Here's How Dangerous Abortion Was Before Roe V. Wade

With the VP-elect's goal to reverse Roe V. Wade, women tell us how serious—and deadly—the risks were before abortion was legal.

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Last week, Texas became the first state to require women to bury or cremate their aborted fetuses, but the law didn’t start there. On March 24, Indiana Gov. and vice president-elect Mike Pence signed into law an abortion bill that contained the same provision, which adds an estimated $1,500 to $4,000 in abortion costs as well as increased emotional burden. Though a judge struck down the Indiana provision, it was one of many attempts to make abortion effectively inaccessible for most women, including years of attempts to defund Planned Parenthood (which was introduced by Pence in 2011). Now, with Pence's avowed goal to “send Roe v. Wade to the ash-heap of history,” chances that further legislation that restricts and limits abortion access will be enacted are highly likely.

But people will have abortions regardless of legality—the real concern is safety. Two years ago, Texas passed a law that severely restricted access to abortion in the state, resulting in an increase of DIY abortions, which are significantly less safe. The dangers marked a return to the time before abortion was legal.

Roe v. Wade was the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in 1973. Following the decision, deaths from abortion plummeted to about 3 percent. The suicide rate dropped 41 percent for women in their twenties and 34 percent overall. These numbers speak to the desperation of the Pre-Roe years, a desperation remembered by a woman born in Massachusetts in 1946 who wishes to remain Anonymous. 

“I remember pre-Roe v Wade. I had friends jumping down stairs, off the couch, having coat hanger abortions, and meeting strangers on street corners for abortions in motel rooms,” Anonymous tells Complex. She added that the overwhelming sentiment at the time was one of “desperation… Everyone I knew who undertook abortion did so secretly, in fear of losing their family, being publicly shamed, and losing any chance for a decent future.” 

I remember pre-Roe v Wade. I had friends jumping down stairs, off the couch, having coat hanger abortions, and meeting strangers on street corners for abortions in motel rooms.

Before Roe v. Wade, people who wanted abortions risked their own health to have them. These attempts often resulted in injury or death, as Kathy Hall of California learned from a story her grandmother told her. Hall's grandmother had gone with her father to open a family dry goods store in Lubbock, Texas, in the 1930's. When they got there, Hall tells Complex, they found his "employee in the bathroom with a wire hanger, having apparently bled out from an attempt at performing her own abortion.”

These kinds of tragic ends were unfortunately a well-known possibility. A woman from Pennsylvania who wanted to be identified as Jennifer, tells Complex the story about her mother accompanying a friend to have an abortion years before it became legal. She says her mother “spent eight hours waiting for their friend to return, wondering if they'd sent her off to her death.” Anonymous also notes that abortion-alternatives may not have been as fatal, but were still dangerous: When her friend became pregnant, she “took some 'morning after’ pills someone brought back from Europe. She couldn't tell me what was in them; just two little pills in her hand that made her extremely sick but didn't make her miscarry, to her dismay.”

When Anonymous became pregnant in college, she shouldered the risks to have an abortion because, as she says, “I did not think I was old enough to mother anyone and I wanted a better life than being 19, pregnant and married.” To do this, she had to follow "the trail from friend to friend to friend of friend to find a name of someone who might have known someone who might have gone to an abortionist.” She finally connected with an abortionist in New Jersey.

Anonymous says she “arrived in the town the afternoon before, stayed in a horrible, cheap, dirty hotel by myself,” and was picked up early in the morning by a large black car at an appointed corner and time. “There were several other girls in the car, and two goons driving. They took us to a motel that had been transformed into an operating suite. The waiting room was in one bedroom, and the OR was in the next room. All the doctors and nurses were in scrubs, masked, and using wrapped sterile instruments. It was an extremely quick D&C (I think), and then we sat and waited till everyone was done, and were taken back to our street corner."  

“Ours was not the only carful of girls to arrive," Anonymous continues. "In the time I was there, probably 10 to 20 girls cycled through: Wait your turn, go into the other room for the procedure, recover, then get out of there with your group. Tears and pain was obvious on everyone's faces. The whole experience was terrifying. This was probably 1966 or 1967.”

But not everyone was privileged enough to access a relatively safe, albeit illegal, abortion performed by a doctor. Carol Fulton tells Complex that what she remembers of “the many inequities of illegal abortion, before Roe v. Wade, was that women who could afford to travel to Europe or pay high fees to a private hospital had access to abortions.” Anonymous corroborates this inequity: “The stories I remember of women purposefully falling down stairs, jumping off couches, and having coat hanger abortions … were the ones that had no access to enough money to go somewhere like I did.”

The stories I remember of women purposefully falling down stairs, jumping off couches, and having coat hanger abortions were the ones that had no access to enough money to go somewhere like I did.

As abortion becomes less accessible in parts of the country, this inequity will disproportionately affect people experiencing poverty, leaving them more vulnerable to being left with only dangerous options.

The common thread of all of these women affected by the desperation of seeking abortions before Roe V. Wade is their undying commitment to women's right to choose. Hall's grandmother said that after her experience, she understood that “men let women die rather than lose control of their bodies.” When Hall had a legal abortion herself, she says that knowing her grandmother’s stance “gave me courage to know she would have understood and defended my right to do so.”

“Birth control and sex education and abortion should be free and available to all, and the need for an abortion should be determined by a woman and her physician,” Anonymous says. “Birth control should be the first line of defense. I am pro-choice, not pro-abortion … but it must be an option.”

Jennifer was faced with the choice to abort three times in her life: once when she was a teen, again as a young mother of two with “with a chronic illness that made a third pregnancy extremely risky,” and then at 42, with grown children and facing a divorce. Of those times, Jennifer chose to have children twice but “believes that the decision to have an abortion is a deeply and profoundly personal one … I’m grateful that … I made my own choices, not a legislature. I want the same for all women.” 

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