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‘I got in the car and he blindfolded me. I was willing to risk death’: five women on abortions before Roe | Roe v Wade



Roe v Wade, the landmark US supreme court decision that has given Americans abortion rights since 22 January 1973, was set to turn 50 next year. This June, as the supreme court approaches summer recess, it looks likely to release a decision that means the critical precedent will never reach its landmark birthday.

With the regulation of abortion returned to individual states, a large swath of the midwest and south – about 20 states housing half of the country’s population – will no longer have access to legal abortion.

This is set to see a return to abortion experiences that have many similarities to pre-Roe v Wade America. Pre-1973, those with the necessary means travelled across state lines to get the procedures they needed. Today, like back then, campaigners fear that poor, Black, Latina, teenage women and undocumented immigrants will be disproportionately affected. What is different today is that some women will be able to to access abortion pills over the internet and self-manage the procedure.


One advocacy group, Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights, is made up of older women who fight to protect the reproductive rights they campaigned to secure pre-Roe v Wade. “Often abortions are talked about as endings,” says executive director Kelli Wescott McCannell. “The women in our program have decades of life since their abortions that show what was made possible for them because of that abortion.”

Here we speak to five women from across the US about their experiences of abortion in the pre-Roe v Wade era. Some were nervous, others defiant. But all shared their story in the hope that their past could shape America’s future.

‘I crawled up on the kitchen table and she had this can of Lysol’

Trudy Hale, 73, writer, Norwood, Virginia

Abortion: 1967, aged 18, Memphis, Tennessee

Trudy Hale

I heard through the grapevine that a guy we knew, who was a dealer – it was all just grass and acid then – knew a doctor who did abortions. I asked the dealer, Larry, and he said, “Oh yeah, sure. It’s $300.” I had no money. I lived with my dad and two brothers in a two-bedroom duplex and I was in my freshman year of college. So I stole clothes and sold them.

I gave Larry the $300 and he told me he’d come pick me up at 6am. He drove this big blue Oldsmobile convertible. I got in the car and he blindfolded me. I was scared but had to be alert to try and sense where we were going. I was willing to risk death rather than have my father find out I was pregnant.


Larry led me into this house and up some stairs. He tightened the blindfold. The house sounded vacant. He took me into a room and said, “Take down your pants and lie down,” and then left. I remember lying there and a radio playing an interview with a farmer who was talking about how to plant crowder peas. Then I heard footsteps and at least two people came into the room. No one spoke. There was the clink and clank of instruments, and then Larry said, “Spread your legs.” Someone inserted a rubber tube into me to induce a miscarriage. There was no pain. They left the tube in there and it was cut long and left coiled in my underpants.

Larry drove me back and I only took the blindfold off when we got home. I was a good student and went straight to class. I remember sitting in the lunchroom, feeling this tube in my pants, and nothing happening. I went home, went to sleep, still nothing. The next day, I called Larry and told him. He reluctantly said he’d set up a time to do it again. And so I went through the whole thing again. But the same thing happened, it didn’t work.

I became desperate and terrified. I was getting bigger and couldn’t button my pants. I must have been almost three months pregnant.

I told my friend, Mary-Ann, who was five years older and this rough, wild kind of character; she’d been in the navy and had had a dishonourable discharge. “Well, I can do it,” she said. “When I was in the Navy I stole all the stuff.”


So we went to her father’s house while he was out. She put on greens and was very proud of her surgical prowess. I crawled up on the kitchen table and she had this can of Lysol that she was spraying around the room to disinfect it. She used the same technique with the rubber tube except she inserted it much further.

I went home and the contractions started. By now it’s night-time. My brothers were roaming around the house and I went into the bathroom and someone’s banging on the door and I just freaked out because the pain was so bad. I had to get out.

I called Mary-Ann and she had a friend come pick me up. We went looking for a motel. It was cold, maybe late December. In a parking lot, I threw myself on the hood of a car so the snow would numb me.

