A couple of years ago, a reader told me about the solemn, almost whispered conversations between his mother, an obstetrics nurse, and his godmother, one of the first female obstetrician/gynecologists in the country, about the ward in the basement of the Los Angeles County General Hospital.
In the decades before the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, the ward was where women, eviscerated and septic and bleeding from botched back-alley abortions, were brought to die.
He wrote of his hope that “we will never again return to the horrors of a time long gone.”
In early 2016, I had the privilege of sitting down with four pioneers of the fight for women’s reproductive rights and dominion over their own bodies. Each of the women had worked for Planned Parenthood in New Mexico in volunteer, staff or leadership roles in pre- and post-Roe years.
Mary Lou Edward, a charter member of the board of directors in 1964 and later president, told me then that she still thought about a young wife taken into an emergency room with a hanger protruding through her lung, the gruesome result of a back-alley abortion in the 1960s.
Lori Feibelman, former vice president for development, told me about the weary helplessness of low-income women who were forced to carry a pregnancy they could ill afford financially, physically or emotionally.
“There was such desperation then,” she said.
Betsy Schmidt-Nowara, a past board president, told me about the Boston hospital where her physician father worked in the 1940s and 1950s where an entire ward was filled with women butchered by illegal abortions.
All of the women said they fought hard so that American women would never be forced back to those harrowing days, but even during our chat six years ago they worried the fight wasn’t over.
Then last week came the leak of a brutal Supreme Court draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito that eviscerates Roe.
“When I first heard about the leaked draft decision, I could not wrap my head around it,” Schmidt-Nowara said. “I’m so so angry at the direction of our country.”
Young women, she said, have never known, likely never imagined, that a right that’s been in the books for 49 years could disappear. And maybe they never appreciated how hard-won that right was.
“The battle for the right of women to make their own decisions regarding their health care has been a long one, and it is disheartening to see that it is likely to be taken away,” said Diane Goldfarb, a past president of the local Planned Parenthood.
Flames practically flew from Feibelman’s email over the Alito draft.
“The image of a woman mutilating herself with a wire coat hanger illustrates just how crucial the rights to privacy and choice are to women of all walks of life,” she said. “Even women who do not ‘believe’ in abortion sometimes find that they – or their precious daughters – ‘need’ an abortion. Should they have to risk their lives and futures to an unregulated, unsupervised, illegal medical procedure? No! They should not!”
Abortions won’t end because of the ruling. “They will go underground and women will die,” Schmidt-Nowara said.
And so it’s back to the fight.
Planned Parenthood, the Women’s March, UltraViolet and MoveOn are organizing “Bans Off Our Bodies” rallies this Saturday across the country, including in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces and Alamogordo.
“As soon as the news of Alito’s draft became public, my daughter-in-law texted me and her mother and asked if we were ready to march again,” Goldfarb said.
“I do have confidence that a younger generation of women will not tolerate having this right taken away,” she said.
I became pro-choice when I was 10, though as a Catholic schoolgirl in the late 1960s I knew almost nothing about where babies came from.
Even then, though, it didn’t seem fair to me that women were saddled with this horrifically painful decision while men could walk free. It didn’t seem fair that anybody, least of all uterus-exempt men, least of all a minority of the population as reported in numerous polls over time, should deny women their bodily autonomy.
Fifty-five years of life experience, research, soul-searching, conversation and common sense later, I remain pro-choice, more informed, more ardent and, now, more enraged that once again our choice is in peril.
As always, I expect some of you will rail at me about how you believe abortion is murder, baby killing and mortal sin. You will try to convince me that I and nearly every woman I know are wrong.
Please, save your energy. You haven’t a prayer to change my 55 years of thought and study. You have no idea just how pissed off many women are right now.
“There are two time-honored slogans that say it all,” Feibelman says. “‘Every child a wanted child.’ And ‘Against Abortion? Don’t have one.'”
Let me add one more: Speak up, stand up, march as if you had no choice. Because soon you may not have a choice.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org.