Reproductive Health

How Getting An Abortion Has Changed From The ’60s Through Today

Things haven't really gotten better.

Originally Published: 
A look back at what getting an abortion was like in the '60s, '70s, '80s, and today.
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In 2005, I had an abortion. Living in New York City, I was fortunate enough that access to it was easy and I didn't have any holes to jump through, like being forced to wait a certain amount of time or listen to the heartbeat of the fetus. I was also fortunate that from an emotional and mental perspective, there was no struggle. I knew it was the right thing for me to do at the time; I didn't hesitate, I didn't regret it, and, to this day, I stand by the fact that my abortion was the best decision of my life. Without that abortion, I'd have a 12-year-old today. And... I'd probably be living in my parents' basement.

But while I had it easy, in regards to access, it hasn't always been that way, of course — and while one would hope things would’ve gotten even better since 2005, that hasn't been the case.

Now Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court to make abortion legal, has been officially overturned by the Supreme Court as of June 24. Because of this decision, states now have the power to restrict or ban abortion altogether, and 13 of them had already put trigger laws into place that effectively mean the end of abortion in those states. While millions of angry Americans gathered to march in protest across the country on that Friday evening, the concept of legislators restricting reproductive rights is nothing new.

"Since Roe v. Wade, politicians have chipped away at access," Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, tells Bustle. "They have created onerous and unnecessary restrictions that have closed down clinics. They have insisted on unnecessary waiting periods that result in added expenses for many women. For example, if a person has traveled potentially hundreds of miles just to get to a clinic where abortion care is available, they then may have to wait around for days to fulfill state law's waiting period — adding the price of additional nights in a hotel, food, and lost wages to the cost of care.”

But even before that landmark decision on January 22, 1973, women were still getting abortions. Women have, in fact, been getting abortions for as long as women have been getting pregnant — since the beginning of the human race. But while that history is fascinating unto itself, let’s focus on the last 60 years. Here's what getting an abortion was like in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, compared to now.

The 1960s

"Before the legalization of abortion, women were known to have tried various herbs, poisons, pushing of foreign objects into the cervix, and even beatings to cause an abortion or miscarriage," Melissa Grant, COO of carafem Health, tells Bustle. "In the 1960s, it is estimated that thousands of people attempted to abort with these unsafe methods. Hospitals regularly saw women in 'septic abortion wards,' where they would die of hemorrhage or infection after an incomplete attempt to self-abort. Seeing the danger of these methods, some small groups of people learned how to provide safe and successful abortions. The Jane Collective is a great example as they provided over 11,000 illegal but safe abortions in Chicago. Even with people organizing to provide safe abortion, it still wasn’t enough to meet the needs of women across the U.S."

"One in four white women who sought an abortion died because of it, compared to one in two non-white women and Puerto Rican women."

Although 17 states had legal abortions, before Roe v. Wade in 1973, which made it legal nationwide, for those women who didn't live in those states, back-alley abortions, in addition to women trying to abort their fetus on their own, were a serious problem. According to the Guttmacher Institute, it's estimated that between the 1950s and 1960s, anywhere between 200,000 and 1.2 million illegal abortions were performed a year — either in back alley situations or self-induced. One study found that 829,000 illegal abortions took place in North Carolina alone in 1967. In 1965, it's estimated that illegal abortions accounted for 17% of pregnancy-related deaths that year. Although, as the institute points out, those were just the cases that were reported. So it's assumed that the actual percentage is far greater.

There was also race and class barriers when it came to getting these illegal abortions. An example of this disparity, according to the Guttmacher Institute, could be found in New York City in the 1960s, where one in four white women who sought an abortion died because of it, compared to one in two non-white women and Puerto Rican women.

The 1970s

By the time the 1970s rolled around and before 1973, women who didn't live in those aforementioned 17 states were still basically taking a huge risk with their lives when they sought an abortion. According to research by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1972 saw 130,000 illegal abortions, either by self-inducing or seeking help from someone else, which most of the time meant a back-alley abortion. Out of these 100k+ women, 39 died. From 1972 to 1974, the Guttmacher Institute reports that "the mortality rate due to illegal abortion for non-white women was 12 times that for white women." So although January 22, 1973 changed things, it didn't change everything.

