Remembering a Country Without Roe

by Shaker Anitanola

[Content Note: Hostility to agency; sexual violence; misogyny.]

After the pill arrived in 1960 and Roe in 1973, there really was a liberation. But that liberation came with a backlash that continues to this day.

The leaders of this war on agency are men who were brought up to believe they should be controlling women—and the fact that women (at least the women who are able) are making use of their reproductive rights to avoid that control is intolerable to them.

Many feminist and womanist writers have connected the dots between the religious and cultural imperatives that treat the control of women's bodies as a birthright, and the pitiful justifications for this straight-up war against women (and, collaterally, other people with uteri) and women's agency over their own sexuality and reproductive choice. Many feminist and womanist writers have exposed the ways in which claims to want to end abortion are not supported by attacks on contraception, and the ways in which justifications of religious freedom are nonsense: If the leaders of the war on agency cite religious grounds for their desired control of my body, they are violating my constitutional right to be compelled by religious beliefs not my own.

The war on agency, being waged in state legislatures all over the country, is an especially distressing trend to witness as I remember how it was during the twenty-one years before Roe.

This is how it was for me: I was seventeen in 1952 when I was raped and got pregnant. Fortunately, I was in New York City, and a relative found a doctor who would perform a safe albeit illegal abortion. I took a long subway ride with the cash held tightly in my bag under my coat and walked up to the door of the address I had been given. I was met, interviewed, and sworn to secrecy—I could never tell anyone about this or divulge the doctor's name or address. I was then told there would be no anesthetic so I was to leave and go down to the corner bar and drink two shots of whisky and return.

I'd never drunk alcohol (an omission I later remedied a bit too thoroughly), so I chose brandy because I'd read of people giving it to distressed women. It was 11 in the morning and the bar was almost empty; I remember being glad of that and thinking that one day I could write in a story about drinking brandy in a bar.

When I returned, the abortion was not as bad as I had expected. After a minimal recovery time, I was firmly instructed that I must leave, walking normally and steadily, and go straight home—no taxi. If I had any bleeding or problems, which I was assured was unlikely, I was to go to the emergency room.

I took the long subway ride back and I was fine. I had no problems, no complications. This doctor had a regular general practice, but was compassionate and believed women should not be forced to continue unwanted pregnancies, so he would accept a few such patients. Clandestinely. Illegally. It was shaming and dangerous.

A few months later, a family friend, whom a relative had asked to escort me home, raped me. He overpowered and forced me. It never occurred to me to fear or mistrust this man; I was very naïve—I knew only what the rape culture had taught me about rapists, which had been confirmed by my previous experience.

I got pregnant. This time, the only abortionist to be found was a woman who was not a doctor. She had no office, and performed the procedure in suboptimal circumstances. She spoke little English, and we communicated through an interpreter. She came and performed the operation on the kitchen table.

I was terrified throughout, acutely aware in a way I had not been in a doctor's office that what we were doing was illegal and dangerous. It was painful. I was told to go a doctor in a few days and get checked out, saying, if asked, that I had spontaneously aborted. I did as I was told.

I am sure the lie was visible on my body, but I was treated, given medicine and eventually got better, although it was years before I was completely free of infection and pain. There was scarring and some question about whether I would be able to have children. I found a very good family doctor, and I was lucky.

Although personally naïve and penniless, I had family resources and a comparatively vast amount of privilege. For anyone who did not live as a woman through those years, for all the women who still have access to safe and legal abortions (or assume that they have it, and may continue to believe so until they need it and bump up against a lack of providers or slew of restrictions), it is nearly impossible to understand how important Roe is to women's lives. How liberating it is to have reproductive choice. How many lives it saves. How many children don't lose their mothers to forced childbirth or botched abortion. How many young women don't lose their goals and dreams because of an unplanned pregnancy.

Access to abortion has already been so eroded that many abortion-seekers can only access abortion if they have the hundreds or thousands of dollars it would cost to go to a city (or another state) hundreds of miles from home, to jump through the hoops and wait out the time mandated in order to have an abortion. I particularly care that young women are being bullied by the coalition that is the Religious Right and the Republican Party at an age before many of them even know what politics has to do with their dilemma.

Many do not have the resources and have no one to help them. Many have no one they can tell. Having a dependable support network is a privilege as sure as having the financial resources to pay for an abortion.

Women and men who were born post-Roe have also never known abortion to be illegal or birth control to be unavailable, by federal law. It is easy, post-Roe to be unaware of how fundamentally our society depends on these rights, and what it will do to all of us to lose this progress. It is hard to imagine those rights disappearing, even as they are being surely eroded every day.

What I have seen having lived through this particular arc of the American story is that there has been a relentless, organized push back against women's rights in large and small ways and that it is actually working to take away a constitutional right upon which our society now depends.

To repeat: Forty years after Roe, what we know more clearly than ever is that Roe is still necessary, and that Roe is not enough.

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