When Abortion Was Illegal

Well now, you didn’t think being a woman was going to be easy, did you? – When Abortion Was Illegal

When I was in my early twenties, I had a medication-based abortion after my birth control had failed. It was startling, mostly due to the fact that I was on an apparently almost-foolproof method of birth control, one with a failure rate low enough to put even the most anxious at ease. But failure does happen and in this case, it happened to me. Without hesitation, I headed to my local family planning clinic, where I was met with the financial accessibility of sliding scale payment, a clean, safe environment that was free from judgment, and accurate information on what was going to happen when I took the pill, everything I could expect afterwards and who to contact if I needed anything. While everyone’s experiences are vastly different, for me, it was something that needed to just “be done” and while inconvenient and financially straining, I was able to get it done. At the time, I was only minimally aware of how “getting something done” in a safe, affordable context was predated by a long, silent history where these rights were not afforded to those seeking to have abortions.

Abortion is still a privilege (yes, even as it is a legal right, which we will talk about below), a ridiculous concept considering that half of all pregnancies are unintended and over 1.3 million of these will result in abortion every year. The Guttmacher Institute reports that 1 out of 3 women will have an abortion by the age of 45. 58% of that number are women in their twenties; 6 in 10 women having abortions already have children (often two or more), and often cite the need to care for their children as the main reason for having an abortion. This fact, when compounded by the lack of affordable childcare, social welfare resources for women and children, and the ongoing assault against birth control methods, hits home particularly close to the George Carlin quote, “If you’re pre-born, great, but if you’re pre-school, you’re fucked.”

But depending on what generation you are, it can be easy to forget the history of where abortion once was in the States (which is the same place where many hope to put it back). Over the weekend, I watched the 1992 film, When Abortion Was Illegal, a short documentary illuminating the risks, both legal and physical, of obtaining abortions in the United States.

From the film’s site:

When Abortion Was Illegal: Untold Stories, by film maker Dorothy Fadiman. The film features ‘compelling first person accounts which reveal the physical, legal, and emotional consequences during the era when abortion was a criminal act. Remembrances include those of women who experienced illegal abortions, doctors who risked imprisonment and loss of their licenses for providing illegal abortions, and individuals who broke the law by helping women find safe abortions.'”

Fadiman’s film profiles several women who had illegal abortions years before the passing of Roe v. Wade in 1973. These women, as emphasized by their own stories of fear and struggle, are considered to be the “lucky ones,” meaning, the ones who did not die from complications of at-home or back-alley abortions.  The numbers are not easy to stomach, either. In the 1920s, it was estimated that 15,000 women died from unsafe abortions. From that year on, it was estimated that somewhere in between 5,000-10,000 women died from abortions each year, numbers that still raise questions due to the social climate and attitudes surrounding the admission of having one during that time. From

Thousands of women died from poisoning and injury. Thousands of others lived, but with the pain of permanent injuries and disfigurement. Women who sought abortions from back-alley butchers encountered similar horrors. Because of the crackdown, the clandestine nature of illegal abortion meant that women who sought them were often blindfolded, driven to remote areas and passed off to people they didn’t know or couldn’t see. Leslie Reagan’s book contains stories of women forced to get abortions from drunk abortionists, using unsanitary tools in filthy rooms and even the backseats of cars. The humiliation and isolation imposed on women because of the illegal nature of abortion meant that many women, after receiving one, feared going to a doctor when they suffered complications.

Some women didn’t suffer this fate–because of their class. Nearly all middle- and upper-class white women who sought abortions were able to obtain one in hospitals or outside the U.S. But the vast majority of women faced deplorable conditions, and women of color suffered the worst. Nearly four times as many women of color died from illegal abortions as white women. Before 1970, when abortion was legalized in New York City, Black women accounted for 50 percent of deaths due to illegal abortions. Puerto Rican women accounted for 44 percent. The history of back-alley abortion is full of countless horror stories.

