In 1967 Abortion Meant Indignity, Fear and Pain
Betty Friedan fights for reproductive rights in 1969.
Fred W. McDarrah
On July 13, 1967, the Village Voice published a essay entitled “The Indignity of Abortion,” in which a woman anonymously — and vividly — recounted her own experience having a pregnancy terminated. It would be nearly six years before abortion was legalized in the United States.
For obvious reasons, the author of this article prefers to remain anonymous.
Wild applause, congratulations, thanks, and bravos to Reverend Howard Moody and his colleagues of the Clergymen's Consultation Service on Abortion. As a recent veteran of the abortion circuit, perhaps some personal words might help underscore the importance of their action.
Looking back on my rather uncheckered career as wife, mother, etc., it is difficult to know where to place my unreal abortion experience on the life scale of comedy-tragedy-life and love. I'm a fairly stable, mature woman. Not rich. Not poor. Average. I was married, with three kids, when I suddenly found myself pregnant. "Original sin," "an accident," "stupidity," "forgetfulness," "overzealous sex" (translate as you wish), nor any of the other insipid remarks to which married people who get "caught" are subjected were applicable. In my case it was mechanical failure — an intrauterine contraceptive device that did not prevent conception. (In fact, for posterity and curiosity seekers there is a stunning x-ray of the fetus with the contraceptive coil next to it. Great scrapbook-memory stuff!) My husband and I decided it was absolutely the wrong time for a new addition and we determined to terminate the pregnancy.
Until this time I had been very liberal in my thoughts about abortion laws and the need to change them, but believe me, when you suddenly are the one it's happening to, the real horror of these archaic, woman-hating, punishing laws is hammered home.
Let me digress. The majority of women who need abortions are young girls, not even "women" in terms of experience, etc. Many of these girls find themselves quite alone with their problems, unable to turn to family, friends, or anyone else. When I try to imagine my miserable experience with the abortionist in terms of a frightened, young, lonely girl, what was to me a nasty experience takes on nightmare proportions. I'm trying to say that I didn't have any of the usual hang-ups associated with abortion: I had no guilt feelings about "taking a life" because I simply don't believe that the fertilization of an ovum by a sperm — under whatever conditions — must nine months later result in a human being brought into this world. There are many emotional, physical, and life reasons which should stop this process. I had no religious problems to deal with. I was not alone and worried about parents, family reactions, the "equally responsible" man. In other words, I experienced none of the tearing apart, guilt, and problems which confront thousands of girls and women when they are making the decision about abortion.
AND STILL — once you make the decision — then what?
First I saw my own gynecologist. He was and is sympathetic and understanding — someone I could talk to. But in the final analysis he was absolutely unable to do anything to help. He made certain that I wouldn't try any wild schemes to abort myself. If there were some way simpler, medical abortions wouldn't be necessary. He also urged me to be very careful where and how the abortion was done.
I soon discovered there are certain "class" patterns to this bit. In the ghetto areas of the city, you can get an abortion for $50 or so of the midwife-kitchen table variety. For about $1000 you can get a Park Avenue job — complete with doctor, bedside manner, and the works, no doubt. You can go to Japan or Sweden — maybe soon to Colorado.
None of these methods were satisfactory. They were either too dangerous or too expensive. Carrying the pregnancy and giving the baby up for adoption seemed an impossible solution considering the rest of our children and my need to work. So we started asking. We got nowhere. Again, it was either too much money, too dangerous, or both. By this time I was two months pregnant. Finally, one contact came through with a doctor, not too far away, and in the $300 to $400 range.
Let me again digress. The only "hang-up" about this whole routine that I had was FEAR. I lived in abject terror that some "butcher" would get hold of me and I would bleed to death or be seriously infected. Some years ago I had the misfortune of giving birth to my first child in the maternity clinic of a city hospital. I am not imaginative enough to have thought up what happened as I moaned and groaned through labor pains: a class of interns, or students, or somethings came trooping into the large ward where — worse luck — only one other woman and I were waiting for the stork. The other woman was shrieking, and I, brave soul, was not, so they picked me. It's easy to be very philosophical about the whole thing and say that medical students have to get experience somehow and on someone — but in the words of the immortal bird — Why me? They brought a board with them, which had holes of various sizes drilled into it. These indicated the various sizes of dilation of the cervix — the more dilated, the closer to time of birth. Any woman who has gone through this process, and most men who listen, will recall that it is referred to and the size of the opening is measured by the number of "fingers dilated." Well, as you have undoubtedly guessed, all these inexpert gentlemen checked with the board, and then with me, and then conferred to decide. Enough said? There were probably five or six students altogether — but over the years, in my mind the number has multiplied considerably. I was convinced after that episode that no worse indignity could ever befall me. Yet the total circumstances surrounding the abortion were in many ways more upsetting and demeaning.
