6 Women Share Their Harrowing Stories of Illegal Abortion Before Roe v. Wade
These stories—of waking up in pools of blood, of coat hanger abortions performed at home, of serious and agonizing medical complications—show what's at stake in the fight to keep abortion legal.
Illustrations by Lucy Han
This piece was published in collaboration with The Abortion Diary podcast.
As recently as 45 years ago, American women who were pregnant and didn’t want to be had few options: If you were able to afford it, you could fly out of the country for an abortion. You could be forced to carry the pregnancy to term. Or you could get an unregulated, illegal, potentially life-threatening procedure.
Forty-five years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States legalized the constitutional right to abortion. Since then, the decision in Roe v. Wade has kept abortion safe and legal in the United States. For over four years, I’ve traveled across the US and abroad, listening to and recording people’s abortion experiences. I have spoken to nearly 300 people; of these, 30 terminated pregnancies before Roe. While some were fortunate enough to obtain a safe abortion with a private physician—or through a feminist underground abortion service—others, particularly poor people and people of color, had to face unsafe, unsanitary, and dangerous conditions.
The women (and men) I have spoken to—who are now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s—shared harrowing stories: of sexual violence from underground abortionists, of shaming from doctors and nurses at hospitals, of waking up in pools of their own blood, of using saline solution and catheters, of the desperate need to borrow money, of coat hanger abortions performed at home, of waiting for strangers at street corners, of being blindfolded and driven to secret locations, of sleazy motel rooms with unsanitary conditions, of serious and agonizing medical complications.
Their stories remind us of the dangerous and deadly consequences of denying women access to safe and legal abortion. As one woman I interviewed told me, “Women were dying.” Illegal abortion was risky, but women had no other choices. As we read and listen to these abortion stories, we should never forget that our right to safe and legal abortion is under direct, sustained attack from the Trump administration, conservative legislators, and anti-abortion groups—and that now, more than ever, our reproductive freedom is not a guarantee.
We can not allow ourselves to be forced into the back alleys once again.
“I'd never had such pain in my life.”
Barbara S, Ph.D., 77. Tulsa, OK, 1955/56
I had [my] abortion when I was 18, and it was a man I didn't love... I asked my girlfriend if she could help me, and she gave me the number of a guy who did abortions. I didn't know anything about him—back then you didn't, you just took your chance of going to an abortionist. I went to a house up in the northern part of Tulsa. I knocked on the door and this guy came to the door. I didn't know if he was a fry cook, a doctor, or a plumber. I didn't know what he was or what he did.
I followed him into the kitchen and climbed up on the on the table, and he examined me and said that I was two months pregnant and that it would be $200. Well, I was just a typist. I didn't have a whole lot of money, and I certainly didn't have $200. I left there crying. I went back home and talked to my girlfriend, and she somehow got some pills for me to take. I took them and I thought I had killed myself because I'd never had such pain in my life. It was horrible, and it just kept aching and aching. I didn't have any bleeding, but in about four or five days I started having blood clots that came through. They were just like having a heavy period. So, I thought, "Well, thank God. I'm going to have to be more careful in the future."
I burned inside really badly for about a week and then I went to a regular doctor. He said, “You need to get over to the hospital.” I said, "Well, I have to work and I can't go." He said, "Get over there now." So I went to the hospital and they pushed me down the hallway to the operating room, and on my chest they had put a sign that said, "Incomplete abortion." I just felt that they were somehow saying, "This woman is a sinner.” This was a Catholic hospital. They operated on me and saved my life because the doctor said if I had not gone then, if I'd waited 24 hours, I would have been dead.
“I think it was with a coat hanger.”
Anonymous, 71. New York, NY, 1965 & 1967
In 1965, I was living with a married man, 23 years older than me, a physician. I became pregnant even though I was using birth control. There was no legal abortion in those days, so we did it ourselves. He was a physician and was able to provoke it. I was like seven weeks pregnant at the time. I think it was with a coat hanger. We did it sterilely and he knew what he was doing, but it could have been dangerous. I didn't think about that at the time, but I do now. I don't ever want to see us go back to that again, ever. I was scared. I went into the emergency room because I was bleeding and they did a [dilation and curettage procedure]. They knew that I had had the self-abortion.
Everything went well for about another two years, and I got pregnant again. This time we were able to find a physician who would do the abortion, although it was still illegal. [My boyfriend] drove me to the office in New York City, and I had the abortion. I was like six weeks, so I really had no sense that I was pregnant. And then I was fine after that.
Still using birth control, I did become pregnant one third time. We couldn't find someone to do the abortion. It just became too late. I went to a home for unwed mothers in Manhattan on Madison Avenue, in a very ritzy section, with other women all in the same condition. I saw the baby once and then I left the hospital because I knew if I saw the baby again that would be the end of it, and there was no way I could afford to raise a child on my own. The child was put up for adoption. That was two weeks prior to abortion becoming legal.
“I was lucky.”
Wendy, 70. New York City, NY, 1962
I was 17 years old when I had my abortion. It was in 1962. I lived in New York City. My father somehow got the name of the doctor and I went to that doctor, but that doctor was pretty creepy and the office was pretty creepy. Right away he wanted me to get on the exam table and he wanted to do an internal exam, which wasn't really necessary. The whole thing creeped me out, and so I left. Which I was lucky to be able to do because I knew that my parents knew and they supported me. In fact, the fact that I had gone to this doctor alone was something we had come up with together so I didn’t feel like they had sent me off by myself. I felt like we were kind of in it together.
