This story from Toni is published at The Tennessee Stories Project.
Nobody can tell a woman what to do with her body. She’ll find a way to do what she has to do—whether or not it’s healthy or safe.
I was fortunate; I’m still here, and I didn’t get horribly hurt. But the reality is I had two abortions that were illegal, and I don’t know to this day—will never know—if they were really doctors.
The first one was when I was doing voter registration work in the early 60s, and I got pregnant. The guy was married, and he was older. I was very stupid, but I was also very young. The only access to birth control I had at the time were condoms, and they didn’t work.
This was before Roe v. Wade passed, and there were all these specific instructions to get the operation done. The guy had to pay $1500—which was a lot of money back then, and still is for a lot of people.
I was in South Carolina, and I had to go to Baltimore at a certain corner downtown, at a certain time, by myself with cash. This big car pulled up, and I think there were two other girls in there. I got in, and they put something over my face to cover my eyes. So, I couldn’t see. It was like something out of a horror movie.
When they finally took the handkerchief or scarf—whatever it was—off my eyes, we were in the country at a big farmhouse. There were several girls there around my age—late teens, early twenties—and they just took us in, one-by-one.
At both of my abortions, neither of the doctors gave me anything for pain—not Valium or anything. But, it turned out I was probably better off. Two of my friends died from botched abortions, and one was given Valium, which was a horrible thing for her. It raised her blood pressure, and she bled to death.
So, they stuffed a stock in my mouth, did the abortion, and sent me back the same way I came—on the corner of the street. But I was all right, and I didn’t have any bad side effects.
When I told this story to my husband, he asked, “How did you feel after? Was it awful?” You hear so much about women who were devastated, and they can’t sleep or eat afterward. But, I was relieved. Abortion is the last resort, and if we had good reproductive rights and good family planning programs for women, we wouldn’t have to have abortion. And I was sorry I had to do it. But at the same time, I don’t have any trouble believing that life starts after birth. I don’t believe that I killed something.
I was sorry I had to do it, very sorry. But my overwhelming feeling was relief, and it always has been. I don’t have nightmares or regret; I’m just relieved that I was able to do that, and the same thing was true several years later when I was in graduate school in Tallahassee and had to do it again.
This time though, I was really sorry because I was madly in love with the guy. He would have married me, but he didn’t love me. He was seeing other women too, and I just couldn’t marry someone like that. He also paid for the procedure, and I’m sure it was a lot of money, but I honestly don’t remember.
I had the abortion in Jacksonville, and this time it was on the coffee table of a Howard Johnson hotel suite. The doctor, he didn’t like the bed. It was too soft, and he asked for a cot but apparently all the cots were taken. So, there wasn’t anything approximating a hospital bed. It was in the winter, so he just put my winter coat on the coffee table, and I laid on that.
Again, nothing horrible happened. It was painful, he put a sock in my mouth again—socks are good for that, apparently.
Afterward, I did feel a lot of self-disgust. I was really mad at myself for not taking care of myself better, although I tried. The only birth control pills I ever tried made me very sick to my stomach, so I stopped. Sometimes I didn’t use anything, but this one time I used a diaphragm, and it fell out. So, really, I just had bad luck with the available birth control options.
And this time, there were side effects. When I was engaged years later in my late 20s, early 30s, we wanted to have children. I went to have a pelvic and found out there was so much scar tissue—and I’m Rh negative—so I couldn’t possibly have had a healthy baby at that time. I ended up adopting two children, but I never had any of my own, and there was a time when I really wanted to.
Years after my second abortion, I was in Chicago working on another feminist issue just before Roe v. Wade passed. There was a group there called ‘Jane,’ which was a group of volunteer women who were trained how to give abortions by a couple doctors who, although they supported reproductive rights, didn’t want to lose their license or risk going to jail.
So, these were volunteer women who wanted to be trained to give abortions, and I was one of them. Many of these women were very wealthy, and they would bring girls to their homes, while their husbands were working. It, Jane, was originally organized by a graduate student who had gotten in touch with these women and the doctors and nurses, and the organization never had a bad procedure. Every woman went home, feeling a little shaky, but alright.
We were trained to look for women who didn’t tell the truth about how far along they were, and we wouldn’t take any woman over two and half months—twelve weeks. After that, it’s just too sticky and could be disastrous. If we didn’t think we could do it safely and that the woman had a good chance of being okay afterwards, we didn’t do it at all.
A lot of the women who used ‘Jane’ were married. I was atypical; there were very few of us who were unmarried. Most were married women who had a bunch of kids already and just couldn’t afford any more. We didn’t use the word rape back then for married women, but back then, their husbands owned their bodies. So, even if these women didn’t want sex or didn’t want to have unprotected sex, it didn’t matter. A lot of these men wouldn’t use condoms because they it didn’t feel as good, and their wives would become pregnant again. But many of these women simply couldn’t have another child—they couldn’t afford it.
Eventually, friends or relatives of some of the Jane volunteers told the police, and two of the women volunteering there were arrested. They were never held, though, because it was right before Roe v. Wade, and these volunteers were very wealthy women, with husbands in influential positions.
There were a lot of programs like Jane in some of the bigger cities just before Roe v. Wade. But I had two friends who lived in smaller cities that didn’t have support for pregnant women, and died as a result of botched abortions, and I’m afraid that’s what’s going to happen again if we once again restrict and prohibit access to abortion.
Women will always find a way. Women haven’t changed, and they still have the same concerns about their bodies. If a woman is fertile, and she doesn’t have access to good birth control devices, she’s going to get pregnant. If she can afford to get care, she will. But if she can’t afford to get care, she’ll do it anyways.
Wealthy women and upper-middle class women will always be able to get abortions and there will continue to be a few doctors who are retired or unlicensed who will offer abortions to women in poor and working class women but these doctors will charge high fees for this. These doctors will be taking a chance and they aren’t going to do that without being well paid.
Thank God, there will always be another system of volunteers and people who support programs like Planned Parenthood who provide a network for low-income women, particularly women who are raped. But, unfortunately, a very large number of those women either won’t know what’s available or just won’t be able to access help like that.
But it is going to happen again, and women are going to be forced to find other ways to have control over their own bodies. I haven’t told my story to many people, and it’s not that I’ve been trying to hide it. It’s just that it hasn’t come up. But it’s coming up now, and that’s why I wanted to share my story. It’s appropriate, and it’s relevant, and it needs to be told.