Perhaps this experience had something to do with my fear. But the point is that the fear is not unfounded. Thousands of women die every year either from self-abortion attempts or incompetent abortionists. The irony is that this operation is simpler and less dangerous than a tonsillectomy. Women drop into hospitals for a "scraping" and it's the same damn thing. Only abortion is scraping with a stigma.
I'm not sure that men can really comprehend the rest of this particular kind of experience. But again, I'd like to stress the fact that even in this doctor's office, as the "patients" waited or went in and out, the majority of them were young girls, looking more miserable than any human being should have to look. Some of these kids would blush and be upset just having an internal examination! It seems inevitable that this experience — and there are many worse abortionists — will leave irreparable scars that these young girls will carry throughout their lives.
This was no kitchen table. It was a doctor and a doctor's office. Nevertheless, sordid is the word for the whole procedure. I received a reassuring pat on the ass, not on the back. A transistor blasted away while he whispered in my ear that the place might be bugged.
The examination — "take off your shoes and your underpants first" — with no sheet for sterile or modesty purposes left me naked in the most personally exposed sense of the word, while our friend the doctor conducted a very superficial heart and lung exam which gave him ample opportunity for leaving his hands where they had no business straying in the first place. Then the reassuring whispers about how many of these he's done and how peasant girls can have this sort of thing without blinking an eye: the nausea when he heard I had an intra-uterine device to be removed too, the chuckles as he showed me a boxful of them; the overwhelming feeling that you are being leered at — that you did something bad, dirty, and because of that he can do anything he wants and you must remain silent.
He doesn't really go too far so you don't even have to find out whether you would tell him to go to hell, shove his money, and take off. Is this part of the game, to leave you guessing? What will pride and modesty and dignity do when only he, kind man that he is, can help you?
Finally, the scribbled instructions — he dares not speak — to come back at a certain time, no earlier, no later. So you go through a few more hours of anticipation and dread and then discover why he was so specific about the time. As you come in a miserable girl has just come out, and when you come out another one is all set to go. The words "abortion mill" go round and round in your mind. Gratitude for life must go to penicillin — because keeping track of time between my job and the next, only ten minutes passed, and that's not enough time to sterilize instruments adequately. You're really up-tight. The word was invented for you.
And as you climb up on the table — still no sheet — he says: "Don't forget. No noise. Don't scream!" Until that moment it hadn't crossed my mind that there would be pain. But when you work so fast there is no time for anesthetics or pain-killers, and the one thing no one told me about an abortion is that IT HURTS LIKE HELL. You know your insides have been scraped!
One final detail. When I got down off that table, shaky, rocky, hurting, really hurting, upset, wanting to vomit, scream — then came the final indignity. There wasn't even a bathroom. I had to go out into the hall to use the public toilet.
The wonderful human mind helps one forget the actual pain. The details get fuzzy after awhile. My experience is probably better than most people have with abortionists. For me, it seems to be over, physically and mentally. Still, it is important that my experience and others be made public, so people can look at the subject in terms of its personal implications, not only the detachment of law.
I want to thank the ministers and rabbis for the service they are performing. It will hopefully be instrumental in changing the laws. In addition, the personal service which they will perform, the help and relief they offer to women at a moment when they are really alone, is immeasurable.
I'd like to suggest that their service could be augmented by women who have had the experience of abortion. It would have helped me to have spoken to a woman who had gone through it before. Maybe if I had known exactly what was coming it wouldn't have been so shocking. Perhaps the clergymen could enlist a group of women they could call on to help those who come to them for advice. I would be glad to volunteer for such service.
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