Guest Column: I Had a Pre-Roe Illegal Abortion. We Can’t Go Back

·3 min read

It was 1972, and I was a student at Northwestern University when I found myself pregnant. I had lost both my parents very young, and I was not equipped to be a mother at all. I knew then that I couldn’t let this unwanted pregnancy affect the rest of my life; that I had to write my own story. Although the ability to choose an abortion was a year away from being federally protected by Roe v. Wade, I was able to get one illegally. It was through a chance meeting, it was not easy, and it’s a situation that I’ve since hoped no one else would ever have to experience once the laws changed. Nearly fifty years later, I can’t believe we’re back here.

I’m a longtime movie producer and a board member of WIF, and as a woman in the film industry, I’m sharing my story now to highlight how urgent it is that women’s healthcare in our country does not go back to what it was like before Roe.

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Months before I was even pregnant, I met a medical student at a party who was passing out his number to young women in case they knew anyone who needed an abortion. He was a real activist, already galvanized. I didn’t know when I took his number that I would soon need to use it for myself.

Back then, the only doctors who were performing “safe abortions” in Chicago apparently worked for the mafia, and that’s who the med student referred me to. The doctor — at least I think he was a real doctor — didn’t ask me any questions. He told me to meet him at a motel near O’Hare airport and bring $900 in cash. It was a huge amount of money at that time (over $6,000 by today’s value), but I didn’t want to ask the boy who got me pregnant to chip in. I felt enormous shame and didn’t want anyone to know, except for a few close family members who’d been through their own similar situations. It took all my savings, but I paid for it on my own.

When I checked in at the motel, I used the name “Sylvia Plath.” Even then, I had a sense of humor. I gave the cash to the doctor, and he told me to lay down on a big rubber sheet on the bed. He had a big needle that was supposed to numb my cervix. He stuck it inside me and I started to cry. “How did I get here,” I thought, full of shame. When everything was done, he shoved a packet of antibiotics into my hands and said, “You have to leave now.”

Ilene Kahn Power - Credit: Courtesy of Kahn Power
Ilene Kahn Power - Credit: Courtesy of Kahn Power

Courtesy of Kahn Power

I was in pain, I was scared, and I felt humiliated. But I didn’t die, and I didn’t let it get me. In fact, it helped me become the woman and mother I am today, proving to myself that I could have dominion over my life. Others weren’t so lucky.

Five people cannot change the course of our lives. We have to rise up. Again. Marching is not enough. As storytellers, we have a responsibility to demystify abortion, to show that it’s not an anomaly, but a part of life. We have to be in control of our bodies, and we have to make our own choices and write our own stories. We have to vote, we have to support organizations like Planned Parenthood, and we have to keep fighting.

We can’t go back.

Ilene Kahn Power is a board member of WIF, which is actively updating its list of abortion healthcare resources provided by employers in the entertainment industry.

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