We got another recommendation of a doctor, but this time my mother came with me. The office was clean. He seemed like a real doctor. What I remember of the procedure is that it was fairly painful. He gave me some kind of sodium pentathol or something that kind of half put me out. But I remember him talking to me through the procedure and saying things like, “This is your punishment for your sins, and I hope you've learned your lesson,” and that kind of thing. After it was over, my mother took me home and I was fine. I remember he had packed my vagina with gauze to stop the bleeding, and I remember the next day pulling this gauze out of myself. It was like yards and yards and yards. Luckily, I didn't feel that I had sinned and I wasn't religious or I didn't really believe in sin, so that didn't really affect me all that much. Except I sort of felt I was angry at him for having said those things.
“I was suicidal. Abortion was illegal. There was nothing.”
Cathy, 69. Ormond Beach, FL, 1962
Here I was, 16 years old, and I was dating a guy, a sailor, who was 21. I remember throwing up in the bathroom at school and thinking, “Oh my God, please, I don't want to be pregnant.” But I went to a doctor. He said, "Well, you're pregnant. You need to tell your mom and dad.” I didn't know how I was going to do that. And, honestly, I was suicidal. Abortion was illegal. There was nothing.
Momma was—she was just so pissed. But she came to me a day or so later and said that she had called the doctor who I had gone to and he had given her the name of someone, an abortionist. A few weeks later, Momma said, “Your father is taking you to have an abortion.” He took me to Ormond Beach. There was a little motel, and to say that it was sleazy is being nice. He drove right up there and met the doctor. The doctor's name was Van. The place was relatively clean. Van told Daddy to leave and come back in about an hour and a half, and Daddy said, “No, I'm not leaving my daughter. I promised her mother I would not leave her.” There was a curtain between the kitchen area and the sleeping area. He pulled the curtain, and Daddy sat there. It took about an hour and a half.
I went back to make sure that I wasn’t bleeding unnecessarily. Momma took me the second time, but she left me. That was when this doctor—I am being nice by calling him a doctor—got chit-chatty. He said, "You have a tight pussy," as I'm laying on the kitchen dinette table, where I was five, six days before. Here I am, just turned 17 years old, probably had sex maybe six times. God, that was terrible. I can't believe he said that, which is one reason why I believe so strongly that it should be done in a clinic. I mean, I was on one of those crappy ass yellow tiled dining room tables, with my legs up in the air, and blood in the kitchen sink right there next to me.
“I was lying in a pool of blood.”
Judi M, 62. New York, NY, 1968/9
When I was 16 I had an illegal abortion. I wasn't really aware of what sex was, and I was... raped by one of my parents’ friends. I had an older friend who was in college at the time and I went to him and I said, “I feel lousy,” and he said, “Maybe you're pregnant.” He said, “Why don't you put some urine in a cup, and I'll give it to my girlfriend, and she’ll take it to the college clinic,” because in those days to find out if you were pregnant you couldn’t go to the drugstore and pick up a pregnancy test. You had to go to the doctor. I lived in a very small town in Bergen County, New Jersey. I would certainly not want my parents to know.
My friend, Dave, gave his girlfriend my urine. She took my urine to the clinic and the test was positive. I just was devastated. I knew that I did not want to continue the pregnancy. I went to my friend and he said he would help me in any way he possibly could. I got his girlfriend's ID so I could pretend to be much older than I was, and he got the money for me, which I think was $250.
Dave wasn't allowed to come with me all the way into the apartment [where I got my abortion], but he took me to the building. I was very scared, but this was my only choice. I walked up the staircase and knocked on the door that I was told was the apartment, and this guy is wearing an apron, like a butcher's apron. He says, ‘Give me the money,’ and I hand him the money and then he hits me. He punches me in the face and I blacked out. When I woke up I was in a lot of pain. I was lying in a pool of blood, and the guy wasn't there anymore. I gathered myself together and got down the stairs, almost fell down the stairs and, luckily, Dave was there and he took me to the hospital.
I had his girlfriend's ID with me so I had to keep remembering that I was her, not me. When I got to the emergency room, they knew that I had had a botched abortion and everybody was very angry at me, the nurses. It seemed the whole hospital was yelling at me that I had done a bad thing and I was going to die and they were going to try to help me, but they weren't happy about my being there. I was fine.
“I could not afford, emotionally or financially, to provide for another human being.”
Jean R, 73. Rosarito Beach, Mexico, 1964/65, and San Bernardino, CA, 1965/66
When I was in my mid-20s I had an unplanned pregnancy and I was already struggling to provide for the two children that I had during my teen years. I knew that I could not afford, emotionally or financially, to provide for another human being. It took me almost four months to get together enough money to go to Mexico and to find a provider. I knew nothing about their medical training, but I knew that I did not have any ability to provide for one more human being, and so I determined that I would get an abortion no matter how far I had to go to get it. Then I found out it was going to cost me $350. That was about my whole month’s salary, and so I knew it was going to be a great sacrifice. Some friends chipped in, and that’s the way I was able to afford to have an abortion.
The drive to Rosarito Beach was three and a half hours, and I was exceedingly sick the entire way. When I got the the doctor, the person who was trained to provide surgical abortions seemed very nice, and I felt comfortable in his care. It took him about an hour and a half because at this point I was a little over four months pregnant because it had taken me that long to get enough money to pay him. It seemed like forever, of course, but he said he couldn’t give me any medicine because if we were raided I would have to jump off the table and run.
My second abortion experience—both of these abortions occurred when I was using birth control— was with a local doctor in the town I lived in at the time. It was a saline solution abortion. I became very, very ill and had quite a bit of heavy bleeding, so I did have to go back to see the doctor. I was referred to the second doctor by a friend.... I did realize he was risking his license, and I thought that was very brave if him to do.
The financial difficulties were very great in both cases. I just consider myself one of the lucky people that I was able to gather the money together to have an abortion, and to have an abortion so I could better care for the two children that I already had.
To listen to the full version of these and other abortion stories, visit The Abortion Diary.