Politics

Memories of pre-Roe America, from people who were there

"I saw septic abortions. I can't even count how many I saw."

Protesters march through the city in Boston, MA on May 03, 2022. Pro-choice activists held the protest in light of the leaked draft decision by the Supreme Court and obtained by Politico that suggested the justices are poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff


Growing up in the 1960s, Susan Shurin learned that not getting pregnant was a matter of access.

Shurin, now a 77-year-old retired physician and former head of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, attended high school and college in Massachusetts at a time when it was illegal to sell or dispense contraception in the state. She knew people who found ways around those restrictions – traveling to New York to get diaphragm contraceptives or, if they were already pregnant, abortions. But, she said, doing so required “money and know-how.”

Then, as a medical student at Johns Hopkins University, Shurin said she saw what could happen to those without the means.

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“I saw septic abortions. I can’t even count how many I saw,” said Shurin, referring to abortions complicated by infection. She recalled that one of her first patients was a 40-year-old mother of four who died of a septic abortion – which she had sought because “her husband lost his job and they couldn’t afford another baby.”

Shurin said it was so common to see these cases in Baltimore in the late 1960s that when a young woman walked into the hospital with a fever and chills, doctors would need to rule out whether a septic abortion was the cause.

“It was incredibly traumatic to watch,” said Shurin, who was in her 20s at the time.

Shurin wasn’t surprised when, on Monday night, Politico reported a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion that would fully overturn the high court’s landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade: “It’s been coming,” she said. According to the report, five justices had voted to uphold a Mississippi law that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

The high court confirmed Tuesday that the leaked draft opinion is authentic but not final. “It does not represent a decision by the Court or the final position of any member on the issues in the case,” it said in a statement.

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Advocates on both sides of the issue have anticipated this moment – the undermining or complete overturning of Roe – for decades. But only a small share remember life pre-Roe, a period defined by deep stigma around sex and limited access to contraception and abortions for women.

At the time, 17 states permitted the procedure. New York, with the most liberal policy, allowed it within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, as CBS reports. The rest prohibited it except to save the life of the pregnant person.

As the country faces the prospect of a post-Roe future, The Washington Post spoke to people who remember what life was like before the landmark decision.

Kathy Nasal Peters, 75, was pleased with the content of the leaked draft opinion. A staunch antiabortion advocate, Peters considered herself “pro-choice” in the 1960s but said she hadn’t thought very much about the issue at that point. She saw it as part of a bigger slate of rights women ought to have access to, like equal pay.

But that changed after the birth of her first daughter in 1971, she said. Peters tried to get pregnant the next year but couldn’t. At a New York hospital awaiting the results of a urine test, Peters remembers sitting in a room with a woman who just had an abortion.

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“That was the first time I really, really thought of abortion, because I thought, ‘Here I am doing everything to get pregnant.’ And here, next to me, is this lady who doesn’t want a baby,” said Peters. “I couldn’t believe they did that.”

Several people told The Post there was deep stigma around premarital sex at the time, which fell squarely on women’s shoulders. Few received formal sex education in schools, and access to contraception was limited. Some said they learned about sex privately, from conversations with friends, but neither sex nor abortion were to be openly discussed, they said.

And before Roe, the ability to attain an abortion depended on where a person lived and what connections they had.

Some, like Dorie Barron, now 80, relied on underground networks to end their pregnancies. She had two abortions in Illinois in the mid-1960s: One was facilitated through the mob, she said, and the second was through an underground network of women called “The Janes.”

Her first abortion, at 22 years old, “nearly killed me,” Barron said.

Barron recalled being told to go to a motel room in Chicago. Two men and a woman there said they provided three different levels of care, with the “Cadillac” service being the best. Barron could afford only the cheapest level, which cost a few hundred dollars, she said.

“The woman had me spread my legs, she inserted something inside of me and then they packed up their gear,” she said. “In less than five minutes, they were out of there.”

