What it was like before Roe v. Wade…

by Doctor Linda

I got pregnant my first year in college, when I was 18, in Wisconsin, in 1970. Abortion was only legal there to save a woman’s life. Needless to say, I was petrified and had no idea where to turn. I looked in the student newspaper where there was an ad for “pregnancy testing” at a doctor’s office on the south side of town. I made an appointment and was told to come in with a sample of my “first morning urine.” Yikes, I had to pee in a jar and take it to the doctor with me! There, I was seen and examined by a very kind and elderly African-American physician. He told me I was, indeed, pregnant. When he saw the horrified look on my face, he scrawled on a piece of scratch paper for me a name and number. “Marilyn” it said. “If you don’t want to continue your pregnancy” he said, “call this number.” I took the paper and biked back to my dorm. I checked my roommate’s schedule to be sure she wouldn’t be coming back soon and surreptitiously dialed the number.

The person who answered the phone rattled off the name of a law firm. In a panic, I hung up, afraid I had the wrong number. With no other options I could come up with, I decided to try that number again, and this time bravely asked to speak to Marilyn. The call was transferred and a woman came on, “Hello, this is Marilyn.” I stammered and stuttered something incoherent and she said, “I understand. Here is what you need to do. Meet me tomorrow at noon at the SE corner of the library on State Street. I’ll be wearing a red shirt.” I was terrified, but without any better ideas, I waited on the corner the next day. “Marilyn” arrived and was very kind. She explained to me that the only way to get a legal abortion in the state of Wisconsin at that time was to get two psychiatrists to write letters for you, saying that you were suicidal and that the pregnancy was a threat to your life. Then, you would take the letters to a sympathetic physician who would do your abortion at the University Hospital. She gave me a mimeographed list of ten psychiatrists and wished me good luck.

I returned to my dorm and made the calls for appointments whenever I was pretty sure no one was around or about to barge in to visit. The first psychitrist was very kind and wrote me a letter right away. The second one was quite gruff and interviewed me, asking many questions that seemed (to me, who had no experience with shrinks) horribly intrusive. Finally he asked, “OK, so you’re going to kill yourself. How would you do it?” I stammered, “I’d take a bottle of aspirin.” He replied, “that wouldn’t work.” I was crying by then, both from his earlier questions and out of panic because I didn’t know what the “right” answer was.

In retrospect, I think he was being so harsh in order to convince himself that I might truly be suicidal. I don’t remember what I finally answered, but he did finally give me the letter and I fled, quite shaken up. I made the appointment at the University Hospital and was admitted the night before my procedure (I was now 8 weeks pregnant) to the maternity ward.

I was put in a 10 bedded room, at the back of the maternity ward, filled with other women having abortions. Some of them were having second trimester procedures, called a “salting out.” These women were laboring in their beds, crying in discomfort. The nurses would not come into our room, despite the cries of pain from some of the women. We could hear the nurses talking in not particularly quiet voices about us, “those sluts…” Those of us schedule for the first trimester procedures for the next day stayed up all night with the women laboring, putting cool washcloths on their foreheads and holding their hands. Around 6 AM some orderlies appeared with stretchers and one by one wheeled us off to the operating room where I was moved onto a hard table. I remember a mask going over my face.

From there, I only remember walking home from the hospital in a daze. From time to time, walking around campus, I would see some of the women who shared that night with me. We mostly just smiled slightly to each other, although some of them would just look the other way. I never told any of my college friends what was going on. I told my boyfriend, and he helped me pay the bills. We both worked in the college cafeteria, where we made $2.65/hour. The abortion cost us $500.

My boyfriend eventually flunked out of school because he was working so many hours to pay these bills. Now I’m a family physician who provides abortions in my general practice, and who teaches residents in training how to perform medication and aspiration abortions.

I had it relatively easy, for what most women went through back in those pre-Roe v Wade days. I got a legal and safe abortion, although no one ever explained anything to me about what was going on, and I was terrified throughout the process.

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