The women whom my daughter, photojournalist Ilana Panich-Linsman, photographed in 2021 could be anyone—your neighbor, college professor, doctor, or mother.
They are women who sought, with great difficulty, to terminate pregnancies as young women between 1958 and early 1973, when abortion was mostly illegal in the United States. Nine of these procedures took place in the U.S. and one in Nogales, Mexico. They were high school girls or young college students; two married right out of high school.
Almost all the women are now mothers and grandmothers. Among them are businesswomen, an immigration lawyer, a retired physician, a former Peace Corps volunteer, a professor and leader in the reproductive justice movement, and a writer and filmmaker.
Most of the women in this series understood a half-century ago that they would risk their lives with an illegal medical procedure. (Two, through unusual circumstances, had legal abortions.) Almost all reported feeling lasting shame. Not guilt, because all were grateful to be able to shape their future lives, but shame is a different matter. Half a century ago, shame was endemic to the times. To be a young woman who had sex was shameful. To be a young woman who had to solve the problem of an unwanted pregancy was shameful. To live with the fear that an abortion would be revealed to parents was shameful. And to break the law was shameful.
Yet they understand now that their decisions to terminate their pregnancies were acts of self-determination. They chose to participate in this project because, as one participant, Arla, said, “I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what I did.”
In 2019, I suggested to Ilana that she consider documenting women who had pre-Roe abortions. Most of us are now in our late 60s, 70s, and 80s. I say “us” because I am one of these women.
Like many in this country, I was confident then, in 2019, that the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which affirmed the fundamental right to a woman’s bodily self-determination and privacy, was settled law.
By late 2021, Roe was far less secure due to a different composition of the Supreme Court. It was time for women who underwent illegal abortions to speak.
My daughter Ilana learned through her interviews that these women had been desperate to obtain this forbidden health care. Young and naïve, they often believed what they were told: So-and-so had been trained by a doctor or nurse or had “some sort of medical training.” A few, in fact, were seen by licensed doctors.
Wanda got into a car with an unknown man in Mexico to be driven to a clinic; more than one woman followed strangers upstairs to an apartment or motel room. For Linda, the apartment was above a restaurant in New Orleans; the restaurateur was the abortion provider.
In 1958, when Rita was a pregnant high school student, she had an older boyfriend. Any talk about sex then was taboo, even among friends. “It was sinful, it was shameful, and it was all women’s fault,” she says. The boyfriend drove her from one state to another where they had heard about abortion providers, but she was rejected because of her advanced pregnancy. At a bar in Lexington, Kentucky, the bartender directed them to a woman known to perform abortions. They went to an apartment in the middle of the night. Rita feared the instruments weren’t sterile. She survived; she expelled the fetus and did not hemorrhage or become infected. Money to pay for an abortion and to travel to procure the procedure was an issue for everyone in Ilana’s story. Rita paid the required $200 ($2,000 today) with money saved from a summer job.
Another participant, Sandra, met a man in a motel. She paid him $500 to insert a catheter with what was likely soap into her uterus. She almost died of sepsis a couple of weeks later. She was hospitalized and given a D&C (dilation and curettage), the standard surgical abortion procedure. She would not admit to doctors what had happened. “I would rather die than tell,” she said, given the social stigma and possible arrest.
So-called “therapeutic” abortions, permitted to protect the mother’s wellbeing, were available legally by hospital committee in San Francisco in 1960. In order to secure the procedure, Kat had to lie to a psychiatrist, telling her that she would either kill herself or the baby if she were denied the abortion. She spoke out of desperation, choking on the words. The procedure cost $500, and her married boyfriend skipped out rather than contribute. Her father sent the money to the hospital. Her roommate almost died from a perforated uterus due to a botched abortion by a licensed medical doctor.
Elizabeth, a student from Texas in her final year of medical school in Mexico, did not want to have an illegal abortion there. She had seen the horrific results in her own hospital. She returned to Texas to seek a safer abortion. She hemorrhaged after an incomplete procedure. Her life was saved by hospital colleagues when she returned to Mexico.
