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The Story of My Illegal Abortion

There was a time when illegal abortion was the only option for a woman with an unwanted pregnancy.

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At that time pregnancy testing involved injecting a lab rabbit with human urine and watching for its effects. I waited to hear if the rabbit died. I learned much later that all lab rabbits used for pregnancy tests died, autopsied to see the results. It was code.

My rabbit died.

Michael was Roman Catholic and at twenty-two was willing to get married but unenthusiastic. We could, he supposed, live with his parents in the Bronx. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My upper-class English parents would have been appalled and, I was sure, unsupportive. Confused, ashamed, scared, and sad, I decided to try to get an abortion.

Try was the operative word. I asked the gynecologist for advice. He told me that the law prohibited him from helping me in any way but he offered to check me later for infection. The idea of infection alarmed me but I thought his gesture was nice.

I’d heard that after twelve weeks the procedure became extremely dangerous. So I had four weeks left to borrow money, find a way to do it, and get it done.

Emily Perl knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who had been taken care of by a woman in an apartment on West 86th Street. When Michael and I arrived, she put the chain on the inside of the door and peeped through the crack. She let me in but demanded that Michael wait in the lobby. The room was dark, overheated, and smelled of boiled cabbage. I glimpsed a big Victorian wood-framed, red velvet couch and a round, oak pedestal table through the dinge. In her fifties, the woman had an Eastern European accent, suspiciously black hair, and smeary scarlet lipstick. She was curt.

She would “pack” my uterus and send me home where I must rest. For a day or two. When I started to bleed I must return and she would take care of it. What would she put inside me, I asked clumsily. “Stoff,” she replied. Where would she “take care” of it, I asked. She pointed to a door. “In ze udder room.” I must “svear” not go to a doctor or a hospital. I understood the chilling threat. “It’s nowting,” she said. “If you wanna now is fine. Five hunnerd dollars. Cash.”

My rent was sixty dollars a month. I earned sixty dollars a week, forty-seven dollars after taxes. I could barely make it Friday to Friday. I thanked her and fled. There had to be a cheaper, safer way.

There was. Within a couple of days Emily Perl, born researcher, came up with The Angel of Ashland, Pennsylvania. Dr. Robert Spencer was a legend, a general practitioner inspired by compassion to perform, it is said, somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 illegal abortions over his sporadic career. His price was fifty dollars. He worked in a sterile environment with an anesthetist and used an orthodox medical procedure called Dilation and Curettage. What did that mean, I asked Emily. Opening and scraping, she told me. I was sorry I had asked. His clinic had been closed down by the law, but she gave me a contact number at a motel somewhere in Pennsylvania. I should say I wanted an appointment, saying simply that I needed a D & C. It was affordable, sane, and safe.

I called. The woman who answered told me Dr. Spencer was unreachable, he would be unreachable for about five months. I pressed. I might even have cried. The woman in the motel somewhere in Pennsylvania finally told me that he was in jail.