We scraped together $8 for a single room and my friend snuck me in. It was eight hours of pain. I was beating my head against the wall while he brought me towels to soak up the blood. Finally, the fetus came out. I was shocked when the placenta came out after; I thought it was twins.


At 18, I hated the idea of having a child. There’s no telling what kind of a mother I would have been then. I never regretted it. It’s not until I was 30 that I chose to have children.

‘When we got home we told people we’d been in Memphis, shopping’

Sarah B Thompson, 68, retired school librarian, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Abortion: 1971, aged 17, New York

Sarah Thompson

It was the summer before I was due to go to college. My parents let me fly to Oklahoma City from our home in Little Rock, Arkansas, to visit my best friend. There were lots of wild nights of partying, skinny dipping and beer drinking.

When my period was a day late, I suspected I might be pregnant but was in denial. Every afternoon, my mother and I would watch soap operas together while we ate lunch, and I started not being able to stay awake. My period never came.

I talked to a couple of friends. One told me about a local gynaecologist who could advise me what to do. When I called his office, I guess they realised they were dealing with a child because I got in quickly. I went by myself and the doctor was so patient and kind. He said I was about 12 weeks pregnant. “Sarah,” he told me, “you’re going to have to go home and tell your parents.” Because abortion was illegal in Arkansas, he said I was going to have to travel to New York if I wanted one.


I had old southern parents, very traditional. When I told them, I could tell they were disappointed and worried. They contacted the gynaecologist and he connected them to a doctor in New York. It was arranged quickly. Mother and I were to fly to New York City and Daddy would stay home. We were not rich, but Daddy had savings.

The day of the flight, Mother and I got dressed up to travel, as you did in those days. Early the next morning, we went to New York City hospital. We had to find the bursar’s office as she had to pay cash upfront. There were big signs saying, “NO CHECKS”. Then we went upstairs and I put on a gown.

After that, there’s kind of a blank. I remember waiting on a gurney and then I remember waking up. I stayed in a ward overnight with three other women who’d just had abortions. They were all older than me. We talked. One was putting on her false eyelashes and getting ready to go back to Florida. Another was married and her husband would come in to see her. I think we all felt fortunate to be there; to have safe, legal healthcare.

When we got home we told people we’d been in Memphis, shopping for college clothes. It was a good story for the older relatives. My mother said, “Sarah, we will never speak of this again.”


Three weeks after the abortion, my parents dropped me off at the University of Arkansas, helped me unpack and drove away. I was able to show up with my classmates from high school and begin my new life.

‘My rapist gave me a phone number and $100’

Fran Moreland Johns, 88, writer, San Francisco, California

Abortion: 1956, aged 22, Atlanta, Georgia

Frans Moreland Johns

When I realized I was pregnant, I went back to my rapist because I didn’t have anywhere else to go. He gave me a phone number and $100, which was more than my monthly income. The man who raped me was basically my boss. I was right out of college and worked in public relations for petroleum companies. He was wealthy and prominent and had a family. I’d babysat his kids. I lived with my sister. We were one year apart in school and joined at the hip but it was so shameful I didn’t tell her.

I called the number and just said, “I need help.” A man on the other end replied, “Do you have the cash?” He gave me instructions to stand in front of a theatre downtown on Sunday at 9am, and that if anyone was with me, the deal would be off. I had no idea what was going to happen. I just figured he would get me ‘unpregnant’. I was completely numb.

It was a cold rainy February morning and the worst day of my life. A car pulled up, I got into the back seat and the man in the front handed me a blue bandanna to cover my eyes. We pulled up to a small house and he told me I could take my blindfold off. Inside was a woman, I presume his wife or girlfriend, and she showed me to a little room with a table. She told me to lie on the table and then the man came in, inserted something into my vagina, I think it was a straw, and that was it. I don’t think he washed his hands. It took minutes. We got back in the car and he dropped me off where he’d picked me up. He said, “You’ll start bleeding in a little while,” and I did and it did not stop and I was terrified.


