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The Way It Was

The Beatles ruled. The mini was in. I was seventeen, and pregnant. What happened next is what could happen again.

I borrowed the extra hundred from Kat, and enlisted someone I knew to ride out to Jersey City with me on the train, a guy who was something of an ex-boyfriend. Even though I was enigmatic about why we were going to Jersey City at night, he guessed what was up, and seemed fairly entertained at the prospect.

This time, there was no one in the waiting room. The doctor looked very annoyed when he saw that I wasn't alone. My friend stayed out there while I went into the office. The doctor locked the door behind us.

The doctor stood next to me, leaned on me heavily, and rubbed his two hands up my thigh, all the way up, so that his fingertips collided with my crotch. I understood then that he'd known perfectly well on my last visit that he wasn't going to go through with it.You are a beautiful girl, a beautiful girl, he breathed moistly onto my face as his hands slid up and down, up and down.

When I was on the table, he stood between my legs and pressed and ground his pelvis against me and then put his fingers in for a while.

Then he said: You are too far gone. I cannot do it.

I put my legs down and sat up. He stood next to me, leaned on me heavily, and rubbed his two hands up my thigh, all the way up, so that his fingertips collided with my crotch. I understood then that he'd known perfectly well on my last visit that he wasn't going to go through with it.

You are a beautiful girl, a beautiful girl, he breathed moistly onto my face as his hands slid up and down, up and down. It is too late. Take my advice. Have the baby. Have the baby.

He unlocked the sliding doors and beckoned my friend in.

Get married, he said. Have the baby.

Hey, I'm not the guy, said my friend.

What about my hundred dollars? I asked.

Get out of here, the doctor said, and turned his back.

When we got to my friend's train stop, he walked off whistling a jaunty tune. Good luck, he said, and was gone.

 

Today, chat rooms and message boards related to abortion show a disturbing trend among some young people: Not only is disinformation rife ("The only reason abortion is still legal," writes one correspondent, "is becuz the babies organs are prossed and some of that money is forwarded to the libral party."), but many young people haven't the remotest notion of pre-Roe reality. Abortion's been legal since before they were born. Some even believe that abortion was invented with Roe v. Wade.

Abortion was not always illegal before Roe. Into the 19th century, what a woman did with her early pregnancy was considered a purely domestic matter. Until "quickening," when the fetus was perceived to be alive and kicking, it wasn't even considered a pregnancy, but a "blocking" or an "imbalance," and women regularly "restored the menses," if they so chose, through plants and potions. Abortifacients became commercially available by the mid-1700s.

Quality control was not great, and the earliest abortion legislation, in the 1820s and '30s, appears to have been an effort to curtail poisoning rather than abortion itself. According to several historians of the issue, as abortion—both through drugs and direct procedures—became a bigger and bigger commercial venture, "orthodox" physicians, who were competing with midwives, homeopaths, and self-styled practitioners of all stripes, pushed to make abortion illegal. The nascent American Medical Association established its dominance over lay practitioners through abortion laws, and women were kept in their place. Eugenics played a role, too: With "undesirables" breeding prolifically, motherhood was hailed as a white woman's patriotic duty, abortion a form of treason. By the mid-1800s, most of the "folk" knowledge had been lost and abortion became "infanticide." Between 1860 and 1880, antiabortion laws spread city by city, state by state. Now there was a ruthlessly pragmatic aspect: In the aftermath of the slaughter of half a million men during the Civil War, the births were needed. First the men were conscripted, then the women.

Into the 19th century, what a woman did with her early pregnancy was considered a purely domestic matter. Until "quickening," when the fetus was perceived to be alive and kicking, it wasn't even considered a pregnancy.

Demand for abortion continued to grow in spite of the laws. Periods of relative tolerance gave way to periods of stricter enforcement, which inevitably corresponded to periods of women's activism. In the late 19th century, it was when they demanded a voice in politics. After World War II and through the 1960s, it was when they demanded sexual freedom. All kinds of change, rebellion, and upheaval were busting out then, and the reflexive reaction of the authorities was to crack down. For women getting illegal abortions, this era was particularly marked by fear, secrecy, ignorance, shame, and danger. This was the era that put the rusty coat hanger into the collective consciousness.

The day after I returned from Jersey City, there was another doctor in a seedy little basement office in New York, who didn't even touch me. He said the only way to do it at this point would be to perform a miniature caesarean, not something he could do in his office.

Kat and Elaine were plainly getting tired of having me and my problem on their couch. They came up with a phone number in Florida. I called. A male voice said I should fly to Miami. They'd meet me and take me to one of the islands, to a clinic. Give us the telephone number of where you're staying now in New York. We'll call you back and confirm the arrangements.

He called back within an hour. It was set: Fly to Miami next Thursday, between the hours of noon and five. Wear something bright red so we'll know you when you get off the plane. And bring eight hundred dollars, in cash.

One last thing, he said. You must not tell anyone where you're going.

They understand that I'm over three months, right? I said.

Yeah, yeah. They know. It's all set.

I hung up. This didn't feel good at all. Florida, the islands, wads of cash, distant voices.

I thought about doing what I should have done in the first place: calling my mother.

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