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Before Roe v Wade: Marcia's abortion story, New York


At the age of 19 I was dating a man 10 years older than myself. Despite using contraceptives I became pregnant. At the time I was in my second year at University. I had recently ended a brief one-year marriage and knew that this was the wrong time for me to bring a baby into the world since I had no intention of quitting school. In fact, despite a later marriage, I continued with my education through to a Ph.D.

However, in 1954 abortions were still illegal in the US, even in New York, where I lived. For women who needed an abortion during these years there were several problems. Most important was to figure out how to find a competent, respected medical abortionist (whom to ask?), and then to figure out how to raise the money to pay for the procedure. Fortunately the man in question had an uncle and aunt who were willing to lend us the money. (I think at that time it was about 500 dollars to have an abortion. That was a lot of money in 1954!).

There were networks of people who knew of good abortionists. There was one particular physician who was working out of a suite, in a well-respected downtown hotel. I went there with the aunt, whom I barely knew, but who was willing to accompany me.

I was living with my parents at the time and my mother knew that I was going to have an abortion, although I didn't want to tell my parents at first. I also didn't want to ask them for the money, though they could have afforded it. My mother didn't stand in my way but she couldn't cope with being at home when I returned. I was told not to tell my father. Only the housekeeper was there to greet me and put me to bed when I returned.

The abortion itself was a very unpleasant, demeaning experience. Although I was given a Valium a 1/2 hour before the operation, there was some pain and I was cautioned not to make noise. After the procedure I had a short time to rest, and then I kind have trundled out of there, with the aunt holding on to me as we got a cab and went home. There were no negative side effects, like an infection, and there was nothing really horrible about it. However, the secrecy led to intense feelings of shame.

My mother assured me that I needn't marry just because this happened. I think she just couldn't deal with it and didn't want to be part of it. She wasn't anti-abortion per se, it was more that she was deeply ashamed.

Finding the doctor and the venue re-assured me that I was not going to some backstreet office. There was very little chance that I will be accosted by people who were anti-choice, or who even knew that there were abortions going on in the hotel. I am sure that there were people doing that all over Manhattan - upscale kinds of abortions. Having money helped a great deal.

I was very lucky. I had a lot of support. I've never ever regretted it. It was so early in the pregnancy that I never had any connection with this embryo, so it's not like I felt: oooh, this "baby". I was in charge of my body and life. Having the abortion allowed me to move along with my life, in a way that was productive, and good for me and those around me. I did eventually marry. And about 6 years later I had a wonderful healthy baby boy!

I was married and lived in a big old apartment, in New York. This old apartment had two entrances, and next to kitchen entrance there was "maid's room” - little tiny room, and little tiny bathroom.

One of my sisters got pregnant and needed an abortion. Again, we found a very well respected physician, who lived in Manhattan not far from me. We arranged for an abortion to be performed in my kitchen, on my kitchen table!

It was a really bizarre experience because the middle of this my baby started crying. So I had to go through kitchen, take and calm the baby and warm up a bottle for him. But it all went smoothly. There was no infection or problem of any kind. And there was a minimum of shame. (Finding the money to pay this guy with was the big problem this time). My sister was able to rest at my place for a day or two, and then that was it.

And then two years later my baby sister (twelve years younger) got pregnant! We sisters learned that we got pregnant very easily, even with contraception. I think that by that time my mother knew about what was happening. She wasn't thrilled, but accepted it. My parents were really middle-of-the road, liberal democrats. They weren't very religious. It was more a cultural thing and shame.

Actually, this sister had had a child before this abortion (OW = out of wedlock). She had told my mother then, and she was sent to "a fat-farm" to disappear until the baby was born. At the facility the women were lectured to, shamed, etc. And that was an awful experience. The social worker put on a lot of pressure and convinced her to put the baby up for adoption. And to have no contact with him at all. This was a very painful experience in her life.

Between my own experience and my sisters' experiences, I wouldn't have done anything differently. Both sisters also agree that the abortion itself was not a terrible experience.

As a psychologist I have counselled many women who have had abortions. So many women go through hell because of religious pressures. I've worked with women who were impregnated by their priests, I've worked with nuns who were impregnated by their priests and who then had abortions. But the guilt... was so, so high. Again despite that, none of the woman that I worked with has regretted their decisions.

So, yes, I've been very lucky. I was middle-class, I could afford decent doctors, and I could afford after-care. So many women who couldn't had to go to backstreet abortionists, where people didn't even wash their hands, never-mind sterilize their instruments!

I've never kept the abortion a secret.

There is a lot of pressure, of guilt, from all kinds of religions, whether it is Roman Catholic or some other fundamentalist belief system. I am totally secular so these are not issues that I concern myself with. But I do know people who have been raised in cultures where they have been steeped in shame and guilt for all their lives about many things, not just abortion.

Abortions can be painful, of course, or major discomfort. It is rare today, because of medication, etc. If one needs spinal surgery - it is painful, and then you recover. The pain of the surgery isn't what you hold on to. It's thinking: "gee, I feel so much better”! Yes, there may be pain, but you know, childbirth also hurts. It hurts a lot. So, do you then never have a child, because it's going to hurt? There is fear about going into the surgery, fear about what that might mean for your future, fear about the pain, but you do it anyway, because you know that that might save your life, that might be an important thing in your life. And you don't constantly remember: ooh, that was such a painful, horrible thing! You think: I am so glad I did that. And that's the way that people can think about an abortion: it's frightening chiefly because of all the horror stories that are told. The pain is really a way of deflecting the real issues and is the part that is the least important. Even if there is pain - if there is emotional support, and comfort, and positive stuff afterwards, then the pain is the least problematic.

This is my story - not a dramatic one. Abortion has been with us since human history’s beginning. It will always be with us.

- Marcia, New York


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