There is not one single woman of childbearing age — not one — who remembers America before abortions were legal. As for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, who hopes to return women to that world, she doesn’t remember it either, because she was just shy of her first birthday when Roe v. Wade was decided.
I remember that world, including my illegal abortion as a college senior in December 1965, and its aftermath. And I’m going to share what I know because what women don’t know can hurt them.
For my graduation a semester later, my parents gave me a trip to Europe. It was dusk in late August, and I was hiking across a field in Sweden when suddenly I was overcome with agonizing abdominal pain. Then it stopped. Then it came back. That’s the way it went during the night, too. By morning, though, the pain was gone.
I couldn’t make sense of that pain, but it was another one of the odd things that had been happening to me since my abortion.
“I need to rip the veil off,” I’d written in my diary in January 1966, meaning the veil that had come between me and myself. I was numb about what I called “the horror of December,” meaning my abortion. It was a word I couldn’t even say.
I was one month pregnant when I had my abortion, and terrifying as the whole experience was, medically it was without complication. I was anesthetized with sodium pentothal, and I was sent home with a week’s worth of antibiotics in my pocket. No coat-hangers involved.
But to get that abortion, I first had to stand on a street corner in a New Jersey city I’d never been to with five $100 bills in my pocket, while I waited to be picked up by someone I’d never met who would take me to wherever the abortion would take place. If anything were to go wrong, I didn’t know if my body would ever be found. The day before, I'd read about a woman who'd had a botched abortion in an airport motel and was found dead behind the steering wheel of her car parked in front of her house.
And I was one of the lucky ones. I was a middle-class college student with a supportive family, a nurturing boyfriend and loyal friends — but to get what I needed, I had to step into a world which calls to mind The Handmaid’s Tale.
It is possible to know the facts of the past — from forbidden abortion to Prohibition — but it is almost impossible to fully grasp a past we haven't ourselves lived through. No more can we truly imagine the powerlessness women felt at not being able to vote, not because we cannot imagine being turned away from the ballot box ourselves, but because we can’t truly imagine how that fact of female powerlessness not only infused the entire public world but deeply infiltrated every woman’s most private sense of self. It can run so deep that women may feel it but not recognize it for what it is, any more than fish know they’re in water.
I couldn’t “rip the veil off” because I was overwhelmed, not by guilt but by powerlessness. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I had come face-to-face with a law that shaped a world profoundly hostile to my ability to control my own body and my own future. I hadn’t noticed it because I hadn’t come into conflict with it before, but also because it was hidden underneath the seemingly harmless (and now archaic) trivia of everyday life that helped anchor it in place — from virgin pins to jokes about “shotgun weddings.”
The profound powerlessness I felt was intolerable enough to estrange me from both my body and my feelings. To put it in today's terms, in hindsight, the Supreme Court vote on Roe v. Wade a few years later was a major attack on systemic sexism. It meant “Women’s Lives Matter,” and that has made all the difference.
What makes the world we may be heading toward especially dangerous is that women may not always recognize that world, or the power of its trivia. If what women don’t know can hurt them, what they do know can help.
I naively assumed that after my abortion, that I would bounce back. Though I continued to function, something was wrong. The numb feeling, which I eventually recognized as depression, continued. I was distracted and remote. Any noise, even the flushing of the toilet, made me jump. I lost any interest in sex. I broke up with my boyfriend. And month after month after month, I waited for my period to resume, but it didn’t.
So the “veil” stayed on. Today we’d probably say I was traumatized.
It took me almost two years to fully get the veil off and to reconnect with all I had disconnected from. I couldn’t have done it without the physician who prescribed birth control pills to jumpstart my menstruation and helped me reconnect with my body, and the therapist who helped me reconnect with my feelings. As for that agonizing pain that began one late August night in the middle of a Swedish field? Have you already guessed? The onset of the pain occurred on the date that would have been my pregnancy due date. I am not the “Woo Woo” type, but with my emotional and physical estrangement from myself, my body had developed a mind of its own.
The weakening of Roe v. Wade over the past four years has taken much away from us already. Eight states have only one abortion provider, so women are already traveling to strange cities fearing what will come next. A friend in the Midwest who helps women secure abortions says they are increasingly costly and hard to come by, especially so as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage. With Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court, the protections of Roe v. Wade may disappear altogether. And if they do, too many women will be forced to live in a past they could not even have begun to imagine.
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