Today is the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a 1973 Supreme Court decision, which saved my life in 1984.
I was lying on the couch, puking, again. Sometimes, I made it to the bathroom. Sometimes, I didn’t. It wasn’t just morning sickness. It was all-day-and-all-night sickness. I couldn’t eat. I was losing weight. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me.
After many trips to the doctor’s office, I was sent to Westchester County Medical Center. I had been there before when I was nine when my pediatrician could not figure out what was wrong with me. This time, it wasn’t a spastic colon. Not long after arriving at the hospital and answering far too many personal questions, it was confirmed I was pregnant. I was 14 years old.
Over the previous five years, I had been raped and sexually assaulted by my cousin, often violently. Thirty-six years later I, mostly, remember what happened.
Roe v. Wade became the law when I was three years old, but New York State was well ahead of the rest of the country by that time. Although abortion was illegal by the late 19th century, doctors continued performing them anyway.
According to The Atlantic, “In the late 1920s some 15,000 women a year died from abortions.” This was due in large part to women being denied medical care if there were complications after the procedure until she confessed to what she did and who the father was. Since both parties could go to jail, women often kept quiet.
In 1955, a conference was held at Arden House in New York to review abortions in the United States. Members who attended the conference published a scientific paper on the “first objective and quantitative estimates of illegal abortions.” It included the perspective of a doctor who had performed more than 5,000 abortions.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Mount Sinai hospital had provided mental health waivers to some women who indicated to their doctors they had attempted suicide as a result of the pregnancy. Sloane Hospital created a review board in 1955 to approve abortion requests, but not all hospitals were supportive.
In one instance of particular callousness, when a teenager tried to kill herself after her request was turned down, the committee decided to hospitalize her for the rest of her pregnancy. (She eventually got her abortion, after her multiple suicide attempts proved too disruptive for the staff.)
In 1984, I had the same thoughts, but I didn’t need a waiver and my suicidal thoughts remained thoughts inside my head. Abortion was my right. I only needed to make a request.
By the 1960s, “Moderate reforms had already been tried: twelve states permitted abortion in instances of rape, incest, danger to physical or mental health, or fetal defect, but since most women, as always, sought abortions for economic, social, or personal reasons, illegal abortion continued to thrive.” It’s hardly surprising the Supreme Court made the decision it did.
New York became the second state after Hawaii to decriminalize abortion in 1970. It was the first to make abortion legal upon request. New York’s law made abortion legal up to the 24th week of pregnancy. All impediments for performing an abortion were removed, except for the requirement that the abortion be performed in an accredited hospital by a licensed physician.
I laid in my hospital bed alone and afraid. For a little over a week, I heard whispers. I received looks. I will never forget the disapproving looks. Once the doctor had confirmed the pregnancy, an abortion was scheduled. I don’t remember the date I was in the hospital. My mother only vaguely recalls the time period. I tried to obtain my pediatric records last year. They were destroyed seven years ago.
Legalizing abortion was a public-health triumph that for pregnant women ranked with the advent of antisepsis and antibiotics. In 1971, the year after decriminalization, the maternal-mortality rate in New York State dropped 45 percent.
For me, though, it was also about dying. I did not want to live. I know deep inside, if Roe v. Wade not been the law, I would have found a way to step off this planet. I never spoke to anyone after I returned home. I refused to speak to the male therapist I had been sent to. Nearly all of my family is unaware of these events.
There are gaps in my memory of the day it happened, of my time in the hospital, of the years after. At age 20, I still wanted to die. Thankfully, I sought help, but those two and a half years of counseling were spent on one incident, on my thoughts of wanting to die, but not wanting to be dead. I never dealt with the underlying causes.
The law had saved me, physically, six years before, but the memories remained. I had no one to talk to, so I stuffed everything down as best as I could, but the memories were always there. I struggled my entire life to feel normal and to just make it until tomorrow. My nightmares weren’t just memories of that one day, of the hospital, and of the abortion. They were nightmares of seven years of abuse by more than one person. I carried those images for four decades until I couldn’t.
January 22, 1973, changed my life before I even knew it could. If not for Roe v. Wade, I would have never graduated high school or college. I would have never had the opportunity to travel the world. I would have never married. I would have never met my friends from the Netherlands, England, Greece, and Tanzania. My friends here in Scottsbluff would never have known I existed. A law that put my inalienable right to choose on paper made that all possible.
I’ve still got a long road ahead as I continue to confront and heal from the years of abuse. I’m going to have an intense year of therapy. Whenever this journey ends, I know I will be better off and a better person than I am today.
In 2020, I took the first step in changing the outcome of the day after Labor Day from one filled with flashbacks of one of the most horrific days of my life to one of peacefulness. With the assistance of my supports, I spent the day hiking alone at Fort Robinson. I plan to repeat the process again until the day comes when I no longer think about those events in 1984. It was a small step for me only made possible by those who recognized my right to choose what happens to me.