For many decades men used the power of the state to force women to carry unwanted pregnancies. Once legal, abortion was outlawed in the late 19th century, and women who sought one were treated as sinners and criminals. Many women — some 2 million a year in the 1890s alone — defied the coercive power of patriarchal and paternalistic government to obtain abortions.
Women of means were sometimes able to find a doctor to help, but all the others had to resort to desperate and dangerous measures. They swallowed potent concoctions of turpentine, bleach and detergents; jabbed coat hangers, bicycle spokes and knitting needles into their vaginas; or had lye, soap and potassium permanganate squirted into their uteruses. Botched attempts caused injury to thousands of women a year, and many were rendered infertile. As late as the mid-’60s every large municipal hospital in the US had a “septic ward” filled with women suffering from infections. Some women leapt from stairs or roofs trying to end a pregnancy.
On Jan. 22, 1973, the US Supreme Court decided, “Enough’s enough,” and abruptly declared abortion legal. In deciding Roe v. Wade, the court held that because the Constitution protects the right to privacy, in the earlier months of pregnancy, a woman can legally choose to abort.
Conservatives reacted ferociously, and in the 44 years since the ruling, the Republican Party, dominated by the religious and political right, has crusaded to nullify Roe. Conservatives named to the Supreme Court for just this purpose have tried to whittle away at it, and according to the Guttmacher Institute, since the decision, states have enacted 1,074 restrictions aimed at limiting a woman’s access to legal abortion. In 2015 alone, conservative lawmakers considered nearly 400 bills to limit a woman’s access to legal abortion and passed 57 new restrictions.
With Donald Trump’s election a year ago, his appointment of right-wing judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and his embrace of the conservative strategy to fill lower courts with young, deeply conservative judges who pass the litmus test of vehemently opposing abortion, we are closer than ever to the reversal of Roe v. Wade, despite the fact that a majority of American adults say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Too often lost in the furor is the real experience of women who sought abortions when the male-dominated state controlled their bodies and fate. Recall that time and you understand why women (and men) today are organizing, lobbying and taking to the streets to declare, “Never Again!” Against the steamroller of the White House, the Republican Congress and the Christian right, all they have going for them is the courage to stay the course, the support of a multitude of kindred spirits — and memory.
Lest we forget the way things used to be, we invited several women — and one male doctor — to share their personal stories from both before Roe and afterward. I urge you to watch and listen, and to think about what will happen once again to women if women have NO CHOICE.