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Life Before Roe v. Wade

More than thirty years later, three people who helped provide abortions before <i>Roe</i> tell their stories.
 
 
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On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court voted by a margin of 7-2 that a woman had a constiutional right to an abortion. On the 33rd anniversary of that decision, the Senate Judiciary Committee is contemplating the nomination of Samuel Alito, a man who is on record opposing abortion rights. Here are the brief stories of three people who helped provide abortion before 1973. They are members of Voices of Choice, a multi-media project with two dozen physicians and social activists who helped provide safe,illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade was decided. Their voices are a reminder that outlawing abortion doesn't make it go away; it just makes it less safe.

Mildred Hanson, M.D.

A featured speaker at several congressional briefings on abortion, Hanson spent 30 years as the medical director of what was then Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and South Dakota. Today, she oversees her own Minnesota clinic, where, at the age of 82, she provides abortions to women from Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

"In 1935, when I was 11 years old, my mother left our Wisconsin house on a bitter February night and dashed to the farm next door to help an ailing woman who'd had an illegal abortion. Our neighbor was writhing in pain so severe that she was having convulsions and was chewing her lip raw. It took her two days to die of blood poisoning. She left six children behind - and left me with firsthand knowledge of the injustice of illegal abortion.

"Fresh out of medical school in 1959, I developed a reputation for being the only doctor in this region who would treat women with bleeding, lacerations, and other complications stemming from back-alley procedures. Illegal abortionists would refer their clients to me in the event of complications. In addition to helping these patients, I offered legal abortions to women within the hospital system, which sanctioned the procedure if it was deemed medically necessary. I coached these women on how to get approval. 'Tell hospital officials you are destitute,' I said. 'Tell them you are devastated and will commit suicide if you can't terminate this pregnancy.' If Roe v. Wade were overturned today and if medical exceptions were still allowed, I would tell my patients the same things all over again. For the first time in my life, I would also perform illegal abortions. I didn't do so before Roe v. Wade because I was a divorced mother with four children to support. But today I have nothing to lose and believe reproductive rights are so important that I'm willing to risk whatever legal action or prison time I might face."

Jane Hodgson, M.D.

In 1970, Hodgson challenged a Minnesota law that banned abortion by providing an abortion to a mother of three whose pregnancy was affected by German measles, which can cause blindness, kidney failure, and cognitive problems in developing infants. She was convicted of a felony, but because the legal process dragged on until after Roe v. Wade passed in 1973, her sentence was overturned and she did not serve prison time. In 1990, Hodgson was the lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case Hodgson v. Minnesota, which unsuccessfully challenged parental notification laws. A founding fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and a recipient of the PPFA Margaret Sanger Award, Hodgson is now 91 and a speaker for Medical Students for Choice.

"Over the course of my 60-year career, I've done a lot of volunteer work overseas in countries where abortion is illegal. I've seen women who had botched procedures soak their mattresses through with blood. I've seen countless other women die.

"People in the United States don't know about these horrors. Nor do they remember what women's lives were like here before abortion became legal. Before 1973, single women who got pregnant were fired from their jobs. Younger ones were sent to maternity homes for unwed mothers and their children were put up for adoption. Married women who got pregnant were forced to carry pregnancies to term regardless of their circumstances - even if they had so many children that they couldn't afford to feed another one; even if they had metastasized cancer; even if their fetuses couldn't live outside the womb because these fetuses had developed without a heart or brain.

"Since Roe v. Wade , I've performed thousands of abortions and supervised thousands more. I haven't regretted a single one. I didn't regret it when the head of my own university testified against me for offering an abortion to the mother with German measles. I didn't regret it when anti-choice protestors picketed my home or mobbed my office so I had to have police protection to get inside the building. I believe legal abortion is a medical procedure that saves women's lives. It's not just a matter of choice. It's a matter of good medicine."

The Reverend Howard Moody

In 1967, Moody spearheaded New York City's Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, which helped thousands of women obtain safe, illegal abortions before New York sanctioned the procedure in 1970. Considered the "Harriet Tubman of the abortion rights movement," Moody, now 84, has received the PPFA Margaret Sanger Award and serves on the advisory board of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

"To get an abortion before it was legal, a woman had to meet someone in a parking lot late at night and be taken to some unknown place. She had no idea whose hands she was in -- or if she would even survive. To provide safety and support to women in this horrible situation, we formed a coalition of 26 clergy members to counsel women considering abortion and refer them to doctors we knew were safe. Most clergy at that time would not condone abortion. In fact, they wouldn't even discuss it. But our members -- Baptist, Episcopal, Jewish, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian -- saw this as part of their ministry.

"Nowhere in scripture does it say women should not have reproductive rights. Theologically and morally, we knew this was the right choice even if it was against the law. Our ministers sat with women and helped them make the decisions they faced. Over the years, I personally counseled hundreds of women ages 12 to 45. Not one of them was flip about her decision. Women of all faiths had such a desperate need for counseling and referrals that they flooded to see us from across the eastern United States.

"We worked six hours a day, six days a week. To meet the demand for abortions, my Baptist congregation even considered creating an illegal clinic on the grounds of Judson Memorial Church [in New York City]. But New York legalized abortion in 1970, and so we focused on other efforts: launching Manhattan's Center for Reproductive Sexual Health, one of the first legal abortion clinics, and expanding our network, which eventually grew to include 1,400 ministers and rabbis across the nation."

Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer living in New York City.