What It Was Like Getting an Abortion Before Roe v. Wade
Jo Baxter opens up about getting an illegal abortion in 1965—and her fears now that abortion rights in the US are under attack.
Amy Drucker/Stocksy edited by Broadly
With Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's impending retirement, abortion rights in the United States are at risk like never before. The vacancy presents President Donald Trump with the opportunity to make good on his campaign promise to appoint pro-life justices to the bench who, if given the chance, would overturn Roe v. Wade. Reproductive rights advocates are ramping up efforts to stave off the future Trump has promised to his supporters—one where women are denied full agency and autonomy over their bodies.
Such a future isn't so difficult for Jo, a 73-year-old woman from Florida, to imagine: It was her past. In an interview with Broadly, she recalled her experience traveling seven hours to get an abortion in a Kansas chiropractor's office on a Saturday in 1965, before the landmark 1973 ruling that made abortion safe and legal. Jo fears returning to a US without Roe, where women will have to go through what she did—fear, uncertainty and danger.
I knew I was pregnant the minute I missed my period. I don’t even know if we had at-home pregnancy tests at the time—if we did, I don’t remember using one. I just knew I was pregnant. It was 1965, and I was about 20 years old, in my junior year at the University of Nebraska studying journalism. I had no hesitation about getting an abortion.
I grew up in a very conservative, religious family, and in those days the only option for someone who got pregnant—at least as far as my parents were concerned—was to get married. Well, my boyfriend and I weren’t ready to get married, and we certainly weren’t ready to be parents. And I didn’t want to go through what I had seen my relatives go through—particularly one close relative, who was extremely bright and got pregnant her first semester of college. Her parents forced her to get married and she dropped out of school to raise her children. I’m convinced that if she had finished college and had a family later on, gotten an education and started her career, she would’ve had an entirely different life. I didn’t want to be in that boat, and I didn’t want my parents to feel that their daughter had let them down by getting pregnant out of wedlock, which was a serious sin in their eyes.
But the main thing that drove me to get the abortion was very personal—I simply did not want to have a child at that point. I knew some day I wanted to, but not then.
My boyfriend happened to know someone. He had a colleague at work who had once stopped on the side of the road to help a man who was stranded change a flat tire. When he was finished, the man handed him a business card and said, “If you ever get a girl in trouble, here’s my card.” He was a chiropractor in Kansas. I called him and said, “I need some help”—I don’t even think I said “I need an abortion.” It was so illegal I was afraid to be too specific, but I think he could tell immediately why I was calling. He performed abortions on the weekends, when he wasn’t seeing patients, and he told me to come in on a Saturday.
At the time I was living in a sorority house, and we had a curfew. I had to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night to meet my boyfriend and his friend, who had a car and whom we’d convinced to drive us the six or seven hours it would take to get there.
I had no idea what was going to happen to me. We didn’t have the internet to look up what an abortion was, or what it entailed. I didn’t know anyone who had gotten an abortion, and I didn’t tell anyone I was getting one, except for the people who came with me. But I was a very determined woman, and I was going to go through with it even though I had no clue what to expect.
When we got to the chiropractor’s office, he took me up to a room where he had an exam table with stirrups and a speculum. I don’t remember now much of what was said between the two of us, but I got the sense that he was experienced at it. I didn’t know it at the time, but I later realized what I ended up having was a D&C, or dilation and curettage, abortion. I wasn’t given any anesthesia or painkillers. The chiropractor told me that I would pass the fetus in about 24 hours, and that if I started bleeding I should get myself to a hospital right away.
I don’t recall the procedure itself being painful, but I do remember being in a tremendous amount of pain on the car ride home from the cramps caused by the D&C. By the time I got back to the sorority house, though, the worst of the cramping had passed and I was able to walk in like nothing happened. That night or some time the next day I passed the fetus, just like he said. And I felt this amazing relief.
I have not ever, ever regretted it for one second.
I had no idea what was going to happen to me. We didn’t have the internet to look up what an abortion was, or what it entailed. I didn’t know anyone who had gotten an abortion, and I didn’t tell anyone I was getting one, except for the people who came with me.
I ended up marrying my boyfriend soon after, and we had our first son together when I was 25. We were both older, we could afford it—we both had jobs working at newspapers—and I knew I would have the assistance of my husband raising him. I later went into public relations and spent the majority of my career as a chief marketing officer in Florida. We had another son, and now each of them have two daughters. Next week, my husband and I will celebrate our 52nd wedding anniversary.
I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have been able to finish school or have the career I did if I hadn’t had the abortion, and that would’ve been an utterly different life. I loved working. I loved having a professional career. I don’t see any other path that would’ve led me to where I was ultimately able to go.
I was so happy when the Roe v. Wade decision came down years after my abortion. I can’t tell you how happy I felt over thinking about how women wouldn’t have to go through what I went through. I thought about how if I ever had a daughter, she wouldn’t have to make this kind of a decision without knowing she had some way to receive care that was safe and legal. I didn’t have any daughters, but I did have four granddaughters, and now I’m so concerned that if Roe is overturned, they’ll end up in the same circumstance I was at some point in their lives.
I got lucky: My abortion wasn’t necessarily safe, and it definitely wasn’t legal, but I came out of it OK. I just hope that other women who’ve had abortions will be willing to talk about their experience. People need to understand that having an abortion isn’t an uncommon thing, and just how critically important access to abortion is.
No one other than a woman should be able to decide what happens to her own body. Someone in my shoes might have made a completely different decision, and that would’ve been the right thing for them. But it wasn't for me. Every woman has to decide for herself what’s best.