Four Feminists Recall Life Before and After ‘Roe v. Wade’

It's been 44 years since SCOTUS legalized abortion—now we have an administration eager to repeal the decision. We spoke with women who remember well the dangers of life before it.

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Sunday marked the 44th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which gave us the right to a safe, legal abortion. Though it seems hard to believe now, in this climate, the Supreme Court ruled 7–2 that a right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment did, indeed, extend to a woman’s decision whether to become a parent.

Before Roe v. Wade, “back-alley” abortions were a leading cause of death of women of reproductive age. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a resource dedicated to women’s reproductive health, some 700,000 to 800,000 abortions were estimated to have been performed annually in the 1950s and 1960s. Those who could not afford private abortions—mostly young and minority women—risked devastating health consequences, raising maternal mortality rates significantly by taking matters into their own hands. And these numbers are likely low-ball estimates as many women didn’t feel safe enough to report their abortions prior to Roe v. Wade.

The Trump administration, together with the GOP-led House and Senate is doing everything in their power—and they have the power right now—to lord over our uteruses and roll back our reproductive rights to a time before some of us were even born.

But millions of women, men, and children took a mighty strong stand against this outrage this past weekend at Women’s Marches not just in DC, or across the country, but around the globe. Sadly, these threats to our collective well-being is nearly as old as the Roe ruling itself. There are countless restrictive laws that already exist at the state level, with new ones being passed all the time. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in the first six months of last year, U.S. state legislators introduced over 1,200 provisions relating to sexual and reproductive health and rights—35 percent restricting access to abortion services. By midyear, 17 states passed 46 new abortion restrictions. Along with the 334 abortion restrictions implemented since 2010, this accounts for 30 percent of all abortion restrictions enacted by states since Roe.

As of December 19, 2016, Texas implemented a law requiring hospitals and health-care clinics to perform actual funeral services for aborted fetuses, with the full endorsement of the state’s GOP governor, Greg Abbott. Just think about how much a funeral costs, then think about a rape victim having to pay hundreds of dollars for the funeral of a zygote.

Also, Ohio lawmakers somehow managed to pass a controversial measure that outlaws abortions as early as six weeks into the pregnancy. The “Hearbeat Bill” makes an exception in the event the mother’s life is in danger but no exception in cases of rape or incest. Pregnancy is barely detectable that early. Now, put yourself in the shoes of a woman, after receiving news of a severe chromosomal defect at 20 weeks, forced through the agony of giving birth to a child that would never live outside the womb.

As states like Ohio and Texas careen toward a live-action version of The Handmaid’s Tale, the stability of Roe v. Wade is increasingly hanging in the balance. As soon as President Trump was sworn in, the New York Times reported he reinstated a brutal Reagan-era policy—the global-gag rule, prohibiting the use of U.S. foreign aid to health providers abroad who discuss abortion as a family-planning option.

Not only are women terrified that their children won’t have the access to the birth control and health care they had, but how many of us might be forced into having “change of life” babies if affordable access to birth control and abortion are rendered obsolete?

To gain a clear picture of exactly what’s at stake, I spoke with four women about what life was like before and after Roe v. Wade, and sought their advice about what women today can do in facing the very real prospect of its reversal.


Eleanor Smeal, President, Feminist Majority Foundation

On life before Roe v. Wade:

“The illegal abortion rate was quite high and conditions often weren’t sanitary, so the risk of punctures, bleeding and infection were also high—young women would self-induce abortions and bleed to death. The pill was invented around 1960, but didn’t go on the market until 1964. Around the same time, doctors perfected safe abortion but it wasn’t as safe as it eventually became. The host of a very popular children TV show called Romper Room had four kids and became pregnant again. She’d taken a common sleeping pill that was administered to pregnant women before they knew it caused deformity, so she decided to try and get a legal abortion. Back then, only four states offered abortions and she was turned down—she had to go to Sweden to get one. This got press and created tremendous sympathy. Then, in the 1960s, there was an outbreak of German measles, a disease that can cause deformities in unborn children. Over 40,000 women were infected and the fact they had no choice whether or not to have their babies really drove people crazy. Soon, a mammoth movement to legalize abortion began.”

On how Roe v. Wade changed her life:

“Though I was married and had two small children, this was major issue. All of us had stories of people who had unexpected pregnancies. It was dangerous and you needed a safety valve. I have something called Mediterranean anemia and if I got pregnant again, that baby stood the risk of deformity and death. I could’ve become an invalid myself.”

