The Horrifying Reality of Abortion Before It Was Legal in America


Many of us have grown up in a time when we take for granted that abortion is legal. But older generations of doctors and women remember what it took to obtain an abortion before Roe v. Wade. It wasn’t pretty. (Photo: Getty Images/Alberto Ruggieri)

With the topic of abortion emerging as a hot-button issue in the 2016 presidential race, many fear the possibility that it will again become illegal in the United States.

In the discussion surrounding women’s reproductive rights, what’s not being recalled is what life was like before the landmark Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade legalized abortion across America in 1973.

“The problems we’re suffering right now in the political arena are because people don’t remember what the pre-Roe days were like,” David Grimes, MD, a retired ob-gyn and clinical professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine tells Yahoo Health. During the 1970s, Grimes worked for the Centers for Disease Control as an epidemiologist on abortion-related projects.

“There is a generation not aware of the horrible conditions that existed pre-Roe. Abortion care has become a victim of its own success,” says Grimes.

Last week, Girls creator Lena Dunham and her showrunner, Jenni Konner, published a preview of their upcoming newsletter, Lenny, by asking their readers to #AskYourMother about life, and abortion care, before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in the United States.

Their plea came after Konner asked her own mother, via email, to which her mother casually replied:

“Yes, in Mexico. On my birthday. It involved meeting a guy, holding sunglasses in my hand and driving 300 miles into Ensenada. I was sure I was going to die. But it turned out well.”


It’s difficult to calculate the exact number of abortions performed in the decade prior to Roe because of the reluctance of individuals to disclose data pertaining to an illegal activity.

Surveys from the 1950s approximate somewhere between 200,000 and 200 million abortion performed illegally each year in the U.S. Grimes says that, at this time, it is safe to estimate that four women a day died in America as a consequence of illegal abortion. “That’s a huge amount of suffering,” he says

“I have seen women paralyzed for six weeks, stuck in a hospital. I have seen women in hospitals dying because of an abortion performed with antibiotics and not done correctly,” says Grimes.

As a resident at the University of North Carolina, he recalls being called in to see a woman in the emergency room who had a temperature of 107 degrees. She had a red rubber catheter hanging out of her cervix when he went to examine her. She was in septic shock as a result of an illegally performed abortion.

“But doctors younger than me have never seen these kinds of horrors,” he says of physicians who trained after 1973, when Roe became the law of the land.

The same can be said for any American born after the mid-1960s.


Now 72 years old, Ronnie Konner was 19 when she found herself pregnant by her “incredibly narcissistic” sculptor boyfriend. “He couldn’t have been less interested in me or my problem — or what he considered my problem,” she recalls. “Or going with me to take care of it.”

After overhearing a college classmate mention abortion, Konner was then able to secure a phone number. The person on the other end told her to go to the California-Mexico border holding sunglasses in her left hand — a sign to the driver that she was to be picked up and driven to Mexico for an abortion. The cost was $300.

Ronnie Konner made the drive to Mexico with two other women, one of whom was accompanied by her boyfriend. They all held sunglasses in their left hands.

Konner and the two other women were brought to the physician’s house for the procedure. The other two women were taken back first. “They came out,” Konner shared, “So I thought, ‘They lived.’”

When she woke up from the anesthesia from her own procedure, the doctor told her:

“Look, I want you to know, I believe this is the right thing to do. I packed you so you won’t bleed, but I want you to get out of Mexico tonight and go to your own doctor in the morning.”

When she got back to Los Angeles, “I went to my own doctor and told him I went to Mexico and got an abortion. He was furious. He said, “You could have been killed,” and then he unpacked the bandages, and said the doctor actually did a very good job. At the time, I didn’t even think about whether or not my doctor was pro-choice, but I bet he was.”


Should abortion again become a states’ rights issue, like it was before Roe passed in 1973, women might find themselves back in the position they were in the early 1970s, when, Grimes explains, 80 percent of all abortions were performed in two states: New York and California.

“For women living in Middle America, this meant huge, long treks across the country to get decent medical care. And for women with children — since it’s important to remember that most women who get an abortion already have one child — that’s a huge cost of time and money and a very long journey.”

The legalization of abortion is also responsible for the decrease in medical costs across the country when it comes to surgical procedures. Until Roe v. Wade, all surgeries were performed in a hospital. After Roe, freestanding outpatient clinics such as Planned Parenthood emerged, proving to be safer and more cost-effective than a hospital for several reasons.

Related: Women Face Harder Path to Abortion as States Extend Waiting Period

“Clinics set the standard” for outpatient surgical care, Grimes notes. “Common procedures like podiatry surgery now — those are all done outpatient. And that’s because of the impact of abortion clinics.”

In addition to eliminating the high overhead costs of a full-service hospital, outpatient abortion clinics also proved safer for patients.

“Doctors are like other people,” says Grimes, “They do well what they do often. If you have a coronary, you want the heart surgeon who does 10 of those surgeries a week and not 10 a year.” It’s the same with abortion care, he explains, with outpatient clinics staffed with highly experienced providers who specialize in exactly that kind of care.

Related: ‘I Set Her Free’ — What One Woman Wants Lawmakers to Know About Her Late-Term Abortion

Adds Grimes, “The bulk of what Planned Parenthood does is preventative medicine. And that’s the same as with other areas of medicine. The bulk of what all doctors do is preventative medicine. Planned Parenthood provides contraception and well-woman visits. Without them as a preventative health- care provider, you’re looking at more illness, more death, more unintended pregnancies, and more abortion. To think that you can cut funding to Planned Parenthood and reduce abortion is paradoxical.”

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