When Abortion Was Legalized: One Woman’s DC Experience

15 Jan

by Anonymous
Originally published February, 1972 in the Montgomery Spark 

Disclaimer: This article is reprinted for its insight into subject of abortion in the District of Columbia in 1972 and should not be used for medical advice. Current practices should be consulted. The article is slightly edited from the original. Included after the article is the author’s reflections 40 years after publication.

Abortion can be a frightening word – especially when you’ve just found out it’s going to happen to you. Fear of the unknown makes you eager to find out exactly what’s going to be done to you, and how it feels, and what effects it will have.

If you have friends who have gone through it, you can go to them and find your answers – at least some reassuring fact comes from each person you ask. But in case none of your friends have had abortions or they’re afraid to admit it, or they’ve scared you with their stories, or if you’re afraid to ask anyone — maybe it will help if I tell you about my abortion.

The Decision

I had been using contraceptive foam (Delfen) because I had been led to believe it was effective – and it had been for three years. But then I missed a period.

I don’t like to admit unpleasant possibilities to myself, so I waited until a couple of days after I’d missed my second period before I went to the D.C. Free Clinic for a pregnancy test. Don’t ever wait that long if you can help it – your pregnancy could be over ten weeks along and abortions can be much more difficult (and expensive) then.

For awhile before I went to the Free Clinic, the man I live with and I had thought a lot about what we’d do if I were pregnant. What good things would happen if I went through with it and had a baby? (1) A new person would come into being and . . . and what?

The bad things were much more evident. We couldn’t afford the hospital bill, I wouldn’t be able to work for a couple of months, our lives are too unstable right now to properly help a child to grow, we might subconsciously resent the child for causing this change and stifling in our lives, and what if the two of us ever decided not to live together anymore?

So it was evident that either the baby had to be given up for adoption (I went through that once before and always regretted it), or I’d have an abortion.

So by the time I received the results of the pregnancy test (positive, huh?) I was convinced that abortion was the answer. But I was afraid. Even after a really good explanation by a very kind counselor at the Free Clinic, I was still apprehensive, to say the least.

What Next?

All I knew at this point was that I had barely escaped the ten-week deadline, there were several places I could call, in D.C. and in New York, that they were all reliable (no witch-doctors or black-sedan/shady-deal/incompetent or unskilled malpracitioner), and that I had to raise $150 in less than a week.

First DC Abortion Clinic Opens: 1971

Phone counselors at Preterm clinic shortly after it opened in March 1971. Photo: Rosemary Martufi, courtesy DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

So the next day I made an appointment at a downtown D.C. abortion clinic called Pre-Term. I was to go in the following Monday, at 7:25 a.m. They assured me I’d be out of there by 11:00, but I had my misgivings.

Getting the money was hard to do, but we found we had more friends than I thought we had. The man I live with called up his friends, and within a couple of hours they had it all together – without question of when they would get paid back. And they couldn’t really afford it – they just know what it is to be a friend.

Luckily, we didn’t have to take their money because three of my women friends each had $50 stashed away and offered it to us. (Sisterhood is powerful!)

I had told several people that I was going to have an abortion, and some of the women told me about their abortion experiences. I kept asking questions because I was really afraid, but for some reason I didn’t want them to know I felt that way. It’s not a good way to behave, but it was hard for me to entrust my feelings to anyone. I guess I was afraid I’d lose the courage to go through with it if I broke down my defenses in any way.

Most of the fear came from not knowing what was going to happen. The man I live with was the only one I could communicate even a part of this fear to, and that’s mostly because since he’s not a woman, he can only imagine what it’s like to have things like this done to your body. He could offer infinite comfort and courage – and he did. But another woman would know what I felt, and because of my defenses I could not let that happen.

So I just pretended – to myself and others – that it wasn’t going to be such a big thing.

Arriving at the Clinic

My friend Annie went with me to the clinic that Monday morning. I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything before the abortion, so I was sleepy from no coffee and hungry from no breakfast. I guess my fear woke me up enough, though.

Pickets Outside Preterm Clinic: 1972

Anti-abortion pickets outside Preterm clinic March 24, 1972. Anonymous did not face pickets when she entered the clinic earlier in the year. Photo: Rosemary Martufi, courtesy DC Public Library Washington Star Collection @ Washington Post.

I was surprised to see about ten other women in the waiting room when I got there. Some were with their mothers, who looked calm and accepting, although I’m sure some mothers wouldn’t be, and some fathers would pretend like the situation didn’t even exist.

