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Home » Opinion | ‘A New Generation of Powerless Women’: On Life Before Roe, and Fears for the Future

Opinion | ‘A New Generation of Powerless Women’: On Life Before Roe, and Fears for the Future

by News Desk

This is the first in a two-part series of personal stories from readers.

To the Editor:

As an 18-year-old college student in 1962 who had just ended a relationship with my first sexual partner, I was devastated to learn that I was pregnant. It took me so long to find any doctor who would perform an abortion that by the time I was examined by one, he told me that he couldn’t help me as I had entered the second trimester.

Words fail to describe my utter desperation, and this kind man was moved enough to call his wife, then take me to his home in Washington, D.C., at the end of his workday. After confirming that I would not tell my strict parents about the pregnancy and that I had absolutely no intention of giving birth, he arranged for me to travel by train to a woman who would perform the abortion. He gave me a vial of antibiotics and wished me luck.

What I didn’t know was that she would be inebriated, use her kitchen table for the insertion of a catheter to induce labor and lock me alone in a room for 36 hours. I am almost 80 now, and I still count that abortion weekend as the most frightening time of my life. It was what motivated me to be a pro-choice activist for the rest of my life.

When the Supreme Court made Roe v. Wade the law of the land, I breathed a huge sigh of relief that back-alley abortions would not be needed ever again. My heart breaks for all the future women with unwanted pregnancies.

Suzanne Wallis
Manzanita, Ore.

To the Editor:

I was an unwanted fetus. I was a fetus who caused disgrace and forced a geographical move, a tortuous upheaval and a premature adulthood no one was ready for. It’s delicate because no one wants to admit they wish they weren’t born, but I must give voice to what no one wants to admit: It’s difficult coming into a world where you’re unwanted, where your parents are children who made a mistake and now have to pretend they’re in love and all was “meant to be.”

It starts a whole life of pretending. Pretending you want a baby. Pretending you want to be married. Pretending you’re ready to quit school and give up all your dreams to parent. Pretending your dress isn’t getting tight by wearing a girdle. Pretending you’re happy. How terrifying it must’ve been to have no way out.

You think I didn’t absorb that shame? I did. I absorbed my parents’ shame deeply into my inner core. I carry it still. Their shameful secret became me.

Please let me be anonymous. I am almost 69 years old and my parents didn’t have a choice. To revoke Roe v. Wade at this point would be an unconscionable move backward. Let’s not flood this country with more unwanted children without the medical, financial and educational systems in place to support them.

Name Withheld

To the Editor:

In 1971, just before the Roe v. Wade decision, I was a first-year student at Princeton Theological Seminary, studying for my master of divinity degree. A former Catholic, I was assigned a part-time work-study position at the State Home for Girls in Trenton. Many of the teenage residents were there because a parent or guardian had declared them as troubled or incorrigible.

It was an appalling place, filled with young girls unable to defend themselves. I was asked to pastor to these girls, many of whom had been sexually assaulted by their mothers’ boyfriends.

Two of my earliest cases involved girls who had been impregnated in their early teens. One girl, whose mental capacity was far below her age of 12, became pregnant after a neighborhood boy offered her a lollipop in exchange for sex. Another girl who was 15 had been kept in solitary confinement after she attempted to self-abort a pregnancy caused by her mother’s boyfriend.

As they unlocked the doors for me to enter their quarters I resolved to never believe in the absolutism of the Catholic position on right to life. Whose rights? Whose lives?

Randi Schmidt
Phillipsburg, N.J.

To the Editor:

I am 83 and was in college during the late 1950s. I saw women, both friends and acquaintances, simply disappear from classes and dorms. Some left to get married before their pregnancies “showed”; some went to Canada for an abortion; some left to hide out until delivery and adoption.

My own surprise pregnancy came with a man whom I’d been seeing and subsequently married (and divorced). But I knew a respected obstetrician who would perform an abortion (illegally); I had the means and family support to obtain an abortion in Canada; and I also knew that my family would support me financially and emotionally should I choose to have the baby.

I chose to have the baby, now a wonderful daughter. The operative word is choice. I had choices because of my family and their stable economic circumstances. There are millions of women of childbearing age who do not have such choices.

It is appalling and wrong for the government to eliminate those choices, and to force women to carry to term babies for which they are not prepared. It is, in fact, barbaric.

Kay Oppenheimer
Aiken, S.C.

To the Editor:

I watched a 13-year-old girl have a hysterectomy! It was 1960, and I was a resident in OB-GYN. Following a back-alley abortion, this poor kid developed an antibiotic-resistant pelvic abscess that, to save her life, demanded removal of her uterus, making her unable to bear children.

Before 1973, I saw the unbelievable self-inflicted damage women in all socioeconomic strata suffered to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies. Can you imagine what damage acid injected into the vagina can do? Unsterilized wire hangers self-inserted or manipulated by untrained abortionists caused virulent infections and death. Roe v. Wade essentially put an end to that horror in the United States.

The majority of Americans want access to safe abortions. But persistent pressure by the well-financed Catholic Church along with some ultraconservative groups are, with the help of a Trump-loaded Supreme Court, likely on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade and sending women back to the Dark Ages.

Women have always and will forever find ways of terminating unwanted pregnancies. A civilized society should make this as safe as possible.

What can we do? The answer is at the ballot box. All candidates for public office should be made to state their position on a woman’s right to choose. Candidates who support this right should receive our votes.

Benjamin Kendall
Wynnewood, Pa.
The writer is a retired obstetrician.

To the Editor:

I got pregnant when I was 17, in 1968, the summer after I graduated from high school. I had what was called a “therapeutic abortion.” This was the only legal and safe way a woman could obtain an abortion in those days, and I was able to obtain it only because my mother stepped in and arranged it for me.

For the procedure to be done I had to see three different psychiatrists and specifically tell them all that I would kill myself if I had to have this baby. The abortion was performed at a large private hospital in Chicago.

If I had been forced to have this baby that I didn’t want and wasn’t in any way prepared to have, I would not have gone to college or graduate school. I would not have had my career. I would not be married. My life would have been ruined, and I would not be the woman I am today.

Pro-choice is anti-abortion, just not the way the radical right frames it.

Bronwen W. Davis

To the Editor:

For more than 40 years, my grandmother hid the secret of her abortion from everyone in our family. It was not until the mid-1970s, a few years before her death, that she shared what in her mind was the most shameful moment of her life.

Never mind that her pregnancy had resulted from her having been sexually assaulted by her alcoholic and abusive estranged husband. My grandmother was nonetheless convinced that her abortion, hastily performed by a neighborhood woman with little medical training, was a stain on her soul.

I was of course saddened to learn, from my mother, of my grandmother’s ordeal, including the guilt and fear she’d borne in silence for so many years. But I took some comfort in believing that times had changed and that few women in her situation would ever face the stark choices that had confronted my grandmother.

Now, thanks to the Supreme Court, a new generation of powerless women may well follow in her footsteps.

Richard J. Conway
Massapequa, N.Y.

NEXT: More abortion stories.

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