As we approach the prospect of a Supreme Court including five justices who will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, it is essential that we not forget the world as it existed before 1973. So let me bring just a bit of that reality back to life.
In the years leading up to Roe, more than 1 million women each year, facing the crisis of an unwanted and unplanned pregnancy, found it necessary to resort to illegal abortions. The vast majority of these women turned either to dangerous self-induced abortions or to the dark and often forbidding underworld of “back-alley” abortions.
Women who resorted to self-induced abortions typically relied on such methods as throwing themselves down a flight of stairs or ingesting, douching with, or inserting into themselves a chilling variety of chemicals and toxins ranging from bleach to potassium permanganate to turpentine to gunpowder to whiskey. Knitting needles, crochet hooks, scissors, and coat hangers were among the tools commonly used by women who attempted to self-abort. Approximately 30 percent of all illegal abortions in the 1960s were self-induced.
Women who sought abortions from “back-alley” abortionists encountered similar horrors. To find someone to perform an illegal abortion, women often had to rely on tips from elevator operators, taxi cab drivers, salesmen, and the like. Because of the clandestine nature of illegal abortions, the very process of finding someone to perform an abortion was often dangerous and terrifying.
Women who sought “back-alley” abortions were often blindfolded, driven to remote areas, and passed off to people they did not know and could not even see during the entire process. Such abortions were performed not only in secret offices and hotel rooms, but also in bathrooms, in the backseats of cars, and literally in back alleys.
The vast majority of these abortions were performed either by persons with only limited medical training, such as physiotherapists and chiropractors, or by rank amateurs, including elevator operators, prostitutes, barbers, and unskilled laborers.
In the 1960s, an average of more than 200 women died each year as a result of botched illegal abortions. The mortality rate for black and Hispanic women was twelve times higher than the mortality rate for white women. In addition to those who died in the course of illegal abortions, many thousands more suffered serious illness or permanent injury. Because of the humiliation associated with having an illegal abortion, many women who suffered complications were reluctant to visit a doctor for treatment. The stories of women who suffered through this nightmare are legion.
One woman recalled how a fellow college student who had had an illegal abortion was too frightened to tell anyone what she had done. She locked herself in the bathroom in her dorm and quietly bled to death. In another incident, 28-year-old Geraldine Santoro bled to death on the floor of a Connecticut hotel room after she and her former lover attempted an abortion on their own. The former lover, who had no medical experience, used a textbook and some borrowed tools. When things went terribly wrong, he fled the scene, and Santoro died alone.
This was the reality of life for one million women each year in the world before Roe v. Wade. Is this the world to which we wish to return?
In contemplating this question, it is important to understand a critical fact, which has often been forgotten: Abortion was perfectly legal throughout Western history until the late 19th century. It was legal, at least prior to “quickening”—when the woman could first feel movement, usually at the midpoint of pregnancy—in the ancient world, in the Middle Ages, during the Renaissance and the Reformation, at the time of the American Revolution, at the time our Constitution was adopted, and during the presidencies of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln.
Abortion services were readily available and openly advertised. They were performed safely by well-trained and experienced midwives. Indeed, by the middle of the 19th century, at a time when contraception was still unreliable, approximately 20 percent of all pregnancies ended in safe and legal abortions.
It was only in the late 19th century, when an evangelical fervor swept the land, that states across the nation enacted laws that outlawed abortion from the moment of conception for the first time in American history. As a result, women who were desperate to avoid the often disastrous consequences of unwanted and unplanned pregnancies were now forced into the dark and dangerous world of illegal abortion. It is truly terrifying to think that we are now on the brink of returning to the horrors of that world.
The justices of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, including three of Richard Nixon’s four conservative appointees to the court, understood this history and understood that the right of a woman to decide for herself whether to bear or beget a child is fundamental to her dignity, her autonomy, and her freedom. They understood, too, the truth of the saying that “if men could get pregnant, abortion would be legal.” The government, they rightly concluded, had no constitutional authority to compel a woman a bear a child against her will.
That decision was correct in 1973 and it is correct today. We must defend that right and we must resist. We must not let Donald Trump cast hundreds of thousands of women once again into the dark and dangerous world of illegal abortion.