Some women were with their husbands, who looked sort of concerned but mostly as if they didn’t understand that abortion is not an easy thing for a woman to go through. And some women were alone – one of whom, I found out later, was a college student from the Deep South, had secretly flown to D.C. the night before, and planned to be back in school the next day. They don’t allow abortions in most places.

After about a 20-minut wait, the receptionist accepted my payment and asked for my medical history and a few other details.

Pelvic Exam

Then I was given a preliminary pelvic exam. In case you’ve never had a pelvic examination, here’s what they do. You lie on a table with your feet in some things that look like stirrups, and you spread your knees apart. You feel sort of vulnerable in this position. (You are, but nobody’s going to hurt you.) The thing is to relax. The more tense you are, the more uncomfortable it will be.

I keep telling myself this, but I always get tense at the beginning. Then the doctor takes a metal instrument called a speculum and gently puts it inside your vagina. It feels weird, but it doesn’t hurt. When the doctor presses on the handles of the speculum, the part that’s inside you spreads open the walls of the vagina so the doctor can look inside. It never takes much more than a minute – usually not that long.

It sounds horrible, but it’s not. Women in the D.C. area are learning to do their own pelvics so they can learn more about themselves.

Counseling & Birth Control

After I had the pelvic exam, they sent Annie to the friends’ waiting room, where, she said later, a lot of the people got into good discussions about abortions and women’s rights in general.

Meanwhile, a clinic counselor named Judy took me to an office down the hall. She was so friendly and reassuring that I began to relax a little about what was going to happen.

We talked about birth control, both of us laughing a little about my ignorance in thinking that foam alone could keep me from getting pregnant. It’s really not funny, though, when you think of the millions of women who know precious little about birth control, and therefore can’t control what happens to their bodies.

Lippes Loop

The Lippes Loop IUD that was recommended for Anonymous.

We discussed what kind of birth control I would use after the abortion. I didn’t want a diaphragm because it’s a hassle. Pills scare me because they can have bad side effects. She told me that I could have an intrauterine device (IUD) put in right after the abortion, while I was still on the table. If you’ve had a baby before, it’s relatively easy to adjust to, so we agreed on an IUD called a “Lippes Loop”.

If you’ve never had a baby before, or if you’re susceptible to infections, don’t let them talk you into an IUD immediately after an abortion. Six weeks is a safe time after an abortion to get an IUD . . . meanwhile you must let your body rest and recover from this physical trauma, not even having sex during that time. If you have had a baby, it’s still a good idea not to get an IUD for a while. In women who have not had babies, IUDs cause very severe cramping and bleeding, and lots of times your body rejects it and it comes back out.

After the birth control rap, Judy described for me, using an anatomical diagram, exactly what would happen during the abortion. This helped to ease my mind, but the misgivings were still there. They needn’t have been, though, because everything happened just as she said it would.

Into the Room

By now it was about 10:00, time for it to actually happen. The counselor brought me into a room that looked like any doctor’s examination room.

I was ready, the doctor came in. He was the first man I had seen there – most of the staff were women. He told me his name (Alexander, I think), and we spoke lightly for a few minutes.

The first thing he did was to put the speculum inside my vagina, only this speculum was the kind that stays open so he can have his hands free to work.

The next thing that happened was one of the things I had been most apprehensive about: three anesthetic shots in my cervix. When Judy had told me about this, I had freaked because it sounded so awful. As it turned out, I was just lying there on the table, with the speculum inside me, wondering what was going to happen next, when Judy said, “You’ve had your anesthetic – did you feel it?”

I was amazed that anything had happened, because I hadn’t felt it. The reason is – there are hardly any nerves in your cervix, so it can’t feel things like that.

The next part of it hurt a little, like minor menstrual cramps. The doctor placed a series of instruments, graduating from pencil size to finger size, inside me to dilate the opening to my uterus so that he could do the abortion. It hurt, but not very much. I’ve had worse pain with menstrual cramps. All this time, Judy was telling me what was going on, and the three of us were talking about other things not even related to what was happening. This helped me to relax and take my mind off the abortion.

The Procedure

Now we were finally ready to do it. They use a machine with a long tube attached to it. The doctor placed the end of the tube inside my uterus and, in less than a minute, I wasn’t pregnant anymore.

Drawing of “Vacuum Aspiration” Procedure: 1972

Drawing of vacuum aspiration procedure by Anonymous for Montgomery Spark, 1972. Reprinted with permission.