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"After the legalization of abortion in the U.S. in 1973, most abortions were provided in a physician’s office through dilatation and curettage, also known as D and C," says Grant. "This process involved dilating the opening of the cervix by introducing a sterile, narrow steel rod through the vagina into the cervix. Then, a doctor would insert a spoon-shaped instrument, called a curette, to manually remove the uterine lining from the uterus by gently pulling it from the uterine wall.

"By the mid-1970s, advances in abortion technology introduced a new method called aspiration abortion," says Grant. "During an aspiration abortion, the doctor would use a small handheld suction device or electric suction machine to gently remove the contents of the uterus and end the pregnancy. The advantages of aspiration abortion over D and C was that it could be provided earlier in a pregnancy and the abortion process was quicker and less painful than using a curette." Finally, women could walk into clinics or doctor's offices and get the safe procedure they had every right to have.

I spoke to a few women about their own abortion experiences during this time. And, none of them wanted to remain anonymous and believe this is an important discussion we need to be having.

1978: Jayne's Story

"I had an abortion in 1978 in Los Angeles," Jayne Wallace tells Bustle. "I had moved there from Philadelphia, to live with a guy I eventually married (and divorced); I was 23.

I had been on birth control pills since I was 15 due to major menstrual pain, then decided to stop and try a more natural method. Started using one of the first little 'buds' you put in before sex. Well, didn't work.

"Uncomfortable, disturbing, but I never looked back."

As soon as I knew I was pregnant. I called my friend's sister who was a gyno in L.A. The bottom line — I wasn't married and nowhere near being ready to have a kid. Fortunately, I had no religious issues and had the funds, as well as the support of my 'boyfriend' at the time. I can't imagine what would have been my life if I didn't have access to Planned Parenthood and a clean and safe environment, so it was a happy ending. Uncomfortable, disturbing, but I never looked back. Over the years, as I've relayed that story to other women, I found several who were in the same circumstance. A child at that time would have been unwanted, a burden, and parented by 'a child myself.'

And happy to say, that guy and I had a daughter five years later — she's now 34 (he's my ex), but I took her to a Planned Parenthood rally in LA when she was about two or three — in fact Frank Zappa spoke.

I find it outrageous that there [was] a pro-life 'event' at the White House [last week]. I have always felt that pro-lifers only care about fetuses but once they're born — no healthcare, education, etc."

The 1980s

"During the 1980s and early ’90s, small advances in abortion technology were primarily in the use of newly designed instruments and medications to assist in the dilation of the cervix and better manage pain," says Grant. "These improvements were helpful but would not be considered major changes in the way abortion was performed. The next major advance in abortion technology was the introduction of Mifepristone as medication abortion, also known as the abortion pill, which received FDA approval in the U.S. in 2000."

"A major concern at that time for many women was that someone would find out."

Although medical advances were safer in the 1980s, Hauser, who worked at an abortion clinic in the 1980s, found that a major concern at that time for many women was that someone would find out. At the time, as she tells Bustle, the cultural climate was rife with anti-abortion rhetoric and violence. Abortion clinic bombings were far too common in the ’80s and ’90s. In 1984, American Family Planning of Pensacola was bombed twice in the period of just six months, and the Feminist Women's Health Center in Everett, Washington, experienced three arson attacks between 1983 and 1984.

"But a common theme that ran through almost every story regardless of when these women had their abortion was the positive and important impact abortion access has had in their lives," says Hauser.

1980: Edith's Story

"On Friday, February 15, 1980, [my partner] and I headed to the old Jewish Memorial Hospital in upper Manhattan where my doctor met us; and, while I was terrified of needles, I went through with the abortion," Edith G. Tolchin, author of Fanny on Fire, tells Bustle.

Fortunately, I felt absolutely nothing. I was asleep during the procedure and had no pain afterwards, though I had no idea I’d be bleeding as if I had my period. Of course back then we had no internet and, unless one went to the library beforehand — which I hadn’t thought of doing — I had no idea of what to expect afterwards.

