What Sex & Abortion Were Like Before Roe v. Wade Made Abortion Legal
My mom had sex for the first time in 1967. I had sex the first time in 2002 — and the differences between my experiences as a sexually active teen and my mom’s are stark. I had really good sex education in school, even under Bush’s administration. I had sex-positive, supportive parents who made sure I was well-informed and had access to multiple forms of birth control. And I’ve always lived in a world where abortion was legal, safe, and relatively easy to access.
My mom, on the other hand, had no formal sex education, extremely limited access to birth control, and abortion was illegal. She knew that women her age who wanted control of their reproduction were dying across the country from botched illegal abortions. She lived in constant fear of getting pregnant and would talk with her friends about how they could do at-home abortions in case any of them fell pregnant before they were ready.
Along with a lot of my generation, I've never had to experience a world where abortion was hard or impossible to access. We’ve kind of taken it for granted that control of our own reproductive health is our right — as it is and should be. But, unfortunately, with recent anti-abortion moves by the Trump administration and the very real threat of the repeal of Roe v. Wade that an all-Republican House, Senate, and executive branch carry (not to mention the power of whomever Trump appoints to the Supreme Court), I’ve started thinking about what it would be like to not have that control. What was it like to be a sexually active young woman before legal abortion? What was it like to have an abortion in America, pre-Roe? Realizing that most of my peers have no firsthand knowledge of that, I turned to women who did.
Living In Fear: Joan, 66
In 1967, six years before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the United States, my mom had sex for the first time. The only access to birth control she had was an article she read in the New York Times about the rhythm method. She couldn’t even easily get condoms in her Connecticut hometown: When her high school boyfriend went to buy them at the pharmacy, they wouldn’t sell them to him because he wasn’t married. He had to go to a truck stop on the Merritt Parkway and buy them from a vending machine instead.
My mom and her boyfriend would talk about what they would do if she got pregnant. Neither of them wanted to get married, so he said they’d get an abortion if it ever happened. But when my mom asked how, he didn’t have an answer. There was no way for two teenagers in Connecticut to easily access abortion services in 1967 and there wouldn’t be until after January 22, 1973, when Roe finally made its way through the courts.
"We all knew that people going through these procedures in these back alleyways were dying."
My mom didn’t have an abortion herself before Roe passed but she vividly remembers living in fear of an unwanted pregnancy. She worried constantly about getting pregnant, even after she moved to New York in college and had access to the Pill at Planned Parenthood. Fully aware that she wasn’t ready to have a baby, she read up on herbal abortions in case she got pregnant. “You’re in your body every day,” Joan tells Bustle. “You’re aware of it as a young woman and you become more aware of it as a young woman when you start having sex, so you were aware of it constantly.”
Her freshman year, she got a letter from a friend back home who’d accidentally gotten pregnant. With no Spanish skills and no contacts, the friend flew to Puerto Rico, got an abortion, and then had to get herself back to the States on her own. She was all alone. “I remember getting the letter and just sobbing,” Joan says.
But even scarier than that were the stories that circulated from girl to girl, woman to woman, about what happened to women who got illegal abortions in unsafe clinics in the States. “We all knew that people going through these procedures in these back alleyways were dying,” Joan says. “Women our age were dying.”
The Botched Abortion: Elizabeth, 60
Elizabeth was just 16 in 1973 and she lived in New York, which had legal abortion before Roe. (Abortion was a states rights issue, with only four states — New York included — allowing for abortion upon request.) When she got pregnant by her high school boyfriend, a schoolmate of hers who’d had an abortion told her about a clinic a 30 minute drive away from their hometown and Elizabeth set out for it on a blustery winter day.
"I left there shaking, not because of the procedure but because of how he treated me."
At the clinic — which Elizabeth still isn’t sure was legal — the doctor used a pen on a 3-D model of a uterus to show her what he was going to do. She remembers that his hands shook so strongly that she was concerned about her safety, a feeling that only heightened when he had her take of all of her clothing except her socks and boots. There was no nurse present. “I remember feeling very vulnerable,” Elizabeth tells Bustle. “I was stark naked. Who would have you do that? I don’t know.”
The doctor dilated her cervix without any painkillers and then used a vacuum to remove the fetus. Elizabeth could see the contents of her uterus filling up a jar next to the doctor and then, while her legs were still up in the stirrups, he strained the contents of the jar through a cheesecloth and pushed it in her face. “Do you see what you did?” she remembers him yelling, before giving her pads to wear and telling her to get dressed and get out. He then threw a packet of hormonal birth control pills across the table and told her that he never wanted to see her again and that she should feel ashamed.
