- Photo by Don Preston/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
- In the decades prior to the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade in 1973, women went to extreme measures to access abortions.
- While some, typically those who were wealthier, could convince licensed doctors to perform the procedure, many women had no choice but to partake in illegal abortions. In those illicit situations, the quality of care was extremely uneven and could lead to disastrous consequences.
- Other women resorted to self-abortions, the most notable tactic being coat hanger-induced abortions. Those who could afford the cost traveled to cities and states where abortion was legal.
- Since the start of 2019, states across the US have brought forth extreme anti-abortion measures as part of a concerted effort to overturn Roe v. Wade.
- In the decades since the passage of Roe, anti-abortion groups and lawmakers have pursued a strategy of slowly chipping away at abortion access, with the procedure already not accessible to scores of women across the US.
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During the eight-hour car ride from Ohio to New York, they rode in absolute silence.
The year was 1971 and Pamela Mason, an 18-year-old freshman at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, had just found out she was pregnant. She knew that she and her boyfriend had been careless, but she also knew she wasn’t ready to be a mother. The moment she realized her period was late, she felt like she was going to pass out.
When she first called up her boyfriend to tell him the news, he immediately hung up. Half an hour later, her phone rang.
“What do you want to do?” he asked her. Her answer was easy: “I want to have an abortion.”
Mason’s unplanned pregnancy occurred two years prior to the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the US and granted women a constitutional right to the procedure. At that time, abortions were heavily restricted in her state.
“I never thought ‘Oh, well, we can have the baby,'” Mason, now 65 and an administrative assistant living in New Jersey, told INSIDER. “It was strictly I am getting an abortion. That was the only option for me.”
That meant driving 500 miles away in a 1967 green Chevy Impala to New York City, where abortions were legal. And, Mason thought at the time, that distance was doable.
Women created underground networks to help each other access safe abortions
In the decades prior to Roe, there were several ways in which women could try to have an abortion.
Some women, typically those who were wealthier and with “contacts,” could convince licensed doctors to perform the procedure as a matter of conscience – or profit – said Carol Sanger, a law professor at Columbia University and author of the book “About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in the 21st Century.” But, not all doctors were so willing because the penalties fell on the doctor performing the abortion.
In many cases, women had no choice but to partake in illegal abortions to terminate their pregnancies. Some worked with organizations and underground abortion networks, like the Chicago-based group “Jane,” or the Clergy Consultation Service, made up of religious leaders nationwide, which had been created to help women navigate the abortion landscape and safely access the procedure. Many of the female members of “Jane” learned how to perform the procedures themselves, at one point performing abortions four days a week and serving as many as 10 woman a day.
But, others weren’t as lucky.
“The situation pre-Roe was that the rich people did okay because they could pay to get a proper legal abortion. Some people were savvy enough to contact organizations like ‘Jane’ or the Clergy,” Sanger said, adding, “for ordinary women, they would just go by word of mouth and take their chances because they wouldn’t want to be pregnant.”
Leslie Reagan, a professor of history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and author of the book “When Abortion Was a Crime”, said that illegal abortions became more clandestine as a result of tough enforcement by police and prosecutors. Doctors could be penalized with fines or jail sentences that varied by state. In those illicit situations, the quality of care was extremely uneven and could have disastrous consequences.
Sometimes, if there were complications after an illegal abortion, women had no choice but to rush to emergency rooms, only to be harassed by hospital staff and police with probing questions about who performed the procedure. “Most people would be taken care of by doctors, but some of those people died in the emergency rooms,” Reagan said.
Other women resorted to self-abortions, the most notable tactic being a coat hanger-induced abortion. But, according to Reagan, desperate women were willing to try anything: “people went to the drug store and they got orange sticks. They also used medical things, like catheters which are rubber covered wires so they are stiff… they used pens, cotton, pencils, a list of things,” she said. “There were people who tried to use Coke bottles, tried to use Clorox… there were these pills that were sold and they were told to put them in their vagina, and they just burned through the tissue.”
- Photo by Joe Runci/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Many women, who could afford the cost, traveled elsewhere to have the procedure, with underground abortion networks helping them navigate the journey and offering details – like how to travel safely or tips on not getting ripped off. For women on the East Coast, Scandinavian countries, like Sweden, were a popular destination, while those on the West Coast traveled to Mexico and Japan.
The story of “Miss Sherri”
One of the most high-profile cases of a woman trying to travel abroad for an abortion was that of Sherri Finkbine, a 30-year-old television host known as “Miss Sherri” on the children’s show “Romper Room.” In the spring of 1962, Finkbine, a pregnant mother of four living in Arizona, took pills her husband had brought her following a business trip to England, to curb her morning sickness. She later discovered the pills contained thalidomide, which could cause severe birth defects. Finkbine decided to terminate her pregnancy.
But it wouldn’t be that easy. Hoping to warn other women about the drug, Finkbine shared her story with a local reporter, asking for anonymity. But her identity was exposed, unleashing a firestorm over her decision to have an abortion. She requested a therapeutic abortion before a three-man board at a Phoenix hospital, but was denied.
- Photo by J. R. Eyerman/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
In the early 1960s, when Finkbine requested an abortion, 44 states, including Arizona, only allowed abortion if it endangered the women’s life. Women who were caught going to an abortion doctor were often required to appear in court.
“Women were in a difficult position at times because they were still being hauled into court and having to give testimony and sometimes being examined to support the case against an abortion provider,” Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University who has written extensively about the history of abortion and Roe v. Wade, told INSIDER.
