This article is published in partnership with The 19th, an independent, non-profit newsroom that reports on the intersection of gender, politics and politics. Read the full version here
Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, the landmark decision that guaranteed abortion rights in the United States. It could be the last birthday before it gets knocked down.
During Dobbs’ closing arguments against the Jackson Women’s Health Organization last year, a majority of the court appeared poised to weaken or severely overturn Roe v. Wade, allowing dozens of Republican-run states to dramatically restrict access or to completely ban abortion. A decision is expected this summer.
Such a reversal would be historic. Many Democratic-led states are now likely to pass laws entrenching abortion protections, creating oases of access to the procedure in safe and legal settings. But the options would still be much more limited.
The 19 spoke with people across the country about their memories of life before the landmark decision, as well as how things have changed in the years since.
“I kept shaking”
The illegal abortion took place in 1966. I had just turned 20. He was the first guy I slept with, and I didn’t know anything about birth control or anything. I was living at home with deeply conservative parents that I just couldn’t tell. I had a very good friend who was at Goucher College in Townsend, Maryland. It was an all-girls school and they had a network, a pipeline to a gynecologist in Baltimore.
So I went to Baltimore. [The gynecologist] was a lovely lady. She gave me a little folded piece of paper with a phone number on it.
I call the number and a guy answers, and the arrangements are made – it’s supposed to be $600 cash. We agreed on a date and a pick-up point, which was on Utah Street in downtown Baltimore, across from a movie theater. We choose the date and time. And then I have to find $600. I mean, it was a lot of money in 1966.
So I borrowed $100 here and $50 there. The day before the abortion, I was $200 short. This boy was just a real asshole, so I called his parents. They gave him $600 and he gave me $200 that I was missing.
He drove me to Utah Street, and I stood there waiting to be picked up. Finally, a man in a sedan with a dog in the backseat pulls up. He could have been a serial killer, but he had a dog. That’s how you knew it had to go.
I get in the backseat and we head to a farm. There was a couple…they laid me down on a table and gave me a mask. I did not have anesthesia. After a while, someone I assume is a doctor comes out wearing a lab coat and performs the abortion. He leaves, and the people who are there give me pills to dry up my milk, and maxi towels.
And then the guy takes me back to the cinema on Utah Street. I stayed with a friend. I didn’t go back to my parents in the evening. That was it. At the time, I had a job on the Hill for a congressman from Maryland. And I was absolutely crazy for doing that. I had done this illegal thing, and was it going to come back and – you know? But no one ever knew.
Was I afraid? I was terrified on the operating table. I kept shaking. Would I have changed my mind? No, I would have left a bridge before I had a baby. I would have been forced to marry a totally unsuitable human being.
Rosalyn Jonas, 75, Bethesda, Maryland
“She went to get a coat hanger”
I graduated from high school in 1967, and when I was 18, I went straight to nursing in Brooklyn, New York: Kings County Hospital Center School of Nursing.
I wasn’t even aware of the abortion laws in New York. I mean, you’ve heard stories of people going to backrooms or doctors. Then someone would disappear. There was a silence, she was pregnant and she would be gone. So we didn’t know if she had gone to an aunt to have a baby or if she had been pushed away somewhere to have an abortion. But all was silent. We haven’t talked about it at all.
I was entrusted to a 16 year old [at nursing school]. I walk into the room and there was like six or eight doctors standing around this beautiful girl. I mean, I’m 18, she’s 16. And her eyes are rolling back. She struggles all over the bed. And all these docs are totally helpless.
This kid was pregnant. She went to take a pill. And then she went to get a coat hanger, because she wasn’t sure it worked.
She was a Catholic child. She had no one or anywhere to go, she didn’t know where to look for help. I’m in charge of taking the temperature. The temperature rises. It comes in at 107.
Oh, that was the most horrible thing I ever seen in my life. She dies in front of all these doctors, and they’re helpless.
I was a Catholic teenager. But at that moment, I thought no one, no matter what kind of mistake or gaffe or whatever they’ve done in their life, shouldn’t have to suffer and die like this.
It was a nightmare. And I will never forget it all my life. It traumatized me. But it firmly convinced me that no matter what you do in your life, no one should have to go through that.
Lorraine Saulino-Klein, 72, of Laramie, Wyoming
“I expected to be murdered at any moment”
I first became familiar with this problem when I was a medical student – it was in 1963. Every night that I was on call in the gynecology department, my colleagues and I were up all night caring women who had either illegal, unsafe, self-induced or improperly performed abortions.
Around this time, there was a woman who went to the emergency room to see if she could terminate her pregnancy. She was several months pregnant. When they refused, she went home and shot herself in the womb, then went to the hospital.
This is an example of the kind of catastrophic things women have done to themselves. They put detergent in their vaginas to induce an abortion. They literally used hangers and knitting needles. They are dead.
I started studying public health. I decided to work in the field of population epidemiology, and that included examining the health effects of illegal abortion.
It became clear to me that the effects of illegal abortion and abortion laws particularly affected poor women or many members of minority groups. The death rate from illegal abortion was nine times higher among black women than among white women.
I was in a premature care clinic in Washington DC in 1971, and I learned how to do an early first trimester abortion. I had no real intention of practicing medicine…but I was in Colorado in 1973 when the Roe v. Wade decision was made.
There was a group in Boulder that wanted to start a private non-profit abortion clinic. And they got my name and called me and asked if I would be willing to help them start this clinic. I had no intention of doing something like that. But when they invited me, I accepted.
The implementation of the Roe v Wade decision was hugely important. The decision itself did not allow anyone to abort; it only made sense if the doctors agreed to perform the abortion.
We started performing abortions in November 1973. I immediately became the target of hatred not only from the public, but also from members of the medical community. I lived in the mountains in a cabin I had with my father, and I was very, very scared. I expected to be murdered at any moment.
I like seeing patients and interacting with them. And they tell me their stories. And each, each has an important story to tell.
Most of my patients now or at least at least half of them, sometimes more, are patients who have wanted pregnancies who have a terrible complication of fetal disorder, a genetic disorder. And they decided to terminate the pregnancy, even though it’s a wanted pregnancy. We see many patients in these circumstances.
We see extremely young patients, ages 11 and 12, who have been raped or sexually abused. Incest victims. These young girls should not have to carry a pregnancy to term. It is very dangerous for them. They are not ready to be parents.
But anyway, as we speak, we have anti-abortion zealots outside my office. There’s a man who comes after me every Tuesday morning. And I think he wants to kill me. I have to assume, because five of my fellow doctors were murdered.
Warren Hern, 83, of Boulder, Colorado