I just took a sick day from work that Friday... and I returned to work the following week a bit empty emotionally, but none the worse for the wear.

As I look back, it was a time before the abortion center bombings, though I didn’t pay much attention to those events back then. It just seemed like a no-muss-no-fuss procedure; a convenience.

I am a feminist and have always been. I was young when the stars of our movement, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Sheila Michaels and Sonia Pressman—and all the other “Ms. Crusaders”— set the groundwork for our lives. I am satisfied with my decision and I did go on to have two children."

The ’90s - Now

Here we are fresh after the overturn of Roe v. Wade; it’s 2022, and we are still fighting for control over our bodies. Or, as my mother so eloquently put it, "I can't believe we're still dealing with this BS." Jumping from the ’80s to now, there has been progress, but there's also been a lot of backward movement, too.

"A major development has been the introduction of medication abortion in the U.S, in 2000 — mifepristone (“ru-486” aka “French abortion pill”) — and also wider use of the mva—manual vacuum aspirator," Dr. Carole Joffe, professor at UC San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), tells Bustle. "Both of these technologies have expanded access — in a number of states nurse practitioners are allowed to perform medication abortions — mva training has spread to family medicine and in some cases nurse practitioners or other advanced practice clinicians…so the universe of providers has expanded, and both the mva and medication ab allow for earlier termination than occurred previously with vacuum suction abortions — the dominant method before 2000."

"I would say the stigma has definitely gotten worse, as the cumulative effect of years of anti-abortion propaganda takes hold."

But despite the advances in the abortion procedure, especially with mifepristone, "the abortion pill," being accessible, what all three experts agree on is the fact that the stigma surrounding abortions still hasn't changed. "I would say the stigma has definitely gotten worse, as the cumulative effect of years of anti-abortion propaganda takes hold," says Dr. Joffe. "In the ’70s for example, abortion clinic directors have told me women felt incredibly lucky to have access to an abortion — remembering the disasters of the illegal period — and felt little shame. The women’s movement of the 1960s and early 1970s had promoted abortion as a woman’s right, and pressed for legalization so women wouldn’t be injured or die."

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But while that stigma still exists, it hasn't stopped women from being vocal about their abortions. It's in sharing our abortion stories that we can shatter the stigma surrounding abortion. Whether we choose to share them anonymously or not, they need to be told and heard. "For a very long time, women were shamed into silence about their need for abortion care," says Hauser. "Social conservatives stigmatized the procedure and shamed women who sought abortion care in an effort to keep us isolated from each other and from the knowledge that the need for abortion care is common — and has been so throughout the generations. Fear of judgment still keeps many women from talking about their own abortion experiences. But there is a movement afoot. Abortion story-telling campaigns like Advocates for Youths' 1 in 3 Campaign are designed to help women break through the silence and shatter the stigma. More than 1,400 people have shared their own abortion stories with the Campaign to demonstrate the positive impact abortion access has had on their lives. These efforts and others like them have helped to reduce the stigma many women have been made to feel. These days, when I share my own abortion story, I am struck by the number of other women who come up to me afterwards to share theirs — many for the first time. We are tired of the silence and fed up with the politics of shame." Which is most especially evidenced by the closing of abortion clinics and the recent loss of federal abortion rights, as Hauser mentioned.

"From the 1970s, the numbers of freestanding abortion clinics in the U.S. continued to increase, but by the 1990s, clinics began to close," says Grant. "These closures were largely caused by targeted regulations by anti-abortion legislators against abortion providers, which made opening and running a clinic expensive and fraught with challenges. These regulations perpetuated stigma by drawing an imaginary line between abortion care and other types of medical care. They falsely claimed abortion was dangerous and thus placed unnecessary regulations and processes not required by any other type of medicine on abortion providers. These needless restrictions were an attempt to shut down clinics and create fear and shame among those who choose abortion."

Ultimately, the fight is far from over when it comes to women's reproductive rights and a woman's right to choose. Especially now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, we need to keep ourselves educated, continue to be vocal, and fight, fight, fight. Because nobody, and I mean nobody, has any right to tell a woman what she can and can't do with her body.

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