Raids on abortion providers’ offices – and subsequently women being brought to court to testify against them – became common in the 1940s and 1950s as a way to enforce abortion laws, Reagan wrote in her book “When Abortion Was a Crime.” Women could be posed questions about their abortion provider, the procedure, and their sexual encounters. When a Chicago woman who had an abortion refused to testify about the procedure in 1949, she was ordered to six months in jail for contempt of court.
- Photo by Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images
After Finkbine’s name became public, the death threats started, and the FBI even stationed themselves at her home as a safety measure. Eventually, she went to Sweden to have the abortion.
Eight years later, in 1970, New York legalized the procedure and, according to Sanger, became “a mecca for performing abortions.” In the years before Roe, three other states, Hawaii, Washington, and Alaska, passed similar laws. But, unlike New York, those states required women seeking an abortion to have already lived in the state for a certain period of time.
Women, like Mason, flocked to New York for the procedure.
To scrape together the money for an abortion, she stole discarded soda bottles
At Ohio State in the 1960s, it was known among the student body that Planned Parenthood was the place to go for birth control and information about reproductive health services. Mason took a bus from campus to Planned Parenthood, where she was immediately referred to a clinic in Manhattan. She called to schedule an appointment and was told the procedure was $150, in addition to travel costs.
For Mason and her boyfriend, money was tight; she only had around $50 in the bank at the time. To scrape together the funds, she stole discarded glass soda bottles from her neighbor, which could be sold for around a nickel. Her best friend swiped bottles from her mom to contribute to the cause.
They set out on a Saturday night in the clunky Chevy Impala and, as Mason recalls, her boyfriend barely spoke to her throughout the whirlwind trip. “I was pretty devastated by his reaction to kind of just treat it like it was my fault, that was the message I was getting,” she said. “I was just trying to keep my mind on the mission, basically, that I’m doing this because I want to and, regardless of how he is going to behave, I’m not going to pull the car over.”
When Mason arrived to New York City she was immediately enthralled by the throngs of people and traffic consuming the city. “Wow, this is some place,” she thought to herself. Her boyfriend dropped her off at the clinic and whisked away to find parking. She was all alone.
- Photo by Peter Keegan/Keystone/Getty Images
At the clinic, she was so nervous she could barely speak. While explaining the procedure, a concerned counselor paused to ask, “are you OK?”
“I want it to be over,” Mason replied.
The abortion was painful but was quickly over. She’ll never forget the kindness exuded by clinic staff.
Almost five decades later, she feels immense relief that New York City was only 500 miles away from Columbus. “If I lived in Kansas or Missouri at the time, I don’t want to think what would have happened to me,” Mason said. “I was geographically lucky.”
A string of abortion laws have recently passed, aimed at putting Roe V. Wade on the line
In early May of this year, Alabama lawmakers sent shockwaves across the country by passing the country’s most restrictive abortion law. The law effectively bans abortions in the state, unless it poses a “serious health risk” to the mother, and doesn’t include exceptions for survivors of rape or incest. Doctors who perform the procedure could face up to 99 years in prison.
And Alabama isn’t alone: various states have passed measures recently to restrict abortion access. Earlier this month, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a so-called “heartbeat bill” that bans the procedure after a heartbeat is detected, typically around five to six weeks and before many women know they are pregnant. In mid-May, legislators in Missouri’s State Senate also passed a bill to ban abortions after eight weeks, with no exemptions for rape or incest. Since the start of 2019, states like Utah, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi, have brought forth extreme anti-abortion measures, part of a concerted effort to overturn Roe v. Wade.
- EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images
None of the recently passed abortion bans have formally gone into effect, and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights intend to challenge the measures.
Mason says she couldn’t believe it when Roe v. Wade was passed in 1973. She was still enrolled at Ohio State and immediately began volunteering at the state’s first abortion clinic. At that time, the clinic was the only one in the region – and the phone was constantly ringing with women not just from Ohio, but the surrounding five states as well.
Eventually, she was offered a full-time job.
“We sometimes had to turn away more people than we could help because of the large demand,” she said about her time working at the clinic. “I wish these lawmakers understood the need, and the demand, for safe, legal abortions.”
In the decades since the passage of Roe, anti-abortion groups and lawmakers have pursued a strategy of slowly chipping away at abortion access, imposing measures such as required waiting periods, mandated counseling, and strict requirements on abortion clinics and providers, to make it more difficult for women to access the procedure. Federal laws, like the Hyde Amendment, also block federal Medicaid funds from being used to pay for abortions.
Since Roe was decided, states have introduced more than 1,200 abortion restrictions, with more than a third of those enacted since 2010, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a leading research and policy organization on reproductive health.
“Many women today, particularly in the Midwest and the South, have been living in environments where, frankly, Roe is already not a reality for them, and losing Roe would of course make the barriers to accessing abortion that much worse,” said Rachel Sussman, National Director of State Policy and Advocacy at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “It is going to have a disproportionate impact on people who are already facing systematic barriers to accessing healthcare, so women living in rural communities, women living in poverty, people of color are going to face these barriers.”
Going forward, Sussman said it is imperative for those who support women’s reproductive health to reach out to their state’s elected officials about the importance of safe, legal abortions.
For women like Mason, who benefited from the procedure, that message is more critical now than ever.
“The trauma for me was driving 20 hours. It wasn’t the abortion or the aftermath or thinking ‘what had I done?'” Mason said about her experience. “I am so grateful to the people in New York City who made this totally petrified 18 year old feel like it’s going to be OK, and to get back to Ohio in one piece and to go to school on Monday.”
Mason is grateful she had access to an abortion when so many others didn’t. “When I look back on the trajectory of my life, all the things I’ve done throughout my adult life were only possible because I was able to terminate my pregnancy, so just all around it’s a lot of gratitude.”