Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Roe v. Wade at 41—A Memoir of What it Was Like Before

Young women marching for abortion rights before the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade.


On January 22, 1973 the Supreme Court decided the case of Roe v. Wade holding that a woman’s right to privacy in the 14th Amendment let her to terminate her pregnancy for any reason “up to viability of the fetus” and for the sake of her health even later. While the “settled law” underlying the case has not been touched, abortion rights are under daily attack by “a death of a thousand cuts.”
What follows was drafted in response to an appeal from NARAL Pro-Choice America for stories about life before Roe V. Wade for use in a new campaign in defense of women’s right to choose, which suddenly—and back then unexpectedly—seemed under attack again.  Today that attack has turned into a siege as extreme right wing Republicans have taken over state legislatures and governor’s mansions.  It seems like every week we read of some new attempt to limit abortion access, cut of funds for Planned Parenthood, or even to re-criminalize it in many cases.  The same forces in Congress are also busy.  And all the while legal cases wind their way to the Supreme Court that the American Taliban hopes—and the rest of us fear—will cause the conservative dominated court to over-turn 40 years of personal freedom.  For the many of you who don’t remember that far back, this is what it was like before that case was decided.
It was about 1971 in Chicago.  We’ll call her Ellen.  She was a friend from college, tall and willowy with Italian Renaissance brown hair.  She had a chorus part in an experimental rock cantata by night and waited table by day.  She was not my girl friend.  I wished she was. I was a forlorn looking hippy in a cowboy hat and bright orange goatee, the dopey/quirky best pal in a romantic comedy—the guy who moons around and ends up helping the bad boy with the megawatt smile get the girl.  We met for dinner about once a week and sometimes went out for a drink after her show on a Saturday night.
I came over to her place for dinner one night, Liebfraumilch in a stone bottle in hand.  She was crying.  “I’m pregnant.  I don’t know what to do.”  I held her and comforted her.  I didn’t ask who the father was.  She didn’t volunteer.  It was, after all, the lingering twilight of the ‘60’s.
But I was on the staff of the old Seed, the Chicago underground newspaper.  I had connections.  I knew people who knew people.
Those people were the Jane Collective, semi-secret action group of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union who defied Illinois law and arranged safe abortions.  Later I got to know names and faces of some of them.  They were true heroes in a desperate time.
I helped Ellen get in contact with Jane.  They arranged for her to see a cooperating doctor.  She had to go alone to the appointment, where she was given a chemical abortifacient.  I waited for her in her apartment.
The procedure was as safe as possible, but the cramping and pain from the induced miscarriage was serious in Ellen’s case.  It lasted three days.  I stayed with her the whole time.  We were afraid to seek further medical help.  Other women had been arrested in hospital emergency rooms. 
In the end, the procedure was effective.  Ellen recovered.  She got on with her life.  She went off the next summer on some high adventure and I never saw her again.  I got on with my life.
Within a few years, Illinois revised its laws in response to Roe v. Wade and safe abortions in clinical settings became available.  Jane dissolved.  But I will always remember Ellen’s needless ordeal and will never knowingly allow another woman to suffer so.

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