Writings

An anniversary, of sorts

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.

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8 Comments

  1. Jenny HarmsI

    You are a brave person and I’ve always admired you. Now that I know some more of your life, I know you’re going to make it through your nightmare. Keep on keeping on is all any of us can do and I know you will. Take care, Irene.

  2. Katie Bradshaw

    You are Brave AF, madame. And fierce. And many other words that express what it means to survive the hell on earth that is so often caused by other people. Those other people who caused you pain and who Just Don’t Get It make me so angry. I’m glad you’re finding your crew of supporters and finding your way through. Also glad we are friends. I’m proud to know you.

    • Carol Sinner

      Irene,
      Thank you for being so brave. Roe vs. Wade was a mile stone for so many people. You have the support of so many people and surrounded by love.
      Carol

  3. Katelyn Lambert

    It took a lot of bravery and strength to share this story, but I am glad you did. It takes real stories surrounding abortion to hopefully shift the public perspective on the (oftentimes controversial) topic, and your story does not and will not fall on deaf ears. I am grateful to know you, Irene. You are easily one of the strongest individuals I know and I’m thankful for our friendship.

  4. Marina McCreary

    I’m so proud of you for sharing your story. I know others find strength through your example. You’re such an amazing person and I’m glad to call you my friend.

  5. Donna Thompson

    Powerful. Courageous. Story.
    Thank you. The words you have written will no doubt have lasting impact on you and many others because you were brave enough to share them. That’s how true healing is done. You’re there. You’re on fire, my friend. Just keep going.

  6. Joni Sakurada Hotz

    Irene, I have no words. I cried reading this, I was speechless at the end. Forgive me, please, if my comment(s) aren’t appropriate, but I want to share two things that went through my head. First, I’m so incredibly sorry you felt compelled to carry all of that alone and for so long. You should NEVER have had to shoulder that burden alone, not ever. I understand why you did it (I do the same thing), but the truth is you didn’t/don’t live in a vacuum, you didn’t do it to yourself, there were others involved, and they should ALL bear responsibility for their actions (or inactions). And second, if I ever got even a hint that something like that had happened to my daughter, (especially at that age!!!) there would be a head and a skin hanging unapologetically from my wall, and you better believe the process would be as painful as I could make it. And no, I wouldn’t just hide the body, it would be out there for all to see, so she would know that one) being treated/assaulted/abused like that is completely unacceptable, and two) her momma would absolutely go to war for her. I wish with all my heart you had had someone who would have done that for you; you deserve(d) it, and you always have. Again, forgive me please if these thoughts of mine aren’t quite appropriate, I don’t say them to say that I feel sorry for you, I know that’s not what this was about. They are just a couple of things that stood out in my head that I felt compelled to say.

  7. Deb Carpenter-Nolting

    Thank you for sharing. It is important to have your testimony in black and white.

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