Of course, abortion is only one aspect of the ongoing reproductive justice fight. There are women who are still seeking justice after being sterilized without their knowledge. There are teenage mothers, whose choice to have children is met with scorn, legal ramifications, and a constant lack of resources. There are mothers who face the threat of having their children taken away by the state. Then there’s the constant threat to any and all family planning clinics, as well as the cutting of social programs that aide women and childrenWe have politicians questioning whether or not victims of incest or rape even deserve to have abortions. We have legislation up for vote and going into effect that circumvents the very protection for which Roe v. Wade was intended and which may lead to draconian attempts at defining life or creating such narrow access that the possibilities available are no safer than the ones to which we promised we would never return. We have signs targeting women as race traitors if they even dare think that they were the ones allowed to make the decision on what is best for their family, their health, their life. One thing becomes very clear: if we are not willing to give women the access to safe, secure and inexpensive medical abortion, than why are we willing to believe that anything else would be equally accepted?

The film creates a space of only letting women, as well as an abortion provider, speak truth to power, leaning to neither a pro-life or pro-choice platform. If anything, it portrays the deep-seated fear and desperation of what it meant when you had to “take care” of something, and the risk one took by putting your own life on the line in more than one way. While unmentioned in the film, there is an eerie echo to Gerri Santoro (trigger warning), a woman who died in a hotel after performing a self-induced abortion. Santoro had fled to California after escaping her abusive husband, where she began a relationship with a man named Clyde Dixon. She became pregnant soon after and suddenly received word that her husband planned to come see her, possibly to “retrieve her”. Terrified of what might happen after he found out that she had become pregnant by another man, Santoro and Dixon obtained surgical instruments and a medical textbook from a friend in an attempt to perform an abortion in the Norwich Hotel. During the abortion, Santoro began to hemorrhage from the botched attempt. Dixon fled the hotel, leaving the 28-year-old mother of two to bleed to death, alone on the hotel floor. Dixon was apprehended days later and charged with “conspiracy to commit abortion” and sentenced to three and a half years in jail.  The photo of Santoro’s death (trigger warningwould later become one of the most distressing and powerful symbols in the pro-choice movement of the absolute necessity of safe, affordable, legal abortion.

The film rings truer now than ever as pundits attempt to overthrow Roe v. Wade, passing loophole law after loophole law, restricting the protection that the 1973 legislation was meant to for. With each and every law passed, we inch closer and closer to going back to an unsealed era where fear and ignorance led to the death of thousands. Many try to pass off these laws as moral guidelines, religious standards, goodness for the sake of “life.” Under these ideals, life is only acceptable when it is the unborn, not the living. Life means that poor women under the Hyde amendment don’t deserve to have abortions. Life means that everyone lives with an unspoken set of concrete rules, all for the sake of a narrow moral existence that has never been and will never be possible. When it comes down to it, life means only for some.

But many also think that its not possible to go back, that really, all we can do is go forward. So as  2011, a year that saw 56% of new legislation diminishing abortion rights, comes to a close, let us never stop fighting tooth and nail for that case. Not just for ourselves, but for everyone that came before us.


Published by

Profile photo of TheLadyMiss


She writes

5 thoughts on “When Abortion Was Illegal”

  1. The unsubstantiated “Illegal abortion harms women” charge was famously refuted by the late former abortionist and co-founder of NARAL, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who said in his 1979 book Aborting America that:
    “In NARAL, we generally emphasized the frame of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always `5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.’ I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose the others did too if they stopped to think of it.”

    Life begins at conception. A separate DNA profile no matter how inconvenient exists at that time. Marketing the individual cases and spouting bullshit statistics does not change that.

    1. I don’t see how the quote you put up refutes the claim that illegal abortion harms women.  Actually, I’ll take it farther.  It doesn’t.  Quoting a person who says that a certain statistic is wrong does not change the facts.  I think you need to look up what “refute” means.

      No matter what you believe about life and conception, women will get abortions whether they are legal or not.  If a woman is able to get a safe, legal abortion, she will.  If she is not able to, she will get an illegal one.  Illegal ones are dangerous.  Illegal abortions harm women.  It’s a simple fact.

  2. Oh, that picture. No words.

    Although I live somewhere where abortion is illegal, we don’t – as far as I’ve been able to find out – ever have women go through that, because of a country close by with safe, legal abortion; non-profits like the Abortion Support Network; and organisations like Women on Web who provide abortion medication online.

    I wish none of them were necessary.


Leave a Reply