Category: Lest We Forget

Reproductive Rights: Now You Have Them – Now You Don’t!

On May 23, 2017, join us for an educational forum to discuss the national reproductive rights landscape as it has changed since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, and how the Trump Administration has already impacted women’s health choices. We will examine what it mean for abortion to be a state’s rights issue and where, exactly, New York State fits into the equation.

This forum is being co-sponsored by WCLA – Choice Matters & the Ethical Culture Society of New York.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017
7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
The Ethical Culture Society of New York
2 West 64th Street
New York, New York 10025

On the Anniversary of Roe

Today marks the 44th anniversary of the U.S Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which recognized that women have a constitutional right to have control over their own bodies.

Before Roe was decided on January 22, 1973, women fought for years for the right to have a safe, legal abortion. In Chicago, there was J.A.N.E., a secret group of primarily women who refused to stand by as women died in dirty back-alley abortions. Other women provided an “underground railroad” for those who needed to travel to get an abortion. Women, just as with the Suffrage Movement, courageously battled for years.

Yesterday, women stood together again in cities across the nation and countries around the world – and this time, some men stood with us. We will not stand idly by as our rights are trampled upon.

Here in New York, we officially launched our campaign, Make New York State a Reproductive Rights Sanctuary – and Governor Cuomo recognized it by announcing a contraceptive coverage administrative action that serves as a stopgap measure until we can get the Comprehensive Contraceptive Coverage Act (CCCA) passed by the New York State Senate. (The Assembly passed CCCA last Tuesday.)

Please note, an administrative action is NOT adequate. Like a president’s Executive Order, it can be wiped away by a successor, just as we are witnessing Donald Trump act on his commitment to undo President Obama’s Executive Orders.

Now the New York State Senate Must Join the Assembly in Standing up for All Women and pass the “Comprehensive” Contraceptive Coverage Act!

Join us and our Make New York State a Reproductive Rights Sanctuary campaign. Please sign our petition: Make New York State a Reproductive Rights Sanctuary. Please share the petition with your friends.

Together, like all who fought for Roe and for the right to vote, we stand united.

We are calling on the Governor to use the powers he demonstrated when he got the Senate to pass Marriage Equality, and Safe Gun and Anti-Fracking Legislation. Governor Cuomo must convince the seven rogue Democrats of the IDC to return to the Democratic Caucus, so that they can do what they were elected to do — the People’s Business.

Coroner Fred

Excerpt from The Worst of Times, Chapter “Coroner Fred,” by Patricia G. Miller, HarperCollins Books, 1993.

In the coroner’s office, “the dead women we saw had either bled to death or they had died from overwhelming infections. Some had tears along the vaginal tract where they had used coat hangers to get up into the uterus and break things up—like rupture the amniotic sac.

Mostly, of course, I only saw the women after they were dead, but once I saw someone before she died. That was in the early sixties. It was a woman who worked in the hospital lab with me. She was a very nice person. I don’t know anything about her personal situation or why she wanted an abortion, but she had one, and she bled and bled. I remember she called in sick and told us that she had a bad cold. Finally she did come to the hospital, but it was really too late. She died just a few hours after she came in.

Probably the death rate wouldn’t have been so high if people had come to the hospital earlier, but the way it was, with the shame and the secrecy, they tended to stay at home as long as they could—sometimes too long, as it turned out.” “Most of the dead women I saw were in their teens or twenties.”

“The deaths stopped overnight in 1973, and I never saw another abortion death in all the eighteen years after that until I retired. That ought to tell people something about keeping abortion legal.”

Mr Jones

From an article by Stephanie Brown, In These Times, July 19-August 1, 1989.

“Just take off your panties an’ lie down, darlin’,” “Mrs. Jones,” my “obstetrician,” told me.

I did it.

She went into the other room and came back with a long, red tube. Later my friend explained that this was a surgical catheter with one end sealed. The catheter was supposed to be inserted into my womb, and a few hours later the presence of this foreign body would cause me to abort naturally. I would “have” the baby.

I opened my legs, and Mrs. Jones went to work. She sweated and grunted. She couldn’t seem to find my cervix, where the tube needed to be inserted. I felt no pain. At last she said that the tube was in place, that I should go home and wait.