Two generations and more than a half-century later, contraception is widely available, and the landscape of female self-determination for many women, but not all, has changed.
Half of pregnancy terminations in this country are now medication abortions. Abortion pills are available through the internet, often through telemedicine (though not in all states). The pills can be taken up to 10 weeks’ gestation. After that, a surgical procedure is required. People disadvantaged by systemic racism and economic insecurity have always struggled to access contraception and abortion, legal or not.
The average woman now seeking an abortion is most often a low-income, single mother in her mid-20s.
Roe could be overturned by the Supreme Court this summer, and the power to regulate abortions will then rest solely with the states. According to some observers, it is possible that, without Roe, between 24 and 26 states will not allow pregnant people the right to autonomy over their own bodies.
Thirteen states, including Texas, stand ready with “trigger laws” to make abortion immediately illegal with the overturning of Roe. Texas and Oklahoma have passed punitive laws against anyone who helps bring about an abortion. What’s more, in the 49 years since Roe, many states have already passed onerous laws restricting health care for women.
I can say from my own experience that, when I was a 19-year-old pregnant college sophomore, humiliated every morning by vomiting in my dorm’s communal bathroom, I wasn’t thinking about the technicalities of the legalized oppression of women.
I was thinking, instead, about dying.
It was 1967. I endured the ministrations of an abusive doctor near my campus, known to all as “Quack.” He had the number of the abortion clinic in Nogales, Mexico.
My boyfriend at the time borrowed the money for the procedure, drove me there, and, fortunately, back.
On the table at the clinic, before sucking in ether, the man who may have been a doctor asked me if I was married. In a small, shamed voice I said, “No.” It was the right answer.
My abortion was in 1960.
I was the good girl in my family. But then I had to face the music. I had to have this abortion in order to have a life. Call it selfish; but certainly not criminal. Every decision is a tough decision. And every decision you make about whether to have an abortion isn’t an easy one. You have to think about all the consequences, what you are going to have to live with.
What about my children? What about my grandchildren? I want my grandchildren to know what it was like before we had Roe v. Wade, what risks were taken, and what kind of money was involved.
My abortion was in 1968.
I did not tell my husband because his parents were real religious, and my husband and I did not have that close of a relationship. I can remember being half-dragged up the stairs. I think he wanted me to miscarry. I just didn’t feel like I could talk to him about something as secretive as an abortion.
I may have told a dozen people before now. I think carrying a secret damaged me. I’ve just always felt bad that I didn’t have the wherewithal to do the right thing [telling doctors she had been poisoned by a botched abortion] to speak for my own health, but more importantly, to speak for others.
Elizabeth Ramirez Watson
My abortion was in 1973.
What I have resented for so long is that I felt the laws in Mexico and the U.S. were totally unfair to women. But if we have to go through psychological, emotional, and even religious things and all that—OK. Just let us be.
The psychological trauma was great. I never imagined the load that an abortion [could] leave in a woman. And at the time, I cried so much for what I put my body through.
Because of all I went through, I can only imagine what hundreds and thousands of women will go through, especially with what is happening here in Texas. I just feel that it is not fair.
My abortion was in 1969.
In all the years since, I’ve never told anyone this story. I want to talk about it now because more than anything, I see young women having [the potential] of going through illegal abortions again. That would be stepping back into the Dark Ages.
My abortion was in 1970.
I was counseled by a clergyman and sent to Chicago. I never told my parents [about the pregnancy] but my mother figured it out, and I told her what I was going to do. She started crying and told me of the child she had given up for adoption when she was in her 20s. She had to go to a home for unwed mothers, and that she was treated very badly there.
My abortion was in 1958
You didn’t talk about contraceptives, it was before the pill; in my culture, no one acknowledged that girls were having sex, and I could just deny and segment that reality from other parts of my life. I’m telling this story because so many girls from that era did not survive. Especially women who had less money; women of color.
