Faye Wattleton: Women Can Protect Roe v. Wade By Sharing Their Abortion Stories

Paulina Cachero

"The Princess of Death"—that's what protesters called Faye Wattleton when she walked into Planned Parenthood clinics during her time as president of the women's healthcare organization. When she assumed the position in 1978, Planned Parenthood clinics across the nation were regularly picketed, burned down, even bombed. However, Wattleton, who was the first African-American woman and the youngest female president at age 34 to assume the position, was never fazed, In fact, she still remains fired up.

"We've had [45] years now of reproductive rights solidly protected by the courts. I think it is emblematic of the complacency born out of the years of the acceptance of a right and believing that it will always be there." Faye Wattleton says in an interview with MAKERS. "There has been progress, but the danger is the perception that the job is finished— that there is no more need to continue fighting."

Never has that fight been more crucial than right now. With the fate of Roe v. Wade teetering on the president's Supreme Court appointment which will be announced on July 9, women need to raise their voices louder than ever before if they want to protect the legal right to a safe abortion set by the landmark 1973 case that attorney Sarah Weddington won at just 26 years old.

"I think that our stories can be enormously powerful because they are about living, real human beings," says Wattleton. Just as former Glamour editor-in-chief Cindi Leive echoed in her recent op-ed "Let's Talk About My Abortion (And Yours)," Wattleton believes women must break the silence around their own abortion experiences in order to protect the right for future generations— and Wattleton is starting with her own.

"Abortion is the most important and private decision. But, I'm going to talk about my illegal abortion. I'm going to talk about what it was like to go to a doctor's office late at night and to have an abortion without anesthesia," Wattleton tells MAKERS. "I'm ashamed to think that if I didn't talk about it, some ground will be lost because young women will believe that it was all manufactured and it wasn't all that bad— it was bad."

As a nurse working in Harlem, NY, Wattleton witnessed "6,500 women . . . suffering from the complications of incomplete abortions" in a single year alone. Wattleton worked with patients who had irreparable injuries inflicted by secret procedures administered by an array of horrifying means: coat hangers, knitting needles, witch hazels sticks, and other hazardous chemicals. "As a nurse training in midwifery, I took care of a girl who had instilled bleach into her uterus to end her unwanted experience," Wattleton recalls. "[Abortion] was a horrifying experience and it shouldn't be.

During her time in Harlem, Wattleton also found herself pregnant when contraception failed to work. "I was teaching labor and delivery nursing and too embarrassed to ask the doctors with whom I worked with on a daily basis for birth control," says Wattleton, who chose to terminate the pregnancy. She later skipped her post-abortion examination because "I just wanted to get on with my life and not talk about it any longer."

Soon she realized that was the wrong tactic to take. After her time in New York, Wattleton was determined to help defend American women's right to safe healthcare. Following years of working as a public health nurse in Dayton, Ohio, and serving as president of the local Planned Parenthood chapter, Wattleton nabbed the top spot at the national organization where she fought tirelessly to expand its services to provide low-cost HIV testing and started the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, to engage in public education and organize grassroots campaigns. In her 14 years as the president of Planned Parenthood (the longest-tenured professional to hold the position), the reproductive health organization had grown to become the seventh largest non-profit in the U.S. providing care and educational services to millions of Americans in 49 states.

She continued to be a vocal pro-choice advocate after stepping down in 1992. After Wattleton, Gloria Feldt, a former teen mom from rural Texas turned New York Times Best Selling Author, took up the presidency of Planned Parenthood from 1996 to 2005. In 2006, Cecile Richards carried the torch as Planned Parenthood president up until this year when she announced her retirement. Throughout Richards' tenure, her message mirrored Wattleton's: "Be bold. Share your own story."

Other MAKERS women have opened up and described their experiences before Roe v. Wade as a period marked by fear and helplessness where they were only left with the option of back-alley procedures. As several MAKERS share their own abortion stories, they stress the importance of preserving the legacy of Roe v. Wade not just for themselves, but for the next generation of women.

"Why we are not engaged in a massive rebellion against this is really rather remarkable to me," says Wattleton. "What I fear is that women are going to start suffering and that is when people will wake up and it's real." Well, Faye, that wake-up call has arrived.