Illustration by Lucy Han
In the early 1900s, desperate American women wrote letters to the founder of Planned Parenthood begging for help with unwanted pregnancies. A century later, they're sending eerily similar messages to an international abortion-by-mail service.
"I'm in the family way again, and I'm nearly crazy, for when my husband finds out that I'm going to have another baby, he will beat the life out of me... Please write to me and help me."
"I am in need of help desperately. I am pregnant and cannot have this baby. My husband is very abusive and did it on purpose because I want to leave. I need help... Please help me."
Both of these pleas come from American women—both of them pregnant against their will, with few options, and fearing for their lives and safety. The first was written in 1917 and published in Birth Control Review, a twentieth-century magazine devoted to extolling the virtues of contraception. The second was written almost a full century later. It's one of countless frantic emails sent by American women to Women on Web, an abortion-by-mail service located in the Netherlands.
On the surface, the circumstances surrounding these letters seem starkly different: In 1917, abortion and contraception were both illegal, and even sharing information about how to prevent pregnancy was considered a criminal act. In the 100 years that have passed since then, the feminist movement has made huge strides towards sexual and reproductive liberty; birth control was fully legalized in 1972, and abortion followed suit in 1973.
But conservative politicians have worked tirelessly to attack and undermine these rights in recent years—passing legislation that shuttered hundreds of abortion providers throughout the South and Midwest, preventing low-income women from being able to afford abortion care, attempting to make contraception as expensive as possible, and waging constant legislative battle on Planned Parenthood. As a result, the right to choose is a right in name only for many women throughout the US, poor women and women of color in particular.
Birth Control Review, published between 1917 and 1940, was edited by Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. Though she was openly opposed to abortion, Sanger would regularly print heart-wrenching correspondences from women suffering from unintended and unwanted pregnancies who thought she might be able to help them. Her goal in doing publishing these—which she referred to using epithets like "Letters from Harassed Mothers" and "Letters Showing the Dilemma Faced by Many Mothers"—was to highlight the moral imperative of legalizing birth control, which, she argued, could prevent such pregnancies and decrease the number of illegal abortions in the country.
An editorial cartoon published in Birth Control Review in the 1920s
A century later, Women on Web receives the same type of correspondence—messages from women struggling with unwanted pregnancies, terrified at their lack of options—on a daily basis. The organization, which was founded in 2006, sends the abortion pill to women in countries where abortion is illegal and advocates for its safe use at home.
Women on Web has provided Broadly with several of the emails they've recently received from American women. The similarities between these and the letters published in Birth Control Review are striking: The women in both groups often go into great lengths describing how dire their situations are, and they typically outline their reasons for needing abortion in detail. Though the forces causing their distress have changed, the tone of the letters has remained fairly constant through the years, suffused with the desperate pragmatism of someone for whom the last resort is the only option.
As Leslie Regan argues in When Abortion Was a Crime, a landmark survey of the history of abortion law in the US, for the vast majority of the women writing into Birth Control Review, "abortion was not associated with personal freedom, but with family needs." The same, generally, can be said of the women contacting Women on Web in recent years. Though the decision to terminate a pregnancy is typically framed as a choice, it is often one born of several constraints: Nearly half of abortion patients are below the federal poverty level, and 59 percent have had at least one previous birth.
One woman described herself in an email to Women on Web as 24 years old, "a single mother with three children." Her ex-husband had left her, she wrote, and he refused to pay child support. "I am almost seven weeks pregnant... I need help, and I am feeling very desperate," she continued. "I want desperately to be a good mother to the children I already have. I need an abortion. Please help me."
I want desperately to be a good mother to the children I already have. I need an abortion. Please help me.
During the first half of the 1900s, women contacted Sanger with similar concerns; many wondered how they'd be able to afford to feed more children and worried that their existing family members would suffer if they were forced to carry another pregnancy to term. "I would like to see my children have some education, but if we get some more it will be impossible," wrote one woman, in a letter printed in 1918. Another woman, writing in 1925, said she had five children. The youngest of these was just a few months old, and the mother was still recovering from that delivery.
She was pregnant again, she confessed, and frightened: "I never dreamed of getting that way again. I am 41 years old."
She added that her husband had gone to the doctor looking for a way to end her pregnancy to no avail, and she nervously asked whether there was anything she could do. "I don't do this to be mean. No mother loves her babies any more than I do," she said. "I don't believe in doing things like [getting an abortion], but in all conditions I honestly think it is best for my four-month-old baby... Sometimes I think I will end it all, and try not to on account of my baby and little girl and the rest of my four children."
