My Illegal Abortion

Andrew M. Santos

Photo: Millennium Images / Gallery Stock

In 1962, I got pregnant. It was what would now be called date rape. He was a 28-year-old advertising executive who’d been introduced to me by a friend from Lord & Taylor, where I worked as a receptionist in the beauty salon. I was 18. He said we had to stop at his apartment before dinner because he’d forgotten his wallet. His younger brother was staying with him and watched while the rape happened. I told no one.

When my period didn’t come, I had to tell my mother. She gave me milk of magnesia and sent me to Coney Island with enough money to ride the Cyclone four times. “That should do it,” she said. It took an hour and a half to get there on the IRT, and the famous roller coaster was the first ride I saw as the train rounded the bend into the Coney Island station. I’d always been terrified of roller coasters, so I couldn’t sit in the first car. I thought maybe that was why I was still pregnant a week later. My grandmother, who lived next door to us and was the janitor of our building, told me about her abortion. She used a wire coat hanger while squatting in her bathtub. That worked for her, but I was too scared to try it.

My mother’s brother had the name of an obstetrician in Philadelphia who had a reputation for helping girls out, so we took the train to see him. His office was clean, quiet, and papered in pink flowers. There were three women in the waiting room, all visibly pregnant. There were magazines on the tables next to the chairs: Woman’s Day and McCall’s. It felt safe. The doctor was gentle and kind; he wore a gray suit and a dark blue tie. But he told us he was being watched by the police these days and couldn’t do anything to help. He would have been arrested, and his practice would have been shut down. He apologized, and my mother began to cry. She told him we’d come all the way from New York City and borrowed $200. We could pay. She asked if he knew anyone else who could help me.

The doctor wrote a woman’s name and phone number on a small piece of paper. He recommended a hotel downtown where we would need to stay for a night or two. After we checked in, my mother called the woman. They agreed on a fee and a time that same night; I would meet her on the corner. I had to be alone, and I had to bring clean underwear, a toothbrush, and pajamas. At 5:30, the woman got out of a car, asked if I was Carol, and told me to sit in the back seat with her as a man drove us. Before we pulled away from the hotel, she blindfolded me so I couldn’t tell which way we were going.

When the car stopped, the back door was opened for me. The woman took my hand, and the man walked behind me with his hand on the small of my back. We climbed two flights of stairs into a building that smelled like our tenement. The linoleum had cracks that my foot kept catching on; the banister in my right hand was smooth and worn just like ours.

Inside the apartment, the woman took the blindfold off only after the man had left. She took me into a room with two beds — one was a double, and next to it was a twin with a pink chenille bedspread. The woman gave me a hospital gown and took my clothes. I gave her an envelope with the money. She put a rubber sheet on the double bed and told me to lie down. She left the room and came back carrying a bowl with warm water and a sponge. After washing me, she opened a drawer in the dresser next to the bed and took out a vaginal clamp, asking if I wanted whiskey because she couldn’t use any kind of anesthesia for the procedure. “You better drink the whiskey,” she said. I don’t remember how long it lasted, only that she said she was inserting something in me that would make the baby drop. She said she would do a scraping in the morning.

I think I passed out. When I woke up, she wasn’t there but had left a note saying she had to go out and pick something up. When she returned, she had with her a child who couldn’t have been older than 3. She fed the child in the kitchen, then put her to bed under the chenille bedspread. After the little girl was asleep, the woman gave me two heavy blankets. She told me I would probably wake up in the night and be very cold; if I did, I was supposed to come into her room and wake her. Sometime in the early morning, I woke up, my teeth chattering. I couldn’t walk, and I was afraid that if I called out, I would wake the child, so I crawled to the woman’s room. She helped me back to bed, added more blankets, and gave me a heating pad.

The next morning, someone came to pick up the child, and the woman did the scraping. When she was finished, she held the bowl out to show me what she had taken out of me. Then she told me to call my mother at the hotel. When I told my mother I was bleeding, she said, “Thank God.”

Seven years later I married a smart, kind man. Not until our second child was born, nine years later, did I stop having nightmares. I was always pregnant in the dreams — sometimes visibly so; other times, only I knew. I would wake up right before giving birth. I would be too cold to talk, shaking all over. My husband would wrap me in extra blankets and lie on top of me until I was still.

Eleven years after my trip to Philadelphia, the U.S. Supreme Court established the constitutional right to a legal and safe abortion performed by a licensed physician. Had Roe v. Wade been law in 1962, I would have gone to a hospital or a clinic. There would have been nurses and doctors and anesthesia. There would not have been a toddler in the adjoining bed. The humiliation, pain, fear, and shame that began with my rape continued in that room in Philadelphia.

Today, new laws in a number of states have all but stripped women of their right to a safe abortion including Texas’s ban on the procedure as early as six weeks, which is before most women even know they are pregnant. And now, as we await a decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the possibility of an all-out ban in those states is more real than it has ever been.

Overturning Roe v. Wade will not put an end to abortions — not for women who can afford to seek the medical care they need, who will find clean and safe solutions and will maintain a degree of control over their bodies. Banning legal abortion won’t stop poor women from having abortions, either. They’ll learn about what were once known as “back-alley abortions,” about coat hangers, deliberate falls down the stairs, milk of magnesia tablets, and rides on rickety roller coasters: methods that resulted only sometimes in miscarriages and far too often in girls and women bleeding to death. What it will do is leave many women blindfolded and stumbling in the dark once again.

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