On what women can do protect their rights today:

“This generation can’t imagine not having a safety valve to plan a family or protect their own health. We already know what happens when abortion is not available—there will be increased infant illness and mortality. There will be more maternal illness and death. Roe v. Wade is a massive public policy. If they actually succeed (in reversing Roe) it will be a political issue that is unimaginable in size. Instead, they’ll whittle away (at it) for their base and think of ways to make it rarified to the point of backlash. These men want to control women because we have what no man has. They want to control (human) production. My advice to women today is to get involved in a group. You can’t fight these things by yourself. They’ll know more how to protect themselves, and at most, they’ll help others.”


Edie Jarolim, author of Getting Naked for Money: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All

On life before Roe v. Wade:

“Our lives were shrouded in secrecy. When I got pregnant the first time I had sex—as a result of having almost no information about women’s reproduction—I didn’t feel I could tell anyone. There was no legal recourse, no information about terminating a pregnancy, just shadowy rumors about back-alley hacks. My 18-year-old boyfriend was as clueless as I was; he wanted to get married but I didn’t. I didn’t love him and I wanted to go to college. I was luckier than some. When I finally had to tell my parents that I was pregnant, they were furious, but they were as eager that I go to college as I was so they helped me figure out a way to get an abortion. We ended up going to a women’s hospital in Puerto Rico. It was safe and clean, but the trip depleted my parents’ saving and destroyed their trust for me. I never regretted the abortion, but I regretted the trauma of its illegality.”

On how Roe v. Wade changed her life:

“I got pregnant again in my twenties, even though I was using an IUD. After Roe v. Wade, the difference between my previous experience and this one was night and day. I was annoyed that my birth control didn’t work, but I was able to go to a Planned Parenthood clinic and get the procedure done easily and safely, without trauma.”

On what women can do protect their rights today:

“Be vigilant with birth control. Support Planned Parenthood. Vote.”


Senator Liz Krueger, D—New York

On life before Roe v. Wade:

“I was 15 when Roe v. Wade was decided—I wasn’t following Supreme Court decisions that closely. But Roe grew out of, and in the broader context of, the women’s liberation movement, which had an enormous impact on me and my generation. We were the first generation heading off to college who were supported to believe we were equal (though we would have to fight every step of the way). And we all had copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and were discussing sexuality in a far more open way than earlier generations of women.”

On how Roe v. Wade changed her life:

“I knew young women from high school, just a few years older than myself, who had gotten illegal abortions pre-Roe and had terrifying stories. When I headed to college in 1975, just two years after Roe, abortion was legal but not easily accessible, and there was still an immense stigma. I never had to face the question of an abortion for myself, but have discussed this issue with many friends before and after they did make the decision. Each time, it was clear that each woman was making one of the most complicated and emotional decisions of her life, and that she needed support to make whatever decision is the best for herself and her family. I have been close to women who desperately wanted their pregnancy but knew that a healthy viable pregnancy was not possible, and to women who knew having a child at that time could cause damage to themselves and the rest of their family. I’ve also been close to women who were not sure about whether they were ready, but chose to have the baby from an unplanned pregnancy. Every story is different. What is the same is the importance of support and choice for each woman to make the right decision for herself, without fear or stigma.”

On what women can do protect their rights today:

“Women and men need to understand how dangerous it would be for every one of them if they woke up in a country where safe, legal abortion was not an option. They need to understand the importance of protecting access to contraception and information about all reproductive health concerns. Some political issues are true litmus tests—included in these must be equal rights under all laws, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, reproductive freedoms, and protection of the earth from destruction. After that, we can argue politics!”


Fran Johns, author of Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before—and after—Roe v. Wade

On life before Roe v. Wade:

“You’d just hope and pray not to have an unplanned pregnancy. If this happened, you had four options: Bear and deliver an unwanted child; try to self-abort (yes, the coat hanger was popular, along with throwing yourself down a flight of stairs or drinking home remedies rumored to end pregnancy which unfortunately often ended instead in death); travel to Canada, Mexico, England or Japan (the four most common destinations for an abortion) if you had the substantial amount of money then required; or seek out one of the many illegal abortionists who operated in the shadows almost everywhere.”

On how Roe v. Wade changed her life:

“A victim of workplace rape in 1956, I went the illegal abortionist route after trying timidly and unsuccessfully to self-abort. I was very, very lucky to survive without infection—and without bleeding to death—because I was able to get to my physician (who of course had refused to perform an abortion) within 24 hours. I believed the constitutional right to make her own very private healthcare decisions would mean all women would have access to safe abortions. Sadly, thanks to the hundreds of restrictive state laws passed in recent decades, the reality now is that women without money or resources in more than half of the states effectively have no reproductive choice.”

On what women can do protect their rights today:

“Women today would do well to understand how successful the anti-choice, anti-women forces have been and are continuing to be. Supporting the organizations working to preserve and strengthen women’s rights and standing up for reproductive justice are essential if today’s women expect to have freedom in the future.”

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