The machine sits on the floor, making a low, humming noise, generating suction while the doctor guides the end of the tube inside and around the wall of the uterus, making sure to get all of the embryonic material out. (Many women have been fucked over by quack doctors who leave some of this material behind, causing severe infection and often death!)

After it was over, the pain diminished immediately to regular cramps. The doctor put the IUD in (I didn’t feel it at all) and then left for his next patient. I felt dizzy when I got up from the table, so I sat on a chair for a minute.

Judy took me down the hall and we said goodbye in the recovery room where I was supposed to remain for a half hour.

I lay down on a couch, still feeling kind of dizzy. The other women who had come in when I had at 7:30 were there, and we all felt very close in sisterhood because of what we had all just gone through. And all of us felt relieved that it was over. After a few minutes the dizziness went away, and after ten minutes the cramps were gone.

At Home

When I was ready to leave, one of the clinic women took my temperature to make sure I had no fever (a sign of infection). She also told me to come back in a week for a checkup to see if everything was all right.

Then I went and found Annie and we went home. We’d been there for only three and a half hours, but in that time the clinic had given me two new kinds of freedom. I was no longer pregnant, and I was protected (by the IUD) from getting pregnant again.

When we got home, I ate a light snack and slept for a few hours. After that I felt really good. The only evidence of something different was the bleeding. The bleeding was constant, but always very light, for about two weeks, and then it came and went for two more weeks.

I guess I was lucky not to get an infection or have bad cramps or bleeding. A lot of women have these problems after abortions, but they’re easily curable if a doctor is consulted right away.

Abortion Obstacles

Abortions are definitely needed if women are ever to gain control over their own bodies. But there are three big problems in our way:

  1. They cost money. What happens to women who aren’t lucky enough to be able to get $150 -– or more – together? The government condemns them for having so many children, but forbids them abortion and birth control . . . or else sterilizes them.
  2. Abortion is illegal in most places. D. C. and New York are the only places on the East Coast, or even near it, where abortions are legal. This forces many women to have dangerous illegal abortions or, even worse, try to do their own abortions.
  3. Too many women don’t know enough about abortion facilities, counseling services and clinics, and too many women don’t know anything about birth control. How can we control our bodies and our lives if we don’t even know these basic things?

We have to get ourselves together and learn all we can about our bodies and what we must do to take care of them. We have to protect ourselves from this system that forces us, by keeping us ignorant and helpless, to remain in submission to whatever disaster that may befall us.

If you think you may need an abortion, go to a counseling center as soon as you can to get a pregnancy test and find out what to do next. The D.C. Free Clinic has a good pregnancy counseling service.

Obviously a lot of women need abortions. The clinic I went to does 50 every day. A lot more women need birth control counseling so that someday abortions won’t be necessary.

Meanwhile, if you are going to have an abortion, I hope this article has helped to ease your mind. You are not alone – your sisters are with you at counseling centers and clinics and everywhere around you. Sisterhood is powerful!


Reflections After 40 Years

by Anonymous

Court Voids DC Abortion Law: 1969

The DC law limiting abortion was struck down in 1969 by a District Court, but it wasn’t until 1971 that a US Supreme Court ruling essentially legalized abortion in Washington DC.

The abortion experience account I wrote in the February, 1972 issue of the Montgomery Spark provides a pretty good picture of the mentality and conditions of the times. Some things are different now, and some haven’t changed. In case you weren’t around in the early 70s, or even if you were, here’s a bit of perspective.

Washington, D.C. was one of the few cities in the U.S. where abortion was legal in 1972. It wasn’t until January 22, 1973 that the Supreme Court in the Roe v. Wade decision affirmed the constitutional right to privacy and a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.

Back Alley Abortions

Much more prevalent than legal abortions were the brutal, toxic, often lethal procedures performed by unethical or untrained people on women who – for whatever reason – felt they must end their pregnancies.

Back then, much more so than now, unwed motherhood was a huge crisis in a woman’s life. Parents disowned their daughters, schools expelled pregnant girls, and society in general viewed them as stupid trash, unworthy of acceptance in their social world.

In the early 70s the women’s liberation movement had just begun to have an impact on the general perception of women’s rights and equality. People were beginning to realize that sex was happening a lot more than anyone had been admitting, and that something really needed to be done about birth control. Sadly, birth control education was far from reaching the saturation point needed for it to effectively prevent unwanted pregnancy.

