There was a time when illegal abortion was the only option for a woman with an unwanted pregnancy.
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.
One night I sat in an extremely hot bath while Michael fed me a whole quart of gin, jelly jar glass by jelly jar glass. I got beet red and nauseous. We waited. I threw up. Nothing more.
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.
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’s last suggestion was based on a rumor. There might be a place in the Santurce district of San Juan, Puerto Rico called The Women’s Hospital that would give an abortion. It might cost two hundred and fifty dollars.
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.
Emily’s last suggestion was based on a rumor. There might be a place in the Santurce district of San Juan, Puerto Rico called The Women’s Hospital that would give an abortion. It might cost two hundred and fifty dollars. She knew nothing more. I was becoming frantic. Michael was unable to do much more than hold my hand. I had two weeks left. I was on my own.
Sneaking into an empty office at work and locking the door, I picked up the phone. The overseas operator found the number and placed the call. The connection was crackly, and the man who answered neither confirmed nor denied that they would help. I asked if I would need more than two hundred and fifty dollars. That might be OK, he said vaguely. I should come down if I wanted to know more. Not on a weekend, he warned.
I would go. I would need money for the airfare, money for a place to stay for a couple of nights, and money for the abortion. It would add up, I speculated, to about five hundred dollars.
Michael offered to ask his father, a shoemaker with a repair store on Canal Street, but he couldn’t tell him what he needed the money for, and he wasn’t sure if his father would have it to lend. I had never asked my parents for money, and they had never offered it. If I did now, they would assume, rightly, that their prediction that I would get into some kind of dreadful trouble had come true. I couldn’t face them.
Emily Perl’s husband was a book editor. They lived in an apartment with real draperies. They gave dinner parties at which they served wine in long-stemmed glasses. Maybe she had an extra five hundred dollars. Borrow it from the office, she suggested. Bosses like their employees to feel obligated. They’ll get it back by deducting it from your paycheck.
So I sucked in my breath and asked the young partner in the television production company. He didn’t ask what it was for. I had been obvious, sniffling and red-eyed around the office. “I’ll talk to the accountant,” he said. The accountant gave me a check the next day.
It wasn’t such a rare occurrence I learned later.
As I walked up the steps under the white-columned portico to the entrance, I allowed myself to believe for the first time that this would work.
I had money to fly to Puerto Rico, stay a couple of nights in a motel, and have the procedure taken care of by a doctor in a hospital. I bought a ticket on Pan Am for a Sunday evening flight there and a Tuesday night flight back. The airfare was one hundred dollars. I picked a place to stay a short distance from the hospital, The White Castle Hotel. There was a White Castle on the corner of 7th Avenue and 11th Street, a block from my apartment, which served a quarter-inch-thin gray burger, pellucid squares of chopped onion on top, on a saccharine sweet bun that dissolved in your mouth without a chew.
I climbed down the stairs from the Pam Am flight at San Juan Airport and as I stepped onto the tarmac, my white patent-leather kitten-heeled shoes sank in, ruined. I had a change of clothes, a nightgown, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a copy of Henderson the Rain King, three hundred and fifty dollars in American Express traveler’s checks, and one hundred and fifty dollars in cash.
I checked in to the White Castle Hotel after dark and gave the clerk one hundred dollars in traveler’s checks. The rest were for the procedure. The cash was for taxis and food. The room smelled of disinfectant and stale cigarettes but it was air-conditioned. Lucky. I hadn’t thought to ask. It was one hundred and three degrees that dark night in San Juan.
In the morning, the clerk gave me directions. I didn’t want him to know my destination but I couldn’t risk spending money on a taxi. The hospital, I gleaned from the map, was a long walk away.
It looked like a friendly suburban institution, built of clean white brick with a sweeping u-shaped driveway. As I walked up the steps under the white-columned portico to the entrance, I allowed myself to believe for the first time that this would work.
The lobby was quiet. Behind a desk stood an official-looking young man in a white coat. I approached tentatively, standing in front of him, praying that he spoke English. He looked up and asked, “Jes?” I had practiced this speech a million times. On the plane. As I tried to sleep. When I woke that morning. On the walk over. Out loud, I said that I had been told on the telephone from New York that I could get a D & C. I want to make an appointment. For today. Please. He nodded and slid me a form to fill out. This was going to work.
He asked me my age.
He shook his head.
“Oh, no no no. Too young. Only after twenty-one.”
I begged, pleaded, told him I had borrowed money to get there, that I didn’t have any more, that I was desperate. He told me to leave.
As I walked towards the door, the rain began to fall, splashing back up a foot or two, a few people on the road outside caught in the downpour, running to escape but instantly drenched. I stepped outside, but it was useless. Already dripping, I ducked back in and asked meekly if I might wait until the storm passed. I sat on a brown couch, the back of my thighs sticking to the plastic surface.
I would be returning pregnant. I wept silently, hoping that anyone who saw me would mistake the tears sliding down my face for rain from the deluge outside. My paperback copy of Henderson the Rain King was sodden. Outside, it rained on. I would go back to the White Castle, call Michael, tell him the news, get a plane back to New York that day. I would be able to save a few dollars. But I would have to keep this baby.
I sat and waited. And waited. As I started to pull myself together to leave, a tiny brown man in the green uniform of an orderly approached me, skittish, surreptitious. He held a crumpled piece of lined paper in his hand torn from a notebook. “Go dere,” he said in a stage whisper. He offered me the scrap, then disappeared.
Written in pencil was a name and an address. My dress was wet, my tarmacked shoes stuck to the ground as I walked. I had proud long hair then that I ironed straight. It frizzed in the humidity. I handed a cab driver the paper. He spoke no English but I could tell that he thought I was mistaken, that I didn’t want to go there. That it was far. Yes, yes. I nodded emphatically at the paper, taking it back from him and pointing with my finger at the address. Finally I understood his words: twenty dollars. I handed him money and off we went, out of San Juan, on dirt roads for what seemed like hours, to a small village built around a grassy square. The square was still, empty save for a few mangy looking dogs, a couple of chickens, and two old men sitting on a bench playing a board game. He dropped me in front of an open building, which appeared to be someone’s house.
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.”
Three years after my trip to San Juan, illegal abortion officially accounted for 17 percent of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth in the U.S. It is speculated that the actual number was likely much higher.
Today, about sixty-seven thousand women worldwide still die each year from abortions, mostly in countries where the procedure is illegal.
Bridget Potter is currently working on larger project, a memoir/social history of the nineteen-sixties, from which “Lucky Girl” is adapted. After a long career, most notably in charge of Original Programming at HBO, she burned out, entered Columbia College, and managed somehow to get a BA in Cultural Anthropology. She is now working towards an MFA in Nonfiction at Columbia where she is an Instructor in the University Writing Program.
To continue to visit New York before second wave feminism, read Joyce Johnson’s memoir Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir. Aside from her heartbreaking relationship with Kerouac, the evocation of her young womanhood in nineteen-fifties New York rings deep and true. Betty Fussell’s brilliant account of her life as an academic wife in the same period, My Kitchen Wars, is close to unbelievable. To move to the sixties, dip in and out of Todd Gitlin’s encyclopedic The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. For the music, check out Dave Van Ronk’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street, a surprisingly engaging stroll though the sixties folk music scene in the Village, and don’t miss David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina, which will take you beyond.
Illustration by DerrickT via “Flickr”