A Tale Of Two Illegal Abortions


We are just months away from the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and the right to a legal, safe and accessible abortion has probably never been in greater jeopardy.  As the anniversary approaches, more pre-Roe abortion experiences are being shared, and the stories range from the clinical but expensive to the unsanitary and dangerous.

The Atlantic ran a 1965 piece from Mrs. X describing the fairly safe, professional but illegal procedure she was able to receive thanks to the ability to come up with $500 dollars to terminate a pregnancy (the equivalent of about $3500 in today’s terms). With the right amount of money, Mrs. X could have a clean, precise surgical termination with little risk–other than the potential legal risks to both herself and her provider.

This particular M.D. was able to strike a nice balance between willingness to help and lack of overeagerness to collect his $500, payable in advance. He stated frankly that he felt the element of physical risk was negligible but that the myths and exaggerations about abortion and the hard fact that it was an illegal procedure created prior apprehensions of sometimes damaging proportions. He urged me to call him and cancel the appointment if my husband and I felt there was any reason to reconsider our decision. Short of physical and fiscal miracles we had no right to expect, I didn’t see what could alter our circumstances and told him so, but I agreed wholeheartedly about the apprehensions.

The operation was successfully concluded as scheduled. Forty-five minutes after I entered the doctor’s office for the second time, I walked out, flagged a passing cab, and went home. Admirably relaxed for the first time in two weeks, I dozed over dinner, left the children to wash the dishes, and dove into bed to sleep for twelve hours. The operation and its aftereffects were exactly as described by the physician. For some five minutes I suffered “discomfort” closely approximating the contractions of advanced labor. Within ten minutes this pain subsided, and returned in the next four or five days only as the sort of mild twinge which sometimes accompanies a normal menstrual period. Bleeding was minimal.

For Jan Wilberg, an illegal abortion was no such sterile, clinical affair. Without enough money to pay for what she referred to as “a bona fide illegal abortionist,” she had to resort to a wire inserted into her cervix by a doctor in a motel room.

[W]hat I had to do was a dreadful thing. The lack of safe, legal and affordable abortion put me in a dingy motel in downtown Detroit to undergo a risky, unsanitary procedure that could easily have maimed or killed me. That I lived to tell the tale, to write about it on this page, is a small miracle of my life. Six years later, abortion became legal in the United States. Of any accomplishment of the women’s movement, this one was always at my core. It wasn’t right for women to risk so much in order to be in control of their own reproductive lives. It wasn’t right to punish women who have been cornered by circumstances — unplanned pregnancy, no job, no money, no options — by daring them to find the $250 illegal abortionist in their city or worse. It wasn’t right that women should have to pay for a mistake with their fear, risk their future health and their very lives while men could walk away and be free.

Do these stories have any effect on those who oppose abortions? Not at all. Instead, they argue that outlawing abortions should still stop most abortions, that illegal abortions probably aren’t really that dangerous, and that a few women dying is a fair balance to the many more children who would be born to the women who had no other choice but to give birth. 

[S]ince surgical abortions are performed with the same equipment that is often used to treat spontaneous fetal demise, physicians willing to perform illegal abortions will already have the necessary tools on hand. There is no reason to believe that illegal abortion will be significantly more dangerous for the mother than illegal abortion. In the end, the back-alley, coat hanger abortion is nothing more than a convenient myth aimed at sparking emotions and arousing public sympathy. If abortion is outlawed in the future, some abortions will still take place, but relatively few will be fatal to the mother. If abortion remains legal, however, millions of innocent human beings will continue to die–a trade-off that is both tragic and unjust.

Or, in the immortal words of Mississippi’s Bubba Carpenter, “Hey, you have to have moral values.”

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