Return to the back alley is inevitable

‘There was no way she could know if the ‘doctor’ had any training or credentials to perform a procedure in a medically safe fashion. What ensued was a nightmare.’

BRATTLEBORO — My mom almost lost her life from an illegal abortion, way before abortion was legalized in 1973, back when she was a college student in the 1940s.

With Roe v. Wade overturned, I am now compelled to tell her story, to ring out the warning of the dangers of the inevitable resurgence of “back alley” (illegal) abortions.

I never knew the full story until after my mom's death, at age 65 from uterine cancer, when her lifelong friend, Nina, stepped up to share more details with me.

To her credit, my mom did tell me she had an abortion, but she chose to say nothing about the horrors of her experience. Perhaps she thought she needed to protect me.

But Nina felt it would be important for me to know that my mom suffered because women in those days had no legal and medically safe options for ending an unwanted pregnancy.

* * *

My mother was from an affluent family and engaged to my dad when she became pregnant with their child. At the time, she was a high-achieving college student with significant career ambitions. It was essentially impossible in those days for her to simultaneously finish college and have their child - part of the reason she chose to terminate her pregnancy.

When my mom sought out a back-alley abortion, she was sharing an apartment in New York City with Nina. There was no way she could know if the “doctor” had any training or credentials to perform a procedure in a medically safe fashion.

What ensued was a nightmare.

He started the procedure without anesthesia and told her this was because she had sex outside of marriage and deserved the pain. My skin crawls when I think of this. What brutality and torture. This happened to the woman and the uterus I was born from.

Visualizing this hurts at every level of my being. How did this affect her for the rest of her life? It makes me sad that I can't ask her this question.

After this procedure, she went back to her apartment with Nina and began to hemorrhage uncontrollably. Both were terrified. They knew they could not turn to real doctors for help, as abortion was illegal; doctors would be risking their careers to help someone who had an illegal abortion.

Finally, they did reach out to her family's physician, a woman. She came to the apartment and was able to stabilize the bleeding.

What would have happened if she did not have this compassionate female doctor? If this doctor hadn't been willing to risk her medical license or willing to come to her apartment to treat her?

My mom could have died.

* * *

My mom went on to have both my brothers and me. And she had quite the career in which she was able to help many others, especially women.

After college she worked in a settlement house in Boston, providing social work services to mostly black folx. She took time off from working until all of us kids had entered school.

She got back into the workforce as a school guidance counselor. She then worked at Simmons College, starting what was at the time only the second continuing education program for women in the country.

She also did 24 episodes of The Next Step, a series for WGBH, the public television station in Boston, in which she interviewed woman going into careers in the early 1960s, exploring how they often tried to balance family and career. The program got very high ratings (it came on after Julia Child!), so it reached a lot of women at a time when women's rights were building.

Thank God, I say, that a kind woman doctor saved my mother, and that she was able to go on and live a life helping so many women and others. And have children when she was ready.

I now ask myself: Was her motivation to enfranchise woman in her work rooted in her being so disenfranchised when abortion was not yet legalized?

* * *

My desire to publicly share this story grew exponentially after the leak of a draft opinion which made it clear that the current Supreme Court would probably overturn Roe v. Wade this summer.

In conversations with both my adult daughters, they expressed how upset and angry they are that Roe v. Wade is now overturned. We have decided we cannot give up hope and need to find actions to protect women's reproductive rights going forward.

In Vermont, Massachusetts, and Oregon, where my daughters and I live, abortion is relatively protected for now, but that could change.

What will disenfranchised, poor women do if they live in states that now ban abortion or will soon do so?

What will the women do if they cannot afford or who don't have the means to travel to other states to obtain an abortion, to acquire pills for a medical abortion? What will they do if they risk losing jobs by taking time off?

It is inevitable. We will once again have an underground of illegal, and often risky, means of terminating pregnancies.

My skin is already crawling at this thought.

Yours should be, too.

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