It’s rare that I dedicate more than one blog post to a particular topic. Usually, I’ve said all I need to say in a single entry. This year I’ve made exceptions for the ongoing abortion debate, adding this entry to two earlier ones: The Politics of Human Reproduction (March 8, 2021) and Review: The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler (October 26, 2021).
According to a Wikipedia article on abortions in the United States (which included 207 citations when I accessed it on November 8, 2021), American abortion laws were codified and made stricter over the course of the 19th century. This changed and laws began to be liberalized starting in the late 1960’s. In 1967, the state of Colorado legalized abortions in cases of rape, incest, or maternal disability. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its ruling legalizing abortions throughout the U.S. for early term abortions in 1973 (Roe vs. Wade), abortions were already legal under some circumstances in 30 of the 50 U.S. states. However, when the plaintiff called “Roe” had begun her suit in Texas in 1969 demanding the right to an abortion, state law there prohibited abortions except to save the life of the mother.
Prior to the Roe decision, some states with less restrictive laws became “abortion magnets” for women in adjoining areas who needed or wanted the procedure. Abortions were more readily available to women with the financial means to pay and to travel if necessary. In one high-profile case in 1962, a married pregnant woman from Arizona went to Sweden for an abortion after she learned that thalidomide, an ingredient in a medicine she’d taken early in her pregnancy, could cause severe birth defects. It turned out that the fetus she’d carried was badly deformed. Had it not been aborted, it would likely have died at birth.
Among the statistical charts in the Wikipedia article is one plotting annual rates of abortion in the U.S. from 1973 through 2017. It shows a dramatic increase during the 1970’s, and since then a generally downward trend. By 2017, the rate among women of childbearing age (considered as 15-44) had dropped from a peak of about 30 per 1000 women to only about 13. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion_in_the_United_States#Number_of_abortions). The vast majority of abortions were being performed during the first 13 weeks of pregnancy.
By the time of Roe, I’d been married for four years and was successfully using birth control. I have never had to choose whether or not to have an abrupt marriage to “legitimize” a child, whether or not to give an infant up for adoption, whether or not to end a pregnancy to conserve my own health or to forestall the birth of a badly deformed child. Other women have had more difficult choices. Starting in junior high school, I heard rumors of girls who’d “gotten in trouble.” Several very early marriages had taken place by the time I was in ninth grade. The phenomenon of “seven month babies” for new brides was quite common. Through high school and then college, more of my female classmates dropped out or disappeared for several months. Some later resurfaced, still single. A few had an infant; others told plausible stories of family distress or financial hardship that had taken them away.
It turned out just as I left home that I’d lived for most of my teens within half a mile of an illegal Maryland abortion clinic. Our neighborhood’s sylvan setting included many homes built far back from the street. Some were completely out of sight. In 1960, as seventh graders, my friend Ann and I had paired up to visit every house along our one-mile road to help boost our Girl Scout cookie sales. At one secluded house, we almost left because it took a long time before anyone answered the doorbell. Just as we turned to go, a well-groomed middle-aged man opened the door. We didn’t see inside and weren’t asked to come in. He bought four boxes of cookies, though. We were pleased with ourselves. Although we’d never match our troop’s star performer (whose mom worked at a major military base nearby), our efforts had moved us up in the cookie sales standings.
During the summer of 1965, Ann got a temporary job as clerical assistant to our county’s prosecutor. One day she noticed that the criminal case she was typing up included a familiar address—the secluded house up the road where we’d sold the cookies. People at that address weren’t cited for any maternal injuries or deaths, just for performing then-illegal abortions. I never learned, from Ann or anyone else, the disposition of the case, or if the clinic staff were fined or jailed. I recently garnered a few additional details from a former neighbor who’d lived across the road from the clinic as a child. While it was operating, her family had regularly noticed cars with out-of-state license plates going in and out of the driveway. Now I wonder how the clinic operated in those pre-Roe, pre-internet days. How did they get referrals? How did they schedule? What health and safety measures did they use? Were staff members medically qualified? Did they have protocols in place for unexpected doorbell rings?
Norma McCorvey, whose pseudonym was “Jane Roe” in the 1973 Supreme Court case, may have reflected the ambiguity many of us feel about the abortion issue. By the time her case was decided, the pregnancy she’d wanted to end had long since gone to term. She’d put the resulting infant up for adoption. Once her identity became known, McCorvey was enlisted as a pawn by first one, then the opposing set of pressure groups in the ongoing abortion debate. She died in 2017 in Texas, her legacy as muddled as the current state of our understanding. A documentary filmed during the final year of her life indicates she was used by partisans on both sides. However, she also profited from the inflammatory issue to gain funds and notoriety (https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2020/may/22/aka-jane-roe-documentary-norma-mccorvey).
The pressures on our court system to rule definitively on abortion are immense. The likelihood of good outcomes is miniscule. Some of our prior national experiments with prohibition may serve as a cautionary tale. Even as abortion rates continue their general decline, rhetoric about the issue continues to escalate. The documentary about McCorvey tries to plumb her successive stints in the “pro-choice” or “pro-life” camp, but it is hardly that simple. As one advocate who’d worked with McCorvey for over a decade put it: “The thing is, we want our stories to be tidy. And humans aren’t tidy.”