Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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Joan Wile

Joan Wile is the Founder of Grandmothers Against the War and the author of "Grandmothers Against the War: Getting Off Our Fannies and Standing Up for Peace" (Citadel Press)

June 17th, 2012 7:49 PM

My Illegal Abortion

We can feel the so-called "right to lifers" nipping at our heels.  Legislators, mostly male, are trying to take us back to the days of deadly back alley abortions.  In an effort to contribute to the struggle to keep them legal, I offer here the story of my own abortion at a time when they were criminal offenses.
It is 1948.  I am 17 years old, a student at the University of Chicago.  I am a kid, immature and confused.  I am also pregnant.  At this time in history, one doesn't bring such news to the attention of one's parents, and I have to deal with it myself.  My options are twofold --  to have the baby or to abort it.  Marriage is out of the question.  Penniless except for a small allowance from my mother earmarked for college funds, living in the dorms, and, generally, totally incapable of nurturing and supporting myself, much less a child, I have only one realistic choice --  abortion.  Unfortunately, in 1948 abortions are not legal, and one has to find what is called a "kitchen table" abortionist to perform the dreaded procedure.  If one is very fortunate, perhaps through connections one can locate a real doctor in place of a non-medically trained quack.
I am panic-stricken.  After an arduous and time-consuming search, I find a doctor or at least I am told he is one, willing to do the operation -- for a hefty fee I am utterly unable to afford.
Somehow, though, with the help of the boy with whom I created the pregnancy, I raise the money.  The appointment is made.  I spend a few days in utter terror.  Will I die?  Will I hemorrhage?  Will I have great pain?  Will I permanently damage myself?  Will I be able to return to the dorms afterwards and recuperate without anybody noticing? 
But, despite these truly grave misgiving, there is no backing out.
The grim day arrives.  Trembling, I enter the abortionist's office.  I stretch back in the obstetrical chair and spread my legs.  I am given no anesthetic. The doctor approaches me with a gleaming metal object.
Thank God, the rest is a blur in my memory.  I feel pulling and tugging and pain.  I feel hot liquid run down my legs.  It seems to go on and on forever.  Mercifully, it is finally over.  I go back to the dorm and lie down for a day or two, constantly afraid something will burst or break or tear.  But, it doesn't, and I eventually heal.  I am one of the lucky ones.
I am lucky because I was treated by what I assume was a physician.  I don't know what he would have done if something had gone wrong -- after all, he would  have greatly jeopardized himself if he were forced to commit me to a hospital.  Yes, horrible and traumatic as it was, I was very lucky.  Unfortunately, many women and girls of that period were not lucky at all.  There were many, many deaths, many injuries, some of which made it impossible for the victims to produce babies.  Happily for me, I grew up and had children without any accompanying medical problems.
Finally, in 1973, Roe v. Wade was enacted and abortions became legal.  I was so pleased that nobody would have to undergo what I suffered.  Of course, even legal abortions are fraught with anxiety and mental anguish, but a huge amount of the fear factor was removed once they became legitimate.
Now, we see the right-wing politicians threatening to repeal our reproductive rights.  Could repeal of Roe v. Wade be far behind?  That is why I have revealed the secret of my past -- to try and scare people into obstructing this menace.  I think newer generations of women take legal abortion very much for granted, and need to be shocked into recognizing how dangerous their lives would be if they do not retain choice over their bodies.
I appreciate that many people sincerely believe that a fetus has a soul and that aborting it is tantamount to destroying a potential human being.  I would never argue for choice on the basis that they are wrong to believe that.  There will always be theological and philosophical debate on this issue, and it will never be ultimately resolved one way or another.
But, I think the ethical aspects of the matter are beside the point....BECAUSE WOMEN WILL HAVE ABORTIONS WHETHER THEY ARE LEGAL OR NOT!  In fact, they will probably have them in numbers as great as they do now while they are legal.  So, it is not a question of preventing fetuses from being destroyed.  They will be destroyed either way.  Rather, it is an issue of saving women's lives!
Young women, I caution you to think about what happened to me and so many others -- do all you can to oppose any reversal regarding legalized abortion so that you will never have to experience such horror.  It was terrifying and extremely dangerous.  I don't want it to ever happen to you.

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