The U.S. Supreme Court just made good on its plans to destroy Roe v. Wade. Decisions still rest with individual states — and thirteen have already made abortion illegal — but probably not for long, as the court has the power to impose its rules on a federal level.
The effects of laws like this in other countries are horrifying. Ten years ago, a woman from India died of sepsis after days of agony in a Galway hospital. She was miscarrying and had been refused a life-saving abortion because, she was told, the fetus had a heartbeat, and Ireland “is a Catholic country.” Savita Halappanavar’s suffering helped change abortion laws in Ireland, though there are still restrictions and the process took six years. In the Dominican Republic, a sixteen-year-old leukemia patient was refused treatment because it might harm her fetus, and died. This year, two Polish women who were refused abortions died, one after being forced to carry her dead fetus for a week.
We knew this Supreme Court decision was coming. For years now, access to abortion has been threatened, and the current court is stacked. We remember the so-called “right-to-lifers” screaming at women entering clinics some years back, the murder of doctors and clinic workers, the state laws being passed around the country. Still, I don’t think we’ve fully digested what has just happened, or what’s to come. The world depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale just seemed too lurid, too extreme, for a country that we thought of as civilized and where we thought we had moved beyond primitivism in 1973, when Roe v. Wade was issued almost fifty years ago.
Despite all the warnings, many of us are still in shock. But once we’ve recovered our equilibrium, it will be time to act. Women in Ireland achieved their legal victory through long years of organizing, strikes, marches and speeches. Now we must do the same.
I had an abortion at the age of 22, when the procedure was still forbidden. I remember the horror stories flying around about abortions, the women who died on operating tables or during a back-alley abortion, the body parts of a young victim found floating in the Hudson. I remember all the discussions about what to do if you needed to terminate a pregnancy — how you could insert a wire clothes hanger without perforating your uterus, the effects of a bottle of gin drunk in a too-hot bathtub, whether throwing yourself down a flight of stairs would work.
Here’s my story:
I am standing outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. I am Jewish, not Christian, but I’ve stopped to admire this beautiful building every time I happened to pass by since moving to the city, and today it feels imperative to go inside. The year is 1963. I have just had an abortion. I am filled with lightness, joy and relief, and I want to pray to whichever God inhabits the place.
I met Jeff at a party almost two years earlier when we were both at the University of Pennsylvania — he in the architecture program, which then boasted the astonishing Louis Kahn on its faculty, I a graduate student in English literature. Actually, I don’t think we met face to face at that party. I remember sitting on a sofa watching, fascinated, as a group of students debated the utility of a certain kind of roof one of them had designed. It was slightly concave, and the idea was that it would hold rainwater, which would freeze and serve as insulation in winter. Something idealistic and daft like that. What fascinated me was the students’ passion, their evangelism about their work. They discussed practicalities like insulation and building materials, but also Mozart, Goethe’s description of architecture as frozen music, and Kahn’s mystical Salk Institute building in La Jolla. Much as I loved my own field, I’d never seen my cohorts coming close to blows while debating, say, Keats versus Tennyson. And Jeff was foremost among the debaters, confident, loud, brimming with conviction. When he encountered me on the street a few days later and invited me to his place for another party, I was thrilled to accept. It turned out to be a party of two, and I found that his creative enthusiasm in bed — not to mention his uncanny staying power — matched his exuberant passion for architecture.
It was an on-and-off affair. Jeff broke it off once; we resumed the relationship; we drifted apart again. I started dating a local folksinger.
But while we were together, Jeff and I discovered we shared a birthday — May 1st — and on the evening before my twenty-second, he appeared at the door of my apartment with a bottle of wine and a meaningful expression. We hadn’t seen each other in weeks. I said, “I’m not sure I want to do this any more, Jeff,” and he responded — all charming, humorous pleading — “But we have to, Juliet. It’s our birthday.” The sex was as good as ever, but afterward, as he slept beside me, there was a feeling I couldn’t quite verbalize, a sense that I was falling through space or utterly alone in a vast, dark, churning sea. We were both about to leave Penn — me for New York — but something prompted me to ask Jeff for a number where I could reach him in the future, just in case I needed to.
I sit down on a pew in the cool, shadowy interior of St. Patrick’s and am filled with a sense of peace. After a while I rise slowly to leave, pausing to light a candle on my way out.
Even when your period is late, it takes a while to fully believe you’re pregnant when you desperately don’t want to be. You examine the toilet paper after every visit to the john, willing yourself to see a smear of red so intensely that sometimes you actually do see it. I joked with friends that if I ever found blood on my underpants again I’d hang them out of the window as a joyful sign of my liberation. When I told a particularly worldly and knowledgeable friend what I was going through, she wrote down the phone number of a doctor she knew on the tony East Side. “The first thing you need to do is find out if you’re actually pregnant,” she said.