Monday morning, I was still bleeding. I still didn’t tell my sister. Getting an abortion was more shameful than having been raped. I called into work sick and went to my obstetrician. “Who did this to you?” he said. I would not have told him, or anyone else, in a million years. My allegiance was to the abortionist – he had given me my life back. The obstetrician did a D&C and gave me a lot of medicine to combat the infection. I’m just the luckiest person in the world to have not died of sepsis.

‘I was so worried someone would find out’

Congresswoman Barbara Lee, 75, California

Abortion: Aged 16, Mexico

Barbara Lee

There were two things I was afraid of. First of all, that I was going to die because unsafe septic abortions were the main cause of death for black women in the 1960s. And that I was going to be put in jail because it was illegal. On top of that, the stigma was awful. I was so worried someone would find out. I went to a Catholic school, was the first black cheerleader, and I was pregnant. As a teenager, those were very hard times before Roe v Wade.

We lived in California, where abortion was illegal. When I told my mother, she let me make my own decision and then she sent me to a friend of hers in Texas, who traveled with me to have the abortion in Mexico, where it was also illegal.

I grew up pretty quickly after because I recognized that I didn’t have a right to make decisions about my own body. And that forced me to learn more about how this country provides for women’s bodily autonomy. I got involved in campaigning for Shirley Chisholm and she was one of the first black women I knew who was out there speaking for reproductive justice, and how racial equity and economic equity had to be part of that.


My mother was so loving and caring in helping me make the decision. She insisted that I did not need to talk about it because it was so personal and that’s how it should be. I didn’t talk about it publicly but when Mississippi and Texas changed their abortion laws last year, there was no way that I couldn’t tell my story. I didn’t want to, but I was compelled.

‘I don’t remember much about the procedure except the doctor saying, ‘Don’t make any noise’

Carol Deanow, 79, retired professor of social work, Brookline, Massachusetts

Abortion: 1965, aged 22, Washington DC

Carol Deanow

I was dating somebody but we weren’t at all serious. He refused to use a condom and I was too naive to say, “No condom, no sex.” I missed my period and quickly knew what was happening. I never considered for a minute carrying the pregnancy to term. It was just not going to be part of my life at that point. I had a plan: I was going to finish my PhD and teach.

I told the guy I’d been dating – we may not have even been dating by the time I realized I was pregnant. He said, “Well, I guess I should ask you to marry me.” I told him not to be silly. “We both know we aren’t going to do this,” I said. And I told a friend who I knew could get me the name of someone to perform an abortion. Her friend knew a friend who knew a friend who had accompanied somebody to one; it was that kind of underground network.

The unwritten rule among girls at my college was that you never let your checking account go under $300. We all knew what that meant. So I had the money. I don’t think the guy contributed financially. And I don’t know that I would have allowed him to; it was always considered the woman’s problem. He did drive me the hour-long journey from Baltimore to Washington for the procedure.


We went to a small office and the person who carried it out was an MD. I was fortunate but it still felt very illegal. The room wasn’t sterile, like an operating room, but it was clean and professional. I remember almost nothing about the procedure except the doctor saying, “Don’t make any noise.” And that it was painful, there was no anaesthesia.

My ride drove me back to my dorm. That was the last time I saw him. I threw up in the middle of the lobby and told everyone I had the flu.

I was relieved. I felt like I’d done something very wrong but I had to do it. We were taught to feel shame and guilt. It was the illegality of it. When I went home after that summer, I told my father I needed to see a psychiatrist. I felt like I wasn’t making good decisions and was out of control.

A few years later, I went to social work school. When I was given an assignment to write about someone I knew who had done something deviant, I wrote about myself and my abortion. My male instructor commented on the paper: “It’s been a long time since I considered an abortion a deviant act.” It was the first time I’d heard anyone talk about abortion without negativity. It was wonderful. Life-changing.


Interviews have been condensed for clarity.

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