Jean Emma Francis
My abortion was in 1968.
I knew I couldn’t have another child. We were struggling financially. I had been to technical training school in Cleveland in 1962 and I met a guy there [who said] he was trained by doctors in Orlando to do abortions. He was a lab technician.
The first two catheters [he inserted] did not work, so I went back and the third one did work. He told me that if my temperature went up, to wait until it was 103, and then [I should] go to the emergency and they would think I had a miscarriage.
I got a big infection. I went to the hospital and they gave me a D&C [dilation and curettage] and antibiotics.
I don’t think I was necessarily scared because I trusted I would be okay. I was young and naïve, I never thought about the legality of it. I just knew I could not go full term with this pregnancy.
I feel lucky and grateful. If Roe is overturned I know that all women won’t be as lucky as I was and that there will be many women who will die from going to backroom abortionists. White men should not be telling me or any woman what to do with my body.
My abortion was in 1969.
I was 18 or 19, and pregnant from an older man. I found out later he was married. I didn’t even know his real name because he had switched his name.
He told me he was married when I told him I was pregnant. He knew someone [who was the restaurant owner] and paid for the procedure.
I realize how lucky I was. I know stories of women whose abortion providers were not gentlemen—they expected sex from them . . . or it was someone poking instruments up them. These women had consequences for the rest of their lives.
I have been an abortion clinic escort, and have educated others about people with disabilities, the elderly, or formerly incarcerated people. I have affected other people’s lives. I’m proud of what I have done. I just don’t know how the other life [without the abortion] could have ended up as well as this one did.
Women shouldn’t be pushed into back alleys and face whatever unknowns go along with that.
My abortion was in 1970.
I was fortunate enough to have been in Washington DC as a young first-year student at Howard University. The summer before, the City Council of D.C. legalized abortion. I found myself with an unintentional pregnancy at the age of 16. My law school boyfriend was happy to pay for it.
[She was already a mother of a son her mother was raising. He had been born when she was 15 as a result of an incestuous rape.]
My mother was born in 1922, and was a very old-school Southern evangelical Christian woman, who refused to sign the permission slip [for the abortion…Her older sister managed to sign her mother’s name.]
If there is anything I would caution people to keep in mind is that you can’t take your human rights for granted, because there is always someone trying to take them away from you. I never thought that it would be harder right now to resist being sexually violated, to obtain an abortion, to go up against the system now than it was 53 years ago. It should not be harder. It should be easier.
My abortion was in 1969.
Thinking back to those days, it’s very scary, and it’s sad and painful. I was in love with my boyfriend; I know that he wasn’t as in love with me as I was with him. I ended up getting pregnant. I was in high school. I could not imagine myself having a baby, or keeping a baby. My parents would have been very upset, angry, and embarrassed.
I was [thinking] well, I can take care of this, I can take care of myself, I don’t need a parent to help me. But looking back, I realize that I couldn’t take care of myself with everything.
The boyfriend didn’t have money; he was still in high school too. He was about a year or so older, and not interested in getting married or keeping a baby either.
I had an older friend who was in the military. I knew he would have $350 which was how much I needed. The boyfriend did find somebody to do it, and he told me that she was a nurse or something.
I don’t want us to go back to the days when abortion was illegal, and when people had to have back-alley abortions. I want women to be able to have safe and legal abortions, and so that’s why I’m willing to talk about it.
We’re at this point in our history, in the country, where some people think they need to take this right to a safe and legal abortion away from us. And I feel like I have to do what I can. I can’t do a lot, but I can talk about how it was before.
I think that African Americans, people who are darker, and women, are the most discriminated [against] people on this planet. I’m really interested in women, and the safety of women, and the dignity of women, and so I don’t think that we should have to sneak around to do things. I don’t think that abortion should be a form of birth control, but I think it should be available if people need it. I was a teenager, I was basically a child myself, and children make mistakes.