose whether to continue their pregnancies. I answered phones for the Women’s Abortion Project at its headquarters in a shabby, unheated meeting space of the Women’s Liberation Center, on West 22nd Street in Manhattan.

Before New York made abortion legal, the project had been part of an underground, directing women to two or three gynecologists who, for reasons of conscience, wanted to perform safe abortions. From 1970 onward, these doctors continued this medical work in the open, and the Abortion Project continued to collaborate with them.

I loved being with the collective’s other volunteers, intense older women in their 20s and 30s. We took the callers’ information, filled in the doctors’ office schedule sheets, and explained the abortion procedure. A wall poster with a harrowing photo of a crouching, bloodied woman who had died after an illegal abortion kept us aware of the stakes of getting women safe abortions.

I came to the Abortion Project from the High School Women’s Union, which also met in the Women’s Liberation Center. When I heard the phones ringing all through our meetings, I felt pulled to get trained and answer the calls. At the other end of the line were distraught pregnant women.

The callers rushed to explain why they needed an abortion, why they couldn’t have a baby right then, how they had been coerced into sex, their health problems, how contraception had failed. They didn’t need reasons, we reassured them; they just had to want an abortion. About 80 percent of our bookings were at the standard rate of $100, the other 20 percent at no cost, for women who had no money.

But very often, they lived in places where abortion was still illegal, and had to travel to New York to get one. The Abortion Project helped raise money for their bus fare. Volunteers with cars picked up women at the airport. The experienced hands at the project would supply a fake address for Medicaid if out-of-state women were more than 12 weeks’ pregnant, had to go to a hospital for a saline abortion, and had no resources.

My High School Women’s Union friends and I soon learned the lingo: LMP (last menstrual period) and vacuum aspiration. We talked with women who called from pay phones, worried they wouldn’t have enough dimes to finish their long-distance call. Sometimes, we’d get calls from groups such as the Clergy Consultation Service, a referral network of ministers and rabbis who helped women get safe abortions as part of their pastoral duties.

“We have a problem pregnancy here,” they’d whisper. “Oh, someone needs an abortion?” I would reply loudly, as a 16-year-old impatient with codes and euphemism, and insensitive to what it meant to be calling from states where it was still against the law. For the most urgent situations—women who were close to the 12-week cutoff when vacuum-aspiration abortions in a doctor’s office were no longer safe—we learned to squeeze an extra line onto the schedule sheets. The doctor could stay on a little longer.

In between answering calls, the volunteers told stories about their lives and their struggles with bosses and boyfriends. I had been embarrassed by my relatives’ New York accents, but these women were my models of nerve and spirit. Now I embraced their admirable array of city accents, emulating Marcia, Gail, Pam, Marigold, Barbara, and the two Naomis when I picked up the phone and said, “Women’s uh-baw-shin prah-ject, can I help yuh?”

Prior to 1970, women from activist groups like Redstockings had organized speak-outs and disrupted legislative hearings to share their long-secret stories of being driven blindfolded and let out, alone, in strange neighborhoods; of lying on kitchen tables; or of traveling to more lenient countries if they could afford it. A chant at demonstrations at the time: “No more contortions; we want free abortions.” The testimony from women who were finally talking in public about what they went through to get abortions and what happened to them when they carried unwanted pregnancies helped push legislators to change the law in New York State, and perhaps indirectly influenced the Supreme Court.

The summer of 1971, before I left for college, the rest of the collective approved my going to work for several days at the two doctors’ offices, in different parts of Westchester, north of the city. At the office, the other women taught me to explain the procedure in more detail, counsel women on contraception, and urge them to commit to a birth-control method, even when they said, “No, I’m never going to have sex again.” Awkward though I was, I was part of an activist community of care. I held patients’ hands during the procedure and described what was going on: “Now you’ll feel a pinch”; “The doctor is dilating your cervix”; “You may feel some pulling.”

In 1971, no one was protesting outside either doctor’s office. Later, anti-abortion groups gathered force and honed their tactics. I saw them at demonstrations, shouting what they considered the unanswerable rebuke: “What if your mother had had an abortion?” In fact, my grandmother Anna had ended a pregnancy that way. My mother told me about her mother’s experience in mid-1930s New York City. Anna had a heart condition, which made her pregnancy life-threatening, so she had managed to have the abortion legally, in a doctor’s office or hospital.

My mother was named for her father’s mother, who had died in childbirth in 1914, a year after arriving in the U.S. The only photo that exists of her is a postmortem portrait, a reminder that maternal mortality has always been higher for birth than for abortion. Death rates for childbirth in the U.S. are still higher than in almost any other developed country.

I eventually became a university professor, and for 25 years taught mostly first-generation college students in Jersey City. Many had attended Catholic high schools, where anti-abortion dogma had been drummed into them. In women’s-studies classes, we discussed reproductive-rights history. At first, I was shocked at their disparagement of women who needed abortions, and how much they condemned other women and girls for having sex and getting pregnant. When I asked the class how many of them knew someone who’d had an abortion, many did.

Over and over, I heard some version of “My friend had to have one, but those other women, the sluts, didn’t really need one; they had sex for fun and not for love.” I encouraged them to examine their assumptions further, and sometimes they gained a more critical perspective. Some started to question their own investment in being “nice girls.” The concept of choice, rather than being for or against abortion, let in some daylight, so they could still proclaim adamantly that they would never have an abortion themselves, but could see that other women might need or want the option, and that abortion should stay legal.

On May 3, after the news of the leaked Supreme Court draft decision striking down Roe came out, I stood in front of the New York courthouses, at age 67, back again at a rally for the same cause I’d worked for 50 years earlier. I gave out pro-abortion buttons from the 1970s and ’80s to young women in their 20s and 30s. Those buttons reminded me of the decades of fights they grew out of. They are a testament to how indefatigably the Catholic Church, evangelicals, and the right have chipped away at women’s right to our own bodies.

Although restrictions on abortion access have gradually tightened, the young women at the demonstration have never known a country where abortion was completely illegal in many states, or on the federal level, as may happen. Seeing the familiar slogans at the rally was like reconnecting at the funeral of a dear friend: the comfort of seeing old companions, the agony of the occasion. As we sifted through the buttons, I heard a familiar New York swooping intonation: “Keep uh-baw-shin safe and legal!” It was the voice of one of my old colleagues from the Women’s Abortion Project, all those years ago. We’re still here, grieving and furious. And now another generation is learning to remake the underground.