Abortion Is a Woman's Right (1999)
by Susan Brownmiller
Liberation found its first unifying issue in abortion, and abortion
became the first feminist cause to sweep the nation. From 1969 to
1972 an imaginative campaign—rash, impudent, decentralized, yet
interconnected by ideas and passion— successfully altered
public perception to such an extent that a "crime," as the
law defined it, became a "woman's constitutional right."
Its capstone was Roe v. Wade, the monumental Supreme Court
decision of January 22, 1973.
sixty-nine was a precisely defined moment, the year when women of
childbearing age transformed a quiet back-burner issue promoted by a
handful of stray radicals and moderate reformers into a popular
struggle for reproductive freedom. The women had been dubbed the Pill
Generation, and indeed, earlier in the decade many had heeded the
persuasive call of the sexual revolution, only to be disenchanted.
Exploring their sexual freedom with an uncertain knowledge of birth
control and a haphazard employment of its techniques, they had
discovered the hard way that unwanted pregnancy was still a woman's
the isolated women of their parents' generation who sought individual
solutions in furtive silence, they would bring a direct personal
voice to the abortion debate. They would reveal their own stories,
first to one another and then to the public. They would borrow the
confrontational tactics of the radical-left movements from which they
had come. They would break the law, and they would raise a ruckus to
change the law, devising original strategies to fight for abortion
through the courts.
the new militance erupted, abortion was a criminal act in every state
unless a committee of hospital physicians concurred that the
pregnancy endangered the woman's life. Three states had extended the
largesse to women whose health was threatened—broadly
interpreted, health could mean mental health, if two psychiatrists so
attested—but no more than ten thousand "therapeutic"
abortions were performed in a year. To the general public, abortion
was the stuff of lurid tabloid headlines that underscored its peril:
A young woman's body found in a motel room; she'd bled to death from
a botched operation. A practitioner and a hapless patient entrapped
in a midnight raid on what the police dubbed "an abortion mill."
There were shining exceptions like the legendary Robert Spencer of
Ashland, Pennsylvania, who ran a spotless clinic and charged no more
than one hundred dollars, but venality ran high in an unlawful
business in which practitioners were raided and jailed and patients
were pressured to be informers. Money was not the only commodity
exchanged on the underground circuit; some abortionists extorted
sexual payment for their secret work.
million women braved the unknown every year, relying on a grapevine
of whispers and misinformation to terminate their pregnancies by
illegal means. Those lucky enough to secure the address of a good
practitioner, and to scrounge up the requisite cash, packed a small
bag and headed for San Juan, Havana, London, or Tokyo, or perhaps
across town. The less fortunate risked septic infection and a
punctured uterus from back-alley amateurs willing to poke their
insides with a catheter, a knitting needle, or the unfurled end of a
wire banger. Still others damaged their health with lye or Lysol, the
last-ditch home treatments. Life magazine estimated in 1967
that "five thousand of the desperate" died every year.
writer Jane O'Reillys story gives the lie to the too simple myth that
"rich'' women could always find a connection. In the summer of
1957, she was a Catholic debutante from St. Louis who was looking
forward to her senior year at Radcliffe when she discovered she was
pregnant. Dr. Spencer was in one of his periodic shutdowns, Cuba
sounded unreal and scary, and the trusted family doctor to whom she
appealed insisted that she tell her parents. A classmate finally came
up with an address in New York and lent her the six hundred dollars.
O'Reilly recalls that a man with a mustache placed her on a kitchen
table, prodded her with a knitting needle, and gave her some pills.
month later she fainted in her college dormitory shower. Whatever had
been done to her in New York, Jane O'Reilly was still pregnant.
Moving out of the dorm, she joked about putting on weight and took
her finals shrouded in a raincoat. The next day she gave birth at a
Salvation Army hospital and signed away her baby daughter. For the
next thirty-four years on every May 10, her daughters birthday,
O'Reilly plunged into a sobbing depression. In 1991 the pain
partially lifted when her daughter found her through an adoption
of my generation still need to bear witness; we still carry the
traumas. For my first abortion in 1960 I took the Cuba option that
had scared O'Reilly. Here's what I remember: Banging on a door during
the midday siesta in a strange neighborhood in Havana. Wriggling my
toes a few hours later, astonished to be alive. Boarding a small
plane to Key West and hitchhiking back to New York bleeding all the
way. Bleeding? I must have been hemorrhaging. In which state did I
leave the motel bed drenched with my blood?
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