I gave her my $150.

Ida took me home. I paid off the baby-sitter, gave my kids supper and waited. Nothing happened.

So I called Ida. She said it had been too long, maybe we’d have to go back to Mrs. Jones, but that she would almost certainly want more money.

I hung up the phone and went into the bathroom to check the tube. It had fallen out.

I thought it over. I now had the tube.I knew where my cervix was better than Mrs. Jones. I, moreover, understood the value of sterilization and the danger of infection. And, most important of all, I cared whether or not I survived this damned procedure. I decided to do it myself…

Then, I went into the kitchen and put a big kettle of water on to boil. I took some picture wire from the kitchen drawer (to stiffen the catheter). I boiled the catheter and the wire for half an hour and took them, still in the kettle, into the bathroom to cool. Then I washed the toilet seat, my thighs, arms and hands with liquid Phisohex soap…

I sat down on the toilet seat and threaded the wire into the tube. Then I put my feet up, one on the towel rack and one on the sink, and leaned back. I reached a finger up my vaginal canal and found my cervix. Then I took a deep breath…and started the end of the tube into my cervix…I carefully withdrew the wires as I inserted the tube further and further, never allowing the wire inside my uterus, where anything rigid might cause a fatal puncture.

The tube seemed miles long, but finally it was all, except for a short tail I left dangling, inside me. I optimistically put on a sanitary napkin. Then I laid my will on the pillow next to me and went to sleep.

I awoke early the next morning with cramps. I smiled to realize that I was, so far, okay-no fever, no hemorrhaging. I went into the bathroom and found that the bleeding had started. I slowly removed the tube…

The bleeding was heavy now, and unusually large clots were coming through… I felt a bit lightheaded but kept going… The bleeding subsided and I recuperated without event…

For years after that I hung onto my precious red catheter. Catheters were hard to come by then, as surgical supply houses knew that midwives and registered nurses were using them to perform illegal abortions.

I hid mine under the lingerie in my top drawer until abortion was legalized on January 22, 1973. Then, glad to be rid of the thing that I had so both hated and needed, I took it out to the incinerator of our apartment building hallway and burned it.

Gina’s Story

This letter is for my friend Gina. Gina, I am sure, would
have written a letter for herself but she died in 1969. We
were both freshman in college, 18 years old, full of adventure,
and thought we knew everything. Gina died of septic
shock caused by an infection from the illegal abortion she
obtained in Mexico.

When Gina returned from Mexico, we knew she was sick,
but she wouldn’t go to the local doctors. Her parents had
thrown her older sister out of the house when she became
pregnant. Gina was afraid to tell her parents about the pregnancy
itself. To speak of an abortion was unthinkable.

After Gina finally collapsed it was too late. None of her
friends were able to attend Gina’s funeral, and her parents
made sure no one really knew why she died.

But I knew, and I will never forget my lovely, witty, wonderful
friend, Gina. She would be here today if abortions had
been legal in 1969. How can anyone forget that?

Gina’s friend

Letter in “In Our Own Words… Collected Recollection in
Honor of Roe v. Wade,” edited by Elizabeth Lake in

Helen’s story

When I was a teenager in about 1940, I baby-sat the two children of a lovely young divorced woman named Helen. She had few employable skills, an exhausting, poorly paid job and her ex-husband only occasionally made child-support payments. Suddenly she died…

The children came to live with me and my family for a few weeks while custody was sorted out. The six-year-old curled up in my arms and talking about their mother’s death, he said, “Momma just bled and bled and we couldn’t help her.”

I was too young to guess what that might mean. Several years later my mother told me that Helen had died of a botched abortion attempt. She impressed upon me what a sorrowful and serious choice an abortion would be, but that it should be safe and legal because sometimes it was the best alternative.

The children were raised by their father, a sweet but irresponsible alcoholic, and a series of stepmothers. The girl had a terrible, tumultuous adolescence, but after several children and a broken marriage, is a stable wonderful middle-aged woman. The boy was killed in a gambling accident.

I think society would have been much better served if Helen could have had a safe, legal abortion and raised her two children herself.

