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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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In 1962, I was nineteen, working in my first job, living in my first apartment, having sex with my first real boyfriend. Michael was a tall, thick-haired Italian from the Bronx. For birth control, I was using fluffy pink foam from an aerosol can. I had heard about it from dark-banged, bespectacled Emily Perl in the television production office where I had my first job. I was the floater, filling in when a secretary went to lunch or the switchboard operator needed to go to the bathroom. Emily was a researcher and married. She used the foam as backup to her diaphragm. At the time it was illegal for a gynecologist to prescribe a diaphragm for a single woman, and I didn’t have the nerve to lie. As for condoms, what little I knew of them was that they were disgusting, unreliable, and boys didn’t like to use them anyway.

Emily Perl knew a single girl who had been buying the pink foam illicitly from a pharmacy on Madison Avenue and using it—no diaphragm—without a problem. It was a spermicide. When the white-coated pharmacist handed me the plain white box of contraband from beneath the counter I tried to ignore his knowing leer. Sperm killer sounded safe and safe is what I wanted to be.

I used the pink foam.

My period was late.

Sociologist Rickie Solinger in her book Wake Up Little Susie, describes what it was like to have an unwanted pregnancy in 1962. The woman might be “futilely appealing to a hospital abortion committee; being diagnosed as neurotic, even psychotic by a mental health professional; expelled from school (by law until 1972); unemployed; in a Salvation Army or some other maternity home; poor, alone, ashamed, threatened by the law.” There was also an acute social stigma attached to an unwed mother with an illegitimate child; maternity homes were frequently frightening and far away. All counseled adoption. The only alternatives were a shotgun wedding or an illegal abortion.

According to a 1958 Kinsey study, illegal abortion was the option chosen by 80 percent of single women with unwanted pregnancies. Statistics on illegal abortion are notoriously unreliable, but the Guttmacher Institute, a respected international organization dedicated to sexual and reproductive health, estimates that during the pre-Roe vs. Wade years there were up to one million illegal abortions performed in the United States each year. Illegal and often unsafe. In 1965, they count almost two hundred known deaths from illegal abortions, but the actual number was, they estimate, much higher, since the majority went unreported.

Michael and I checked around for remedies. First we had a lot of energetic sex, even though we were hardly in the mood. That didn’t work. One night I sat in an extremely hot bath in my walk-up on Waverly Place while Michael fed me a whole quart of gin, jelly jar glass by jelly jar glass. In between my gulps, he refreshed the bath with boiling water from a sauce pan on the crusty old gas stove. I got beet red and nauseous. We waited. I threw up. Nothing more. Another night I ran up and down the apartment building’s six flights of stairs, Michael waiting at the top to urge me to go back down and do it again.

On a Friday evening, I drank an overdose of Castor oil. By midnight I had horrible cramps of the wrong kind in the wrong place.

When my period was a month late I gave up hoping for a false alarm and went to visit Emily Perl’s gynecologist. His ground floor office in a brownstone on a side street on the Upper East Side was genteel but faded. So was he, a short, stern old man with glasses perched on the top of his head and dandruff flakes on his gray suit-jacket. As I explained my problem, he shook his head from side to side in obvious disapproval of the loose behavior that was the cause of my visit. He instructed me to pee in a jar. The test results, he said, would take two weeks.