Reflections on 1972

When I wrote the Spark article I was active in the women’s liberation movement and didn’t have concerns about what the world would think about my pregnancy. My reason for seeking an abortion was more centered on my ability to care for a child and provide for his or her upbringing.

My boyfriend and I loved each other very much, but we were not ready to commit to each other for the rest of our lives and neither of us had any reliable financial resources.

DC Demonstration for Women’s Rights: 1970

1970 march for rights in Washington, DC on  50th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Photo: Paul Schmick, courtesy of DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

My choice would have been for me to continue with the pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption. I had already done that, though, four years before, and I didn’t ever want to go through that emotional pain again.

In retrospect, I’m sure we would have found a way to raise that child if we had decided against the abortion or adoption. I became pregnant the first time because I was completely ignorant about birth control. No clue. This time I was only slightly more knowledgeable, believing that contraceptive foam would prevent pregnancy.

At the time I didn’t see anything morally wrong in ending my pregnancy, as long as it was well within the first trimester. Neither my boyfriend nor I believed we were taking the life of a human being.

Present Views on Abortion

This, of course, is where the current controversy becomes heated. When does a fetus become a human being? What do we mean by “right to life”? What about the mother’s life? What if the child was conceived during rape?

The best exploration of the whole question is in an article by Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan, “The Question of Abortion: The Search for Answers.”

Sagan and Druyan explore the meanings of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” and delve into the science, morality and legality of all the shades of meaning that are involved. In their introduction they present the dilemma:

In the simplest characterization, a pro-choicer would hold that the decision to abort a pregnancy is to be made only by the woman; the state has no right to interfere. And a pro-lifer would hold that, from the moment of conception, the embryo or fetus is alive; that this life imposes on us a moral obligation to preserve it; and that abortion is tantamount to murder. Both names–pro-choice and pro-life–were picked with an eye toward influencing those whose minds are not yet made up: Few people wish to be counted either as being against freedom of choice or as opposed to life. Indeed, freedom and life are two of our most cherished values, and here they seem to be in fundamental conflict.

They lead into their detailed exploration with these questions:

If we do not oppose abortion at some stage of pregnancy, is there not a danger of dismissing an entire category of human beings as unworthy of our protection and respect? And isn’t that dismissal the hallmark of sexism, racism, nationalism, and religious fanaticism? Shouldn’t those dedicated to fighting such injustices be scrupulously careful not to embrace another?

Reading this article helped me to refine my own position on the question of abortion. Before I read it I had some gut-level feelings but hadn’t reasoned it out logically and without bias. The result is that I believe a woman has the right to choose to end her pregnancy in the first trimester and after that there are shades of morality involved. I believe every case should be considered individually. I believe every woman has the right to control what happens to her own body.

Back in Time?

Now I’ve lived forty more years since I wrote the Spark article, and I sometimes think about what I would do if I could go back in time knowing what I know now.

I wouldn’t give my first child up for adoption because now I know that I could’ve found a way to take care of him. It’s okay, though, because I later found his adoptive parents and learned what joy he brought into their lives. He is happy and has four beautiful children of his own.

I probably wouldn’t have an abortion now (if it were physically possible for me to even get pregnant), and I think my boyfriend and I could have managed to raise a child if I hadn’t had that abortion in 1972. Maybe we took the situation too lightly, but it seemed to be the right decision at the time.

The debate continues, and there will continue to be many perspectives on the question. We all agree that abortion is not a very good method of birth control. It would be a better world if we could reduce the number of abortions, just as it would be better if we could reduce the need for heart transplants and chemotherapy. A lot depends on education and the availability of birth control.  Sagan and Druyan again:

“Our Bodies Our Selves”: 1971

1971 cover of Our Bodies Our Selves that sold 250,000 copies largely by word of mouth.

By far the most common reason for abortion worldwide is birth control. So shouldn’t opponents of abortion be handing out contraceptives and teaching school children how to use them? That would be an effective way to reduce the number of abortions. Instead, the United States is far behind other nations in the development of safe and effective methods of birth control–and, in many cases, opposition to such research (and to sex education) has come from the same people who oppose abortions.

If you have an opinion about abortion or if you’re still struggling with it, I recommend that you read the Sagan and Druyan piece.  For in-depth information about women’s bodies, reproduction, birth control, women’s physical and mental health and much more, I recommend Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book first compiled and published by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective in the spring of 1973 and updated periodically up to 2011. It’s available at Amazon.com. You can also visit Our Bodies Ourselves, a huge and valuable global resource for women’s health issues.

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