Abortion: Why to resist return to an oppressive, dangerous past

Guest Opinion: Even in Washington state, where the public was ahead of the Roe v Wade decision, many would like to cut away at women's power to choose. Recalling the past ought to make us think twice.
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Guest Opinion: Even in Washington state, where the public was ahead of the Roe v Wade decision, many would like to cut away at women's power to choose. Recalling the past ought to make us think twice.

This week, supporters of Roe v Wade marked the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that affirmed a woman’s right to make reproductive choices. But tragically, while the landmark decision has been the law of the land for four decades, the resolve of those who seek to overturn, weaken and restrict that right seem more tenacious than ever.

Just this last week 18 members of the Washington State Senate introduced SB 5156, a measure that would require a woman under 18 years old to notify her parent or legal guardian before having an abortion. The measure requires that the parent or guardian receive 48 hours notice from the medical professional or agency intending to provide the abortion. Fifteen of the bill’s co-sponsors are Republicans, joined by three Democratic backers from Eastern Washington.

The Washington bill is the latest in persistent attempts to weaken Roe v. Wade. It is ironic that the effort is occurring in a state that early in the 1970s voted approval for a woman’s right to choose, even before the Roe decision.

But, despite past approval here and majority acceptance in opinion polls, abortion opponents continue to attack women’s rights. This most recent assault comes at a time when other states, particularly those with statehouses and governor’s offices dominated by Republicans, are taking ever stronger steps to limit access to reproductive health care and make a mockery of freedom of choice. The incursions into women’s rights range from requiring an invasive pre-abortion ultrasound to mandated counseling and parental approval.

When I read anti-choice rhetoric (mainly from male politicians), I recall the days before Roe. At the time, ending an unwanted pregnancy was punishable by a lengthy jail sentence.  The alternative for unmarried women at the time was bearing a child branded illegitimate or giving the child up for placement with strangers.

This reality — a world where providers and women seeking abortions are criminalized — doesn’t get a lot of airtime in the debate over abortion. Instead, we hear platitudes — “sanctity of life,” “moral obligation,” etc. What we don’t hear is how these policies alter people’s lives.

And that is why I am writing this piece. It’s because I have seen up close what criminalizing abortion looks like. Even though it is difficult for me to relive those times – and still harder to write about – I decided to share an incident, best forgotten, that I have seldom revealed. Let this story serve as a reminder of the risks that anti-choice activists would have us face.

In the days before Roe, I briefly held an "elected" office: I was serving as “corridor president” at my freshman dormitory at Northwestern University in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. One corridor-mate – I’ll call her Janet, though that wasn’t her name – often frequented my dorm room, partly out of loneliness and then out of sheer, almost suicidal, desperation.

As she sobbed over the details, I was able to piece together the fact that she had accepted a blind date to a frat house party. She had consumed way too much alcohol and, although she was blurry about particulars, she ended up, in the idiom of the time, “going all the way.”

That was some weeks prior to her outburst and now she had missed a period and feared she might be pregnant. The thought was terrifying. What would become of her? Her parents — good church-going folks from a small town in Wisconsin — would disown her. Her aim to get a teaching degree now seemed impossible. She’d been throwing up in the morning. Was it just nerves or did it mean what she feared?

She’d been thinking that maybe the best solution was to do away with herself. In fact, she’d consumed an entire bottle of aspirin.  Thankfully, all that achieved was difficulty waking up and more acute nausea.

As a last resort, Janet asked me to go with her to get an illegal abortion in Cicero, a suburb of Chicago, known mostly as the birthplace of Al Capone. She’d heard about “the doctor” from her uncle, a lawyer who practiced in Chicago and was the family’s black sheep. Although I wasn’t keen on going, I felt someone needed to accompany her.

We spent a long Saturday morning on a bus from Evanston and landed in a rundown neighborhood of two and three-story frame buildings. At street level, there were shops and bars and then a flight of stairs above a convenience store that matched the address Janet had been given. We climbed a rickety staircase that smelled of sewer odors before encountering a bleak office with a desk and a woman who looked like a street vendor. She demanded Janet’s name and asked for “the envelope,” which Janet had filled with cash – $350 in small bills, wiping out Janet’s waitress-earned savings, meant to help with tuition.

We waited for a tense hour before being ushered into a bare room, furnished only with an antique dental chair and a bureau, on which rested a basin and scattering of odd-shaped instruments. A gruff man in a stained jacket told Janet to remove her clothing from the waist down. Then without preamble, he pushed her into the dental chair, reclined it and proceeded to perform a primitive D & C without anesthesia. My presence – I was clasping Janet’s hand – was barely acknowledged. In fact, the only human communication consisted of guttural cursing – German, I thought. The “operation” seemed to take an interminable time.

When we finished the area was awash in bloody towels and Janet was directed to a closet off the main room where an old-fashioned water closet was leaking fluid. We scurried away as the twilight was overtaking us on our way back to the dorm.

Janet, fortunately, recovered after her rude operation. Others, brutalized by illegal providers, weren’t so lucky. Emergency room personnel, at the time, often saw the aftermath of botched abortions and self-abortion attempts gone horribly wrong. Too often there were permanent injuries and even deaths.

This is the questionable women’s reproductive care that was available at the time. And, let us be clear, those who politicize women’s health care would have us return to those days. It’s a frightening proposition, one that we simply must oppose.

For those of us with long memories, it is a relief to know that, on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, the White House released a statement saying that the president stands by the guiding principle that government should not intrude on our most private family matters and women should be allowed to make their own choices about their bodies. Let us make sure that remains the guiding principle of Washington as well.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jean Godden

Jean Godden

Jean Godden served 12 years on Seattle City Council.