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Barron said she continued bleeding after the procedure but was able to find her way home. She was living with her mother, who sent her to the hospital, where she had to have an emergency procedure. “And thank God I went,” she added.

The second abortion she had through “The Janes” network was “totally different.” The women who facilitated the abortion seemed to genuinely care about her outcome, said Barron, who also shared her story in a documentary about “The Janes” set to premiere on HBO.

“I was forever grateful for the care that I received,” she said – so much so that she went on to volunteer for the network herself.

Barbara Young, now a 72-year-old teacher living in Spain, didn’t think she could get pregnant. Ever since puberty, she didn’t ovulate and had trouble getting periods.

But, in 1972, she did. “I was shocked when I got pregnant,” Young said. “I didn’t think I had a risk.”

A 22-year-old working at an insurance company, Young said she felt having a baby wasn’t an option, even if she were to pursue adoption: How would she hide her pregnancy at work?

She believed that if she went through with the pregnancy and came back childless, everyone would know what she had done. Young blamed herself for being “stupid enough” to get pregnant, she said.

During a group-therapy session she’d already been attending, Young shared about her pregnancy and said she didn’t want to go forward with it. She said she was referred to a therapist, who told her that her health insurance would handle everything.

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In July 1972, at 16 weeks, she said, she had a saline infusion at a Boston hospital. (Abortion was illegal in Massachusetts except in cases where giving birth could endanger the patient’s life.)

“I don’t think there was any kind of feeling of a loss to your body. It was a relief: It’s over,” Young said.

Anthony Levatino, a “semiretired” OB/GYN who teaches second-year medical students, recalled teen pregnancy as a “rarity” at the rural, Upstate New York high school he attended. Getting pregnant as a teen was a “scandal of the highest order,” he said.

The year Roe was decided, Levatino, now 69, was a medical student in New York who was drawn to obstetrics and gynecology because of the possibility of having “two patients under your care.”

At the time, he supported abortion wholeheartedly.

Levatino said he rarely encountered septic abortions throughout his post-Roe career and performed, by his estimation, more than 1,200 abortions, including late-stage procedures that “no one was willing to touch.”

“I was dedicated,” he added.

Doubt eventually began creeping in: When his wife struggled to get pregnant, Levatino said, he started viewing abortion differently. “I’m throwing these kids in the garbage,” he would think after performing the procedures. But his qualms about abortion “simply evaporated” once they adopted a girl, Heather, in 1978, and when his wife gave birth to their son 10 months later.

The true turning point came more than a decade after Roe, in 1984, when a car struck Heather outside their home. “She died in our arms in the back of an ambulance,” Levatino said.

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The first abortion he performed after her death, Levatino said, he felt sick. When he looked at the remains of the fetuses he aborted, he could think only of Heather.

“I didn’t see [the patient’s] right to choose,” Levatino said. “All I could see was someone’s son or daughter.”

Many who oppose abortion, like Levatino, have been saddened by the broader acceptance of abortion in recent decades, and now a majority of Americans say the Supreme Court should uphold Roe. Peters, for her part, doesn’t see why people would seek an abortion when there are other methods of birth control.

“There is contraception,” Peters said. “You don’t want to have kids, well, just sterilize. It’s not that difficult.”

But for women like Deborah Rothschild, 73, two abortions she had after Roe ultimately helped her escape what she said was an abusive relationship.

Rothschild said she knew two girls who had back-alley abortions before Roe and who were later unable to have children as a result. She sees the possible reversal of the decision legalizing abortions as “going backwards.”

“It’s absolutely horrifying,” she added. “I mean, so much of the gains that women have made . . . is because we’ve had the freedom not to bear children when we don’t want to.”

Rothschild had abortions in 1975 and 1977. After leaving the abusive situation, she said, she went on to get her graduate degree and work as a curator and writer.

“I don’t understand how women cannot be sympathetic to other women who find themselves making a mistake and then having to deal with this the rest of their lives,” Rothschild said. “It’s just inhumane.”

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