Reading: What We Can Never Forget When We Think About Abortion

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What We Can Never Forget When We Think About Abortion

A 1970s Planned Parenthood volunteer on the "not-so-good ol' days" before Roe v. Wade

By Marian Leah Knapp

You probably remember 1973 as the year of Roe v. Wade, when the US Supreme Court ruled “…women in the United States have a fundamental right to choose whether or not to have abortions without excessive government restriction.” I also remember it as the year I became a volunteer telephone counselor at Planned Parenthood.

I talked to women who needed information on birth control and safe medical services concerning unwanted pregnancies.  

After a three-year period with Planned Parenthood, I worked at a clinic that trained me to be a lay abortion counselor. Before a procedure, I would explain to a patient what to expect clinically, that there would be a qualified medical doctor and nurse in the room, and, most importantly, made sure a patient’s decision was her own. I held her hand in the procedure room and afterwards in the recovery area. A licensed social worker was on staff if I had concerns about any individual. 

All together I was actively involved with Planned Parenthood for about six years. I got to know the reality of the process, and it also made me thankful for the progress that had been made in my lifetime. 

The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which could overturn precedents set by Roe. In that light, it’s important to remember that before 1973, in this country, terminating an unwanted pregnancy was illegal, secret, “back-alley,” terrifying, desperate, discriminatory, and medically dangerous — even life-threatening. How did I know this? 

My awareness of women’s reproductive issues started pretty early in my growing-up years during the early 1940s and 1950s. The idea of a woman’s right to decide how many children to have was a small but persistent background manifesto within my immediate family. It was a subtle but pervasive notion around my house. The idea of “choice” was instilled in me from multi-era stories. 

I’d listened to stories about how in the early 20th century, my poor, immigrant paternal grandmother, Rebecca, had given herself at least one abortion with a hatpin. Trying to put myself in her shoes, I strove to grasp what drove her to that terrifying decision, to take that risk. She had already borne seven children in the early years of her marriage, one of whom died from a now-treatable childhood illness. Perhaps she was pregnant when Nathan, her husband, was run over by a train in 1918. Or maybe she self-aborted earlier in her marriage, when her finances were alarmingly unstable. No matter what the circumstances and timing were, she knew that she could not birth more babies to feed and raise in poverty, when her resources were already stretched to the maximum.  

One of my mother’s sisters was in an abusive marriage. She’d  had two children, one of whom was physically and mentally challenged due to epilepsy. In those days, treatments for convulsive disorders were poor and comprised a lot of guesswork. The pressure of caring for a child with seizures was daunting, with unrelenting day-to-day disorienting stress. I remember several occasions when my mom had boarded a train in Providence and traveled to Boston to be with her sister, who sought and obtained illegal back-alley abortions. I don’t think I was ever actually told that my aunt was getting an abortion, but my mom was away for a day or two, and I somehow knew that my aunt needed to terminate a pregnancy – again.   

My mother didn’t talk much about unwanted pregnancies or use the term “reproductive rights,” which only came into use officially in the late 1960s.[ii]  But she had strong opinions about a woman’s right to make decisions about her personal life. She probably held these views because she knew firsthand the desolation of seeking an illegal abortion. Her own poor immigrant mother had birthed 11 children, lost three, and ended up with psychological problems serious enough that she couldn’t function in society. Although the topic of women’s right to choose didn’t come up very often in our conversations, when it did, my mother’s response was firmly and always, “No one has a right to tell a woman what to do with her body!” I don’t think this sprang from an overarching philosophy; merely from her direct experiences of life.

My personal experience with reproductive rights centers on birth control. During my early years, birth control methods were either ineffective, iffy, or withheld from women for spurious reasons. As a very young woman in the late 1950s, I could only get a diaphragm because I was married. I was pretty young, but I knew I wasn’t ready to have children. The Comstock Law, which had passed congress in 1873, was still in effect in 1959. It prohibited the sale or trade of “obscene” literature, including information about contraception. It was not until 1969 that the Comstock Law was repealed by the Supreme Court. Part of the Supreme Court’s decision was based on Justice Thurgood Marshall’s statement “…that the rights to receive information and to personal privacy were fundamental to every American.” In addition, with the development of other methods of birth control with a doctor’s prescription, women were more able to prevent pregnancies.

The combination of eliminating the Comstock Law and the passage of Roe v. Wade, which gave women the right to terminate a pregnancy, allowed women of my generation, for the first time, to direct and control their reproductive destiny. 

Since those days, reproductive health for women has changed for the better. Access to reproductive services, and information about them, is for the most part public knowledge; options for controlling fertility or terminating a pregnancy are out in the open and available. And 59 percent of Americans support these rights. 

Current generations of young people may find it difficult to understand what it was really like when women had few choices for controlling their reproductive lives or how dangerous it was when they did. Those of us who have the firsthand memories must share our stories openly. 

For me, the time for reproducing is in the distant past. My kids are now close to middle age and finished with their own childbearing. It’s my grandkids that I worry about. They know my stance on women’s reproductive rights. In fact, three generations of my family –  both female and male – travelled in 2017 to be a part of the Women’s March in Washington DC and all of us wore our pink “pussy” hats. 

There’s no going back to long-ago, oppressive eras. Those were the bad old days for women


  1. Suzanne C Frank

    Great article. In my family the stories were of my maternal grandmother who had probably two abortions during the depths of the depression. With 3 small children, no work, and no way to prevent pregnancy, she made the choice to have back alley abortions. My maternal step-grandmother was coerced into having an abortion (not sure whether it was legal or not in Denmark at the time) and sadly she was never able to have children after that – something she desperately wanted. My own mother had two abortions, one back alley and one legal after Roe v. Wade.

    I shudder to think what might happen if heart-beat bills go into effect in certain states. I am glad that we have many different kinds of birth control – that is a big difference from 50-100 years ago. Helping women obtain and afford safe birth control is another issue that is continually under fire as well.

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