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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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A small man glanced at me from inside, and pointed to the whitewashed stairs that rose along the wall. At the top stood a second man, dressed in white pants and an undershirt. His massive shoulders and arms were those of a wrestler. He must be a bodyguard, I thought. But he immediately started talking about the money in fluent, barely accented English. He could take care of me but traveler’s checks were no good to him. I didn’t have enough money for the cab fair to the hotel and back again on top of the two hundred and fifty dollars that he was demanding. Are you alone, he asked? Yes, I said. We agreed on two hundred dollars. He would wait. I returned in the twilight with the cash.

A wooden table, no anesthesia, a scraping sound, and a newspaper-lined metal bucket. I moaned. Be quiet, he demanded. Or did I want him to stop? No, no. Go on. Please. Go on.

When it was over he warned me not to fly for two days, gave me two sanitary pads, and called a taxi. By now it was night. The roads seemed ruttier in the dark, every bump jarring my sore body. It was still Monday. I had to change my flight to Wednesday. At the hotel I slept on and off, not knowing day from night. Tuesday, in the dark, I went out to the little bodega across the street and bought some cheese and peanut butter snacks in little rectangular cellophane packages. Peanut butter sticks to the roof of my mouth, so I grabbed a bottle of Coca Cola. That didn’t seem healthy, so I added an orange. I had nothing to cut it within the hotel room, and the peel didn’t want to come off, so I bit off the top, sucked the juice out of it, and threw it empty but whole into the garbage.

Michael met me on Wednesday night at Idlewild. We rode the bus in to the Port Authority. I was tired and craving red meat. We took the IRT downtown to our favorite place for a cheap-enough steak dinner. It was owned by Mickey Ruskin who became famous later as the proprietor of Max’s Kansas City. I had a filet steak, a baked potato, a salad with blue cheese dressing, all for $9.99. The vodka was extra. So was the carafe of house red. Michael paid for dinner and I felt full and satisfied and safe. The name of the place was The Ninth Circle, the lowest region of Dante’s Hell, below which lies only Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.

In the morning I called Emily’s gynecologist. He saw me the same day. He examined me and wrote a prescription for penicillin just to be sure. He told me to call if the bleeding got worse. It didn’t. I was one of the lucky ones. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 1962—the year I made my trip to Puerto Rico—nearly sixteen hundred women were admitted to just one New York City hospital for incomplete abortions.

In the New York Times in June 2008, Waldo Fielding, a retired gynecologist, described his experience with incomplete abortion complications.

“The familiar symbol of illegal abortion is the infamous ‘coat hanger’—which may be the symbol, but is in no way a myth. In my years in New York, several women arrived with a hanger still in place. Whoever put it in—perhaps the patient herself—found it trapped in the cervix and could not remove it… Almost any implement you can imagine had been and was used to start an abortion—darning needles, crochet hooks, cut-glass salt shakers, soda bottles, sometimes intact, sometimes with the top broken off.”