Abortion Is a Woman's Right (1999)

by Susan Brownmiller

Women's Liberation found its first unifying issue in abortion, and abortion became the first feminist cause to sweep the nation. From 1969 to 1972 an imaginative campaign—rash, impudent, decentralized, yet interconnected by ideas and passion— successfully altered public perception to such an extent that a "crime," as the law defined it, became a "woman's constitutional right." Its capstone was Roe v. Wade, the monumental Supreme Court decision of January 22, 1973.

Nineteen sixty-nine was a precisely defined moment, the year when women of childbearing age transformed a quiet back-burner issue promoted by a handful of stray radicals and moderate reformers into a popular struggle for reproductive freedom. The women had been dubbed the Pill Generation, and indeed, earlier in the decade many had heeded the persuasive call of the sexual revolution, only to be disenchanted. Exploring their sexual freedom with an uncertain knowledge of birth control and a haphazard employment of its techniques, they had discovered the hard way that unwanted pregnancy was still a woman's problem.

Unlike the isolated women of their parents' generation who sought individual solutions in furtive silence, they would bring a direct personal voice to the abortion debate. They would reveal their own stories, first to one another and then to the public. They would borrow the confrontational tactics of the radical-left movements from which they had come. They would break the law, and they would raise a ruckus to change the law, devising original strategies to fight for abortion through the courts.

Before the new militance erupted, abortion was a criminal act in every state unless a committee of hospital physicians concurred that the pregnancy endangered the woman's life. Three states had extended the largesse to women whose health was threatened—broadly interpreted, health could mean mental health, if two psychiatrists so attested—but no more than ten thousand "therapeutic" abortions were performed in a year. To the general public, abortion was the stuff of lurid tabloid headlines that underscored its peril: A young woman's body found in a motel room; she'd bled to death from a botched operation. A practitioner and a hapless patient entrapped in a midnight raid on what the police dubbed "an abortion mill." There were shining exceptions like the legendary Robert Spencer of Ashland, Pennsylvania, who ran a spotless clinic and charged no more than one hundred dollars, but venality ran high in an unlawful business in which practitioners were raided and jailed and patients were pressured to be informers. Money was not the only commodity exchanged on the underground circuit; some abortionists extorted sexual payment for their secret work.

One million women braved the unknown every year, relying on a grapevine of whispers and misinformation to terminate their pregnancies by illegal means. Those lucky enough to secure the address of a good practitioner, and to scrounge up the requisite cash, packed a small bag and headed for San Juan, Havana, London, or Tokyo, or perhaps across town. The less fortunate risked septic infection and a punctured uterus from back-alley amateurs willing to poke their insides with a catheter, a knitting needle, or the unfurled end of a wire banger. Still others damaged their health with lye or Lysol, the last-ditch home treatments. Life magazine estimated in 1967 that "five thousand of the desperate" died every year.

The writer Jane O'Reillys story gives the lie to the too simple myth that "rich'' women could always find a connection. In the summer of 1957, she was a Catholic debutante from St. Louis who was looking forward to her senior year at Radcliffe when she discovered she was pregnant. Dr. Spencer was in one of his periodic shutdowns, Cuba sounded unreal and scary, and the trusted family doctor to whom she appealed insisted that she tell her parents. A classmate finally came up with an address in New York and lent her the six hundred dollars. O'Reilly recalls that a man with a mustache placed her on a kitchen table, prodded her with a knitting needle, and gave her some pills.

A month later she fainted in her college dormitory shower. Whatever had been done to her in New York, Jane O'Reilly was still pregnant. Moving out of the dorm, she joked about putting on weight and took her finals shrouded in a raincoat. The next day she gave birth at a Salvation Army hospital and signed away her baby daughter. For the next thirty-four years on every May 10, her daughters birthday, O'Reilly plunged into a sobbing depression. In 1991 the pain partially lifted when her daughter found her through an adoption search.

Women of my generation still need to bear witness; we still carry the traumas. For my first abortion in 1960 I took the Cuba option that had scared O'Reilly. Here's what I remember: Banging on a door during the midday siesta in a strange neighborhood in Havana. Wriggling my toes a few hours later, astonished to be alive. Boarding a small plane to Key West and hitchhiking back to New York bleeding all the way. Bleeding? I must have been hemorrhaging. In which state did I leave the motel bed drenched with my blood?

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