Unlike the women who wrote to Birth Control Review in the 1900s, those contacting Women on Web today do technically have the right to terminate their pregnancies safely and legally—they just cannot afford to do so because of several interlocking obstacles constructed by the political arm of the anti-abortion movement. The mother of three who contacted the organization, for instance, wrote that she lives in Ohio, which has some of the harshest abortion restrictions in the country. Half of the clinics in the state have been forced to close their doors since 2011, and any woman seeking an abortion must go in person to the provider, then return home for 24 hours to reflect on her decision before getting the actual procedure.
Coupled, these factors made the procedure prohibitively expensive for the Ohio woman: "To get an abortion I would have to drive two-and-a-half hours from my house, pay $388 (that is after the help from the abortion fund for people with low income), and then wait 24 hours and then return to the clinic (two-and-a-half hours from my house)," she said. "There is absolutely no way I can afford to do this."
For many of the women contacting Women on Web, cost is a barrier; another common concern is arranging for childcare. "I'm a single parent. I just lost my job then I found out I'm pregnant. I can't afford it at the moment," wrote one woman. "I don't even have source of income. Please help me!!" Another said that she works full-time but lacks medical insurance, adding, "I won't be able to afford a visit to the doctor, and I won't have time to go see a doctor between taking care of my daughter and working."
Pro-choice protesters in front of the Supreme Court in 2016. Photo via Wikipedia
For those who live in one of the 14 states with mandatory waiting periods and in-person counseling sessions, the most pressing issue is frequently related to the cost of traveling long distances to reach a clinic and paying for lodging. "I'm in the US but in my state it's nearly impossible. The governor passed a law and now our state has barely any abortion clinics open, and the closest one to me is almost 300 miles away," one woman wrote. "And, to get the abortion, it is done over two weeks in three to four [separate] appointments. I was just wondering if there was any way we could work something out and you could send me the pill. Please!!"
Another woman, living in Michigan, wrote that she felt "alone and helpless." She is disabled, she added, "only able to walk short distances" and surviving off disability payments; over a dozen abortion clinics in the state have closed in the past few years, and she worried about her ability to drive several hours to reach the nearest provider.
"Even if I could make the long drive downstate, I'd never be able to afford to stay somewhere to comply with Michigan's 24-hour consent law," she added. "Is there any way your organization can help? Is there any advice you may have for me? I'm feeling desperate and alone, and I know that time is of the essence. Please... is there anything you can do to help? I'm running out of options quickly, and feel like I'm simply banging against the same brick wall."
Copious research shows that restricting access to abortion doesn't make it any less frequent; it just makes it more likely that women will seek out unsafe, illegal methods. Despite a century of tireless fighting for reproductive justice, this is still a reality for as many as hundreds of thousands of women in America. Though abortion and contraception are no longer banned outright, conservative legislators have worked with alarming efficacy to ensure that both of these things are essentially inaccessible for the most marginalized groups in our country.
I'm feeling desperate and alone, and I know that time is of the essence. Please... is there anything you can do to help?
In April of 1923, a woman wrote to Birth Control Review, blithely referencing the routine way she had tried to terminate pregnancies on her own. "Every time I get that way, I always take everything I can to get out of it, and it never helps me any, only hurts my health," she said. A few months later, a woman shared a similar account, saying she had tried to prevent pregnancies by using "an antiseptic douche," but that had failed, so she began taking drugs recommended to her by a doctor to induce miscarriage: "I have been using [the drugs] since and fear it will kill me for I am getting weaker every day... I know I cannot live long, constantly taking these awful drugs."
Several decades later, someone emailed Women on Web, describing her own regimen. "I tried taking parsley and vitamin C at 10 weeks, added dong quai and black cohosh a week later, trying an herbal abortion. It didn't work," she said. "I started punching myself in the stomach repeatedly for two days." That didn't work, either. She wondered what options she had left.
Since the dawn of the reproductive rights movement, advocates have argued that forcing unwilling women into motherhood is dehumanizing, unconscionable, and unjust. In 1923, a woman from California described the effects of this type of reproductive oppression as she witnessed them on her own mother. Once "a person of refinement and culture," her mother, who had given birth nine times by the age of 45, had been reduced to "a human breeding machine," she said.
This week, a conservative lawmaker in Oklahoma referred to women in similar terms, while defending a widely maligned law that would require pregnant women to obtain written permission from their sex partners before getting abortions. "I understand that they feel like that is their body," he told the Intercept. "I'm like, hey, your body is your body and be responsible with it. But after you're irresponsible then don't claim, Well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you're the host, and you invited that in."
Even after a century of progress, politicians are still trying to push policies that only recognize pregnant women as "hosts," as ambulatory wombs, as breeding machines. At what point will women be able to know with certainty—rather than just "feeling like"—their bodies are their own?
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