The world before Roe ... when women risked injury and death to get an abortion

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My mother is 91 and matriarch of three subsequent generations. For the first 51 years of her life, abortion was outlawed in this country. Desperate women with unwanted pregnancies would resort to all manner of dangerous terminations, sometimes ruining their wombs for future pregnancies or dying from bleeding, shock or sepsis.

On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade. Shortly thereafter, sterile clinics and hospitals replaced dirty basements. Medical professionals replaced quacks and Clorox. Abortion seekers became patients, not criminals. The result was a near-end to women dying from preventable complications.

The other result, of course, was more abortions -- or so we surmise, since the illegal ones weren't counted -- roughly 1.2 million each year at this point. It's safe to assume that many of those would not have taken place if women still feared for their lives in the process.

With the 40th anniversary of Roe a few days away, I asked Mom for her thoughts on the subject.

"I thought legalization was long overdue," she said. "It's a private matter. People can use their own beliefs as their guide, but it doesn't belong in politics. I always felt that, and I still do."

But as we all know, politics began overtaking abortion from the moment Roe was decided. The ruling sparked an epic battle that continues to this day over when life begins and who gets to decide the answer. The past 40 years have seen no end of marches, organizing and fund-raising for and against legal abortion, as foes chip away at women's constitutional right and advocates fight back.

The two sides have argued over terminology ("late-term" vs. "partial birth"), medical science (foes falsely linking abortion to breast cancer), and birth control (religious leaders labeling some methods as abortifacients).

Anti-abortion groups set up fake clinics where they could talk women out of the procedure (today they're more up front about their true mission). Protesters chained themselves to doors, picketed with gory photos and accosted patients at clinic entrances. A more virulent strain of the movement threatened clinic staff, bombed facilities and murdered doctors, one of them at church.

Meanwhile, ultrasounds brought fetal development into the open, and neonatal medicine made life viable at ever-earlier stages. The technology affected the public's evolving views, especially on second- and third-trimester abortions -- about 12 percent of terminations, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

In addition, the stigma of single motherhood began to fade. Some religious groups that had shipped pregnant girls out to the hinterlands in shame shifted to running maternity homes in town.

As legal challenges to Roe failed to overturn it, the battle lines moved elsewhere. Doctors at Catholic hospitals reported being forced to sacrifice patient care to church teachings. Some pharmacists refused to dispense the morning-after pill, and some employers protested a birth-control mandate in medical coverage for workers.

An increasingly militant right wing has been driving onerous state regulations designed solely to limit access -- repeated visits, longer waiting periods, invasive tests with no medical value and, as in Pennsylvania, costly renovations that have forced some clinics to close.

"This past year has been a real challenge," said Becky McDermott, executive director of Allegheny Reproductive Health Care in East Liberty, which spent $200,000 to comply with new requirements. "But women still need us and we're still here," she added.

Then there are the efforts to strip funding from Planned Parenthood, the nation's leading provider of reproductive health care and birth control, especially for poor women. Only 3 percent of its services involve abortion, but that's enough to make it a right-wing target. Since 2010, nine states have tried to defund the organization, only to be told that doing so will cost them millions in federal funding.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, however, remains undaunted. He is forfeiting hundreds of millions in Medicaid dollars rather than include Planned Parenthood in the Texas Women's Health Program. A federal appeals judge upheld the ban last week, and now 50,000 women, many of them poor, have to find another place for free breast cancer screenings, pap smears and birth control. If they can.

The further we get from botched illegal abortions, the easier it is for right-wing pols to take concern for women and girls out of the picture. Every punitive law shifts focus from protecting women's health to controlling their bodies and punishing their behavior.

Reading this list, you'd think the public had turned against legal abortion, but it hasn't. A recent Gallup Poll showed that 77 percent of Americans believe abortion should remain legal in some or all circumstances.

"Women aren't asking politicians for advice on mammograms or any other kind of health care, and they don't want them involved in this either," said Kim Evert, director of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania.

"It's hard to believe we're back here, talking about contraception and rape," said Claire Keyes, who ran Allegheny Reproductive for three decades before retiring four years ago. "The idea that women need to let men make the decisions about their bodies is so degrading and enraging.

"Women have always been the prime deciders of when and if a new life comes into the world through their bodies," she continued. "You're never, ever going to stop abortion. It'll just be less accessible and more dangerous as women have to jump through more hoops."

Reactionary forces won't be satisfied until abortion once again makes women fear for their lives. That's why, 40 years after Roe, we need to remember what that world looked like and why we can't go back.


Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1610).


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