“How many people in this audience… have always had a choice? Raise your hand,” asked Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins at NARAL Lobby Day in Albany last April. About half the attendees, all in younger generations, raised their hands. “Now, those who knew when women didn’t have a choice?” Women and men from older generations raised theirs.
I was about in the middle. I was less than a year old when New York legalized abortion up through the 24th week of pregnancy. Roe v. Wade was decided when I was three. I wasn’t aware of these landmark decisions or their implications until I was a teenager, so although technically I had been alive during the time when women didn’t have a choice, I didn’t actually know anything about what it was like… until I started reading about what unmarried pregnant women went through during the time when I was born and relinquished for adoption.
Looking back to the late ’60s and first years of the ’70s, I learned about the back alley abortions, the humiliating and almost always futile appeals to hospital abortion panels, and, for some, the desperate self-induced abortions which carry such a high risk of medical complications. In the year I was born, 23 percent [PDF] of pregnancy-related admissions to municipal hospitals in New York City involved complications from illegal abortions.
What struck me most in learning about these times was the shame heaped on these women… shame so strong that many white families would send their daughters away secretly to “homes” where they could give birth unseen by the neighbors. Their babies were whisked away by adoption professionals operating under the belief that their “sin” could be “redeemed” if they “learned their lesson” and “unselfishly” relinquished their children. They were told never to speak of it again; to put it behind them and forget… but forgetting was impossible.
I learned that the experiences of minority unwed pregnant women were different. Although their families were more likely to make a place for them and their children than white families of that period, minority women also often lacked the means to access the few safe abortion care networks that were available and had far higher rates of illegal abortion deaths.
Why some want to go back to the days when women didn’t have choices is beyond me. The evidence is clear: making abortion illegal doesn’t make it go away, it just makes it much riskier. It also makes pregnant women far more vulnerable to exploitation by others. It’s time to stop the shame, roll back the restrictions on abortion, and repeal the Hyde Amendment. It’s also time to support reproductive justice for all women. Women should each have the power to decide whether and when to get pregnant, whether to stay pregnant or not, and the support to raise the children they give birth to in safe, healthy environments.