The doctor’s office was on the first floor, bland and pleasant. The examining room had white curtains and fronted onto Fifth Avenue. I don’t remember if there was a receptionist on that visit or if I’d given the doctor a urine sample ahead of time. After examining me, he had me wait in the outside room and then came out, sat down beside me, took my hand and told me I was indeed pregnant. Did I want him to provide prenatal care?
I shook my head.
I loved babies and knew I wanted to have children someday but it never occurred to me at any point to keep this child, the product of a loveless relationship, a child for whom I’d never be able to provide any semblance of a stable home, barely integrated as I was myself then, confused, wondering and wandering. I know what the religious right thinks of people like me, who have abortions “by choice.” Even many supporters of a right to abortion add qualifiers — that abortion should be allowed only to save a mother’s life or health, or where she is in desperate circumstances, abused or too poor to take care of a child, and then only after profound and guilty soul searching. I was poor of course, scraping by on a salary that came to exactly $48.48 a week after taxes — even back then, this didn’t go far — but I had parents in another state who would probably provide help in extremis. And I wasn’t racked by guilt. I was operating simply on the clear, unquestioned knowledge that this was not the time or place for me to have a baby — despite the warmth I felt stirring within me for the tiny nodule of cells inside my belly.
The doctor came right to the point. “Do you want an abortion?”
“An abortion costs $500. If you’re sure that’s what you want, make an appointment for next week, and bring the money with you when you come.”
I didn’t have $500. Later that day, having stocked up on quarters, I called Jeff from a pay phone in a Village bar. I barely got out, “I need to talk to you about something…” when he responded, “Oh, no. No. You’re not pregnant.”
I said I was.
“I can’t deal with this right now. Are you sure it’s mine?”
A pause. Then: “You’re a very popular girl, you know. I’m not the only one you slept with.”
“It’s yours, Jeff.”
“I could get any number of my friends to stand up in court if necessary and say they slept with you.”
I hadn’t expected that. But Jeff was a young man just embarking on a profession he loved, and his reaction was not unusual for the times. There was no feminist movement then and little respect for women in the culture; the image of Woman as Dishonest Manipulator of Hapless Man was rife.
I explained to Jeff that I wasn’t planning to have the baby and didn’t want anything from him — he didn’t need to arrange the procedure or come with me to the doctor. I just needed some help with money.
He said he didn’t have any money and besides, the baby wasn’t his.
I was on my own.
But not entirely. One of my roommates was dating a kindly businessman who happened to be in San Francisco at that moment. She called and explained my predicament to him. “I can’t get her the money today,” he said. “Is tomorrow soon enough? I’ll wire $500 first thing in the morning.”
I have never forgotten that man’s generosity.
I leave the cathedral and walk the several blocks to my apartment on the Upper West Side. The doctor has told me I shouldn’t expect complications and can carry on with my everyday life, but still not to exert myself much for a couple of days. I’m thinking he probably wouldn’t approve of my walking for an hour, even breaking into a run now and then, but I’m a helium balloon, held aloft by wonder and relief, and I can’t make my feet keep still.
The week between the first doctor visit and the second was very hard. Abortion was illegal, shadowy, frightening. We all knew of women who had attempted their own abortions with a knitting needle or coat hanger, a bottle of gin and a boiling hot bath, a fall downstairs. Some died, some were sterile afterward, some, of course, lived on and thrived. There were rumors everywhere about illegal abortions: furtive meetings in back alleys, procedures performed with dirty instruments in hidden-away rooms, women left in alleys to bleed to death or stumbling into hospitals irretrievably damaged. I’d been lucky enough to find a genuine doctor, but even that didn’t guarantee safety. That summer, newspapers were filled with stories about a woman who’d died on a doctor’s table. The abortion went wrong, he panicked, cut her body into pieces and threw them into the Hudson. Now he was on trial for murder. An acquaintance told me she’d actually visited the same doctor for her own abortion, and he’d been kind and gentle. She had heard that the victim’s parents had blackmailed him into performing the procedure by threatening to expose him and ruin his life, despite his concern that it was too late in the pregnancy. For some reason the woman who told me this was fixated on the doctor’s dog, a large shepherd who went everywhere with him, even into the operating room. I have no idea if her version of the story was true.
My doctor was alone in his office when I arrived. He locked the door behind me, gave me a pill to counter anxiety, and then I sat in the waiting room with a movie magazine on my lap while he prepared. Finally, I was lying on his examining room table, feet in the stirrups. I saw he had closed the white curtains, though the sound of voices and traffic still drifted in from the street. That was reassuring. It meant I wouldn’t be screaming, because if I were, he’d be exposed. He told me he couldn’t provide any kind of anesthesia since that would require the presence of a nurse and he couldn’t risk having a second person involved. I would experience some cramping, he said, but he would talk me through everything to come, moment by moment.