“I left there shaking, not because of the procedure but because of how he treated me,” Elizabeth says. “It was awful — it was really, really awful.”
A few days later, Elizabeth had a low grade fever and noticed that she had some unusual discharge. She called the doctor secretly — her mother didn’t know that she was sexually active, much less that she’d terminated a pregnancy — and he refused to see her. He did call in a “massive” dose of antibiotics to her local pharmacy, however, because she clearly had a bad infection. The amount ended up being so big that she overdosed and had to be carried to the hospital — she couldn’t walk on her own.
When Elizabeth decided she wanted to be pregnant two decades later, she suffered a series of miscarriages before conceiving her second son. She’s never stopped wondering if they were related to that first, botched abortion.
Feeling Judged: Linda, 67
Linda became sexually active at 15 in 1965, a full eight years before Roe passed. There was “a lot of stigma” about having babies out of wedlock in her small Vermont town, but her biggest concern about getting pregnant was that her parents would know she was having sex. With no formalized sex education, she went to the library. “I taught myself as much as I could about preventing pregnancy, but I didn’t dare go to the doctor for condoms or the birth control pill or anything,” Linda tells Bustle. “I just read everything I could about avoiding getting pregnant.”
Linda didn’t get pregnant in her teens, but right after she turned 21, she had unprotected breakup sex during her fertile period and fell pregnant. It was 1971 and abortion was still illegal in Vermont, but New York — which was right across the lake — was the top destination for abortions in the United States. That year, 84 percent of known abortions in the entire country were performed in New York.
I felt like there was still a lot of judgement about the situation I was in."
With very little money and no support from her ex, Linda turned to her landlord for help. He loaned her $400 and even drove her to New York for the procedure, which took place in a home that had been converted to a clinic. Linda remembers a Victorian house with large rooms and curtains separating one patient from another. “The atmosphere was very grim and not particularly supportive,” Linda says. “I felt like there was still a lot of judgement about the situation I was in.”
While not terribly pleasant, the procedure was completed with no complications and her landlord drove her home. She told some of her friends, but never told her parents about the abortion. “I don’t generally talk about it,” Linda says. “But I think I felt pretty resolved about the abortion. I haven’t been tormented about it with guilt or anything. I felt like it was the right decision for me and I’m glad I had that option.”
Making The Right Choice: Maggie, 66
Maggie — who is originally from Nashville, Tennessee — also started having sex in 1965. A couple of years later, her mom’s secretary told her about a doctor in town who would get her on the Pill. Her mom brought her to the doctor, and while they never talked about it directly, Maggie’s pretty sure she knew why they were there. But when she was 19 — four years before Roe — Maggie got into a car accident in Boston. Worried about a potential head injury, she went to the doctor to get checked out. “He told me, ‘“Well, your head’s fine — but you’re pregnant,’” Maggie tells Bustle. “And I was like, ‘What can I do? I don’t want to be pregnant!”
The doctor directed her to a clinic in New York and her husband drove her there. Maggie says she felt fine during and after the procedure and has never regretted it. “I’ve been very strong about my direction,” Maggie says. “I’ve always been clear about where I’m going and what I’m doing.”
"You’ve been in a privileged situation for what you’ve been able to do and experience without a sense of restriction. It was never like that before."
That attitude was with her when she decided to have a second abortion in 1976. Her husband had gotten her pregnant again, but she still didn’t feel ready to be a mom. “I felt like I was still a baby,” Maggie says. “And I was developing my textile art and creating my place and my name in the world.”
Maggie was luckier than some of her peers, as the only unpleasantness that came from her abortions was when she went in for a routine check up after her second procedure and the doctor said, “You should start think about having a family now instead of doing what you’re doing.” She dismissed his unwanted comment and stayed child-free until her thirties.
“I got pregnant at 31 and I knew at that time that I was ready,” Maggie says. “My biological alarm clock went off.” Maggie also has some advice for women my age, who have never had to experience being sexually active without the potential backup of an abortion.
“You’ve been in a privileged situation for what you’ve been able to do and experience without a sense of restriction,” Maggie says. “It was never like that before. Sometimes it’s important to to touch history in order to have an empathy and compassion as to how to move forward. Be vocal. Don’t let it [Roe] get repealed. I can financially contribute to the fight but I don’t want to be on the front lines, whereas before, I would have been on the front lines, when I was younger. This is a relay race! Our generation is passing the baton on to your generation and you gotta run. You gotta keep this up — you can’t take it for granted.”
Maggie’s right: My mom's generation has done their part. It’s our turn to be on the front lines.