(from In Our Own Words…Collected recollections in honor of Roe v. Wade, Elizabeth Lake, ed.)

Dr James

Excerpt from The Worst of Times: Illegal Abortion-Survivors, Practitioners, Coroners, Cops, and Children of Women Who Died Talk About Its Horrors, ed. Patricia G. Miller, 1993.

During my medical training, I saw women being treated for septic abortion, and as a resident I took care of lots of them. There was a special ward in the hospital. It had four to eight beds filled with women who had either pelvic inflammatory disease, usually from gonorrhea, or septlc abortion complications. The septic abortion patients were usually looked down upon as having done something illegal, probably because just about everyone grows up with the idea that bad people do illegal things and good people don’t….

I do recall two women who died from the complications of illegal abortions. One happened in 1 9S5. A young woman-she was only seventeen or eighteen-died of a ruptured uterus and an absolutely overwhelming infection…. She died of septic shock. Afterward there were spirited discussions among the doctors about whether we might have been able to save her if we had done some-thing differently-maybe different antibiotics, things like that. But no one talked about or even seemed to notice the really obvious solution: making legal abortions available.

The second woman I remember probably died in 1957 or 1958. She was a young woman too, but not a teenager. She had an abortion, and when she was brought to the hospital, she had gas gangrene. She was in shock by the time she arrived, and nothing we did made any difference. She died quickly-in less than twenty-four hours.

-Dr. James

Dr. Bert

The patient was in a private room. I even remember the room number, 724. That was one of the gold coast rooms. The woman, in her early or mid-thirties, was married to someone really important, with a lot of connections. She came in with severe pelvic sepsis and she died. I remember her so vividly because she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. She was also one of the sickest. She was ashen. When I first saw her, she was still conscious and lucid. I think she suspected she might die. She had kidney failure. Then all her other systems failed as well. She got ecchymosis-red blotches all over her skin. Her blood vessels were just breaking underneath her skin, sort of like what happens when you bruise yourself, but this was happening all over her body without anyone even touching her. It was due to a disturbance of her coagulating mechanism as a result of the overwhelming sepsis. She died two or three days after she was admitted.

I remember thinking, “My God! How could anyone do that to this beautiful woman?” But I completely misunderstood what I was looking at. In those days (1948) the tendency was to treat the woman as the helpless victim of this monster called the abortionist. I completely missed the fact that she had obviously sought it out, and with her connections, it would have been one of the better ones that money could buy. I was so shocked by what had happened to her and the way she died that I actually was physically ill.

My political ideas in those days were pretty primitive. Like most medical students, I was just trying to survive it all. However, primitive though I was, she did touch something at some level in me. I was angry that she had died, and I was angry at the system that let her die. As I said, in those days I thought the solution was to jail the abortionist. It took me another twenty years to fully understand that it was the system and not the abortionist who killed her. The system forced her away from the medical community and into the shadowy world of the illegal abortionist.

By the time she got to a doctor, it was too late. The system, and especially the lawmakers who left her with no choice, killed her just as surely as if they had held the catheter or coat hanger or whatever. I’m still angry. It was all so unnecessary. -Dr. Bert

Dr. Don

Dr. Don, a physician in Colorado in the 1960s:

As for the attitudes of the medical community toward these women who got coat hanger abortions, it’s not that the doctors were judgmental or hostile as much as they were kind of contemptuous. The attitude was “How could these women do anything so stupid as to get a dangerous abortion?” or “Why would any smart person take such a stupid chance?” I don’t recall any discussion about the need to provide women with safer options.

I have no idea how many years it covered, but the pathology department at that municipal hospital had a rather large collection of jars of preserved organs that had been removed for one reason or another. Many of the Organs were uteruses with the abortion instrument still in place. Some of the instruments were knitting needles, and some were coat hangers, and there they were, neatly labeled and lined up, each floating in its jar of formaldehyde.

….I wonder if those bottles are still there. If they are, I wonder if today’s medical students understand what they mean. Coat hangers and knitting needles probably seem very strange to them. They must wonder even more tan we did twenty five years ago, “why would any women take such a chance?” I don’t know why, but I know a lot of them did.