And so he did, providing a calm, low-key running commentary, which I found deeply calming. It communicated the sense that I was in competent and caring hands. “Okay,” he’d say, “now you’re going to experience a little cramping. It’ll last for five seconds. I’m counting them for you. One…two…three…” Every time he spoke, my body responded exactly as he predicted. “Good,” he’d say. “It’s going fine.” And then: “Eight seconds. Twelve seconds. Now it’s going to be more intense”…and he’d count again. “Okay, that’s as bad as it gets. You won’t feel anything worse than that the rest of the time. You’re doing fine… ”
Afterward, when I was in the waiting room again, he explained what I was to do if I felt anything going wrong in the next couple of days: “If you start bleeding heavily, go straight to an emergency room. Don’t be afraid. They can’t tell whether you’re bleeding from an abortion or a miscarriage. They’ll just take care of you.” He gave me antibiotics and told me to come in again next week for a check-up. And it was over.
In the evening, I boarded the Greyhound Bus to Philadelphia. I wanted to see the folksinger, celebrate with him and, most importantly, spend the night in someone’s arms even if sex wasn’t yet feasible. The bus lumbered out of the station into the night and I rested my head against the window and fell asleep. In my dream, a heavy curtain dropped onto my body. I startled, then slept on. Even in summer, the air-conditioning in those buses was bone-chilling and, waking, I saw that one of the passengers had quietly placed his jacket around my shoulders while I slept.
I imagine the folksinger and I went out for dinner and a beer that evening, but I don’t remember anything except telling him about the abortion and adding hastily that he shouldn’t worry because the baby wasn’t his. I also remember his response. He said he wasn’t worried and wished that it had been. Later, lying beside him in bed, I began crying into the pillow. He tried to comfort me at first, but when I didn’t stop he gave up, moved away and attempted to sleep, muttering irritably about needing to go to work in the morning. I had no control. Nothing, it seemed, could stop the tears, and I cried alone, hour after hour, through the long night and into the bleary morning.
My daughter has three children and is one of the world’s most tender and dedicated mothers. Her views on abortion are stricter than mine: Women should have freedom to choose, of course, she believes, but restrictions should apply once the fetus is viable — though who knows exactly when that is. It’s complicated, she agrees. Everyone’s circumstances are different. My question is who should impose those restrictions. Who has the moral standing to do it? The Catholic Church has centuries of death and sorrow to answer for: the Indian woman living in Ireland who died of septicemia after three days of agony in a Galway hospital during which she begged doctors to remove the baby she was in the process of miscarrying and they refused because even though the baby was dying, its heartbeat could still be heard. The eleven-year-old in Paraguay, raped by her stepfather and forced — despite her mother’s pleas — to bear the child to term and give birth. These examples made the news, but women and girls tend to suffer wherever the Catholic Church has power — including here, where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has ordered its hospitals to let pregnant women die if the only alternative is emergency abortion.
As for our government, now dominated by lawmakers who threaten funds for women’s health care here and overseas, deprive poor children of food stamps, abandon desperate refugees and call incessantly for wars and bombing raids that kill breathing human beings, how can it serve as the arbiter of morality?
Every woman’s reason for seeking an abortion is unique, and so is every woman’s emotional response to one. Some see it as simply a form of birth control to be used when other methods have failed, some find it regrettable but necessary, others consider abortion an indelible tragedy that marks a life forever, while still others grieve deeply and eventually move on. Much depends, I’m sure, on the messages women receive from friends and family, from their cultures and communities. I haven’t polled my friends, but I’m guessing roughly a third of them have had abortions at some point in their lives, whether legal or illegal, and none appear to be scarred for life.
If there’s to be any national consensus on the issue, it should be provisional, private and informal, rising organically from talk and action among mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, doctors, nurses, atheists and believers. It can make sense only in a country where abortion is freely and safely available, where kids are taught about sex in school and birth control is easily come by. And it should never be rigidified into law. Because ultimately it’s only the pregnant woman who has the right to decide.
I suppose it’s ironic that, blood seeping between my legs, it should have been a Catholic church I entered in search of grace, particularly since my own religion is traditionally far kinder and more realistic on the topic of sex and abortion than most of Christianity — but somehow it made sense at the time. Those glorious spires — frozen music indeed — pointed to a reality more vast, generous and majestic than our shabby human cruelties and pretensions, the candle flame glowing in the cool shadows inside represented both mourning for the emptiness inside me and profound gratitude for the restoration of my life.
Editor’s note: Juliet Wittman’s essay was originally published in December 2015. The introduction was added on May 3, 2022.