My Illegal Abortion--I Got Lucky
Abortion is only traumatic if you can't get one
A version of this essay appeared here in 2020 after Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed. I thought it was worth reprinting.
There have been a raft of essays about people’s experiences getting abortions pre-Roe. I think it’s worth mentioning that abortion is just a medical procedure and doesn’t have to be traumatic. Not everyone agonizes over their choice to get an abortion.
I count myself very lucky that I never had an instant’s regret over my abortions—and there were three of them—the first one illegal. When the right to life movement came along I was bewildered as well as horrified. A fetus was not a baby in my book—no how, no way. I truly didn’t understand what the fuss was. And I still don’t.
I got pregnant while I was attending City College in New York in the early 1960s. I was 20, had just escaped from an overbearing mother, and I was screwing around a lot. Hey, it was the sixties. I wasn’t sure who the baby daddy was, which was probably a good thing because I wasn’t about to consult with anyone about my decision.
I’ve always been fearless when it comes to physical risk but when I was young I was truly an idiot. I was sure I was immortal. Although the prospect of having a baby was terrifying, death from illegal abortion didn’t faze me at all. An illegal abortion was just another rite of passage.
What did terrify me was having to actually find that illegal abortion. I was broke and wasn’t about to ask my parents for money. I couldn’t face my mom’s hysteria. She would cry and shriek and blame me. My father had once called me a slut. I had proved him right. I was promiscuous, a shameful label for a child of the fifties. It wasn’t like I had an actual boyfriend. They might have accepted an “accident” in that case. But screwing around—that made me a slut.
There was no internet at the time, but there was the grapevine. I managed to borrow money from friends and started asking everyone I knew where to get an abortion. Being pregnant gained you admission to a secret referral service where everyone seemed to know someone who knew someone who was pregnant and either had found an abortionist or was looking.
I started frantically making phone calls and wound up connecting with two black girls who were going to Puerto Rico for an abortion. Only one of them—Vanessa--was pregnant. The other one—Sheree--was a friend going along for support. They said I could join them and I gratefully accepted. But they made it clear from the get-go that this was not a sad, guilt-ridden trip to end an unwanted pregnancy, but a fun excursion which would involve not just an abortion but “vamping” men. I had no idea what the hell they were talking about, never having vamped anyone in my life, but I was willing to find out.
I was a hippie/activist who spouted pretentious Marxist theories and fancied myself some kind of revolutionary. This was mostly a fantasy. I may have made it to the occasional march, but I spent most of my time smoking pot on the South Campus lawn and hanging out in folk music joints in Greenwich Village. At the time City College was a lily white enclave of mostly Jews, Italians and other white ethnics from the boroughs of New York. I was having an affair with probably the only Puerto Rican in the school, who happened to be married, but it hadn’t stopped me from having one night stands with a variety of hot lefty boys as well.
An overweight, awkward, unfashionable nerd myself, I’d often had girl crushes on charming, beautiful women, and it was love at first sight for me with these two outrageously glamorous black girls. I knew immediately I’d found the perfect abortion companions. They simply refused to take the whole process seriously, and insisted on turning a grim journey into a fun adventure. I easily fell into the role of clueless sidekick.
Both tall, slim, curvaceous, with café au lait complexions, Vanessa and Sheree wore slinky clothes and stiletto heels, not baggy jeans and flat sandals like me. They had great figures. I did not. I had no idea what they did for a living—and I was afraid to ask. In retrospect I suspect they were actually secretaries or nurses or something similarly boring but didn’t want to admit it. All I knew was that they were impossibly gorgeous and cool. I followed them around like a puppy dog.
Since neither of them seemed to think flying to Puerto Rico for an abortion was the least bit daunting, I made believe I thought it was a big lark too. As soon as we got on the plane they started ordering drinks and talking about plans for the trip. They planned to hit the clubs and start vamping as soon as our abortions were over. Actually they weren’t waiting that long.
“I’m going to vamp him,” Sheree announced on the plane, pointing out a handsome male passenger with an empty seat next to him. She plunked herself down next to him and accepted a drink, laughing loudly as she flirted.
“See anyone else worth vamping?” pregnant Vanessa asked me. I thought it maybe was a good idea to wait until after our abortions but didn’t say anything.
“He’s kind of cute,” I pointed out a guy sitting alone in the front of the plane.
“He looks poor doesn’t he? That’s a cheap suit.” Vamping men was about more than looks, she explained. “We don’t want any broke ass beatniks. We’re looking for men with money honey. We want to be picked up in a limo for clubbing tonight.”
I said nothing because broke ass beatniks is all I’d ever gone out with. I also thought we were supposed to rest after the operation, but I didn’t want to be a downer.
When we got off the plane, we called an anonymous number to make an appointment with an abortion doctor who we weren’t sure would be able to fit us in. It seemed you just had to fly to PR and take your chances. We might have had to wait a week, which I could never have afforded. This prospect was nerve-wracking but Vanessa and Sheree were totally nonplussed. They just assumed it would work out—and sure enough it did. A taxi picked us up at a designated spot and took us to a dress shop in a rundown business district. The doctor had his office in the back. We shopped while we waited for our procedures.
I didn’t realize at the time how incredibly lucky we were that he was a real doctor. Both of our abortions went off without a hitch. We were even anesthetized for the procedures. He gave us some antibiotics when we left and told us to rest that night, but Vanessa and Sheree weren’t about to lose any vamping opportunities—our plane left the next day--so we took a nap and went out clubbing, unfortunately in a cab not a limo.
I don’t remember much about that evening since the girls were plying me with liquor, but I do remember a sailor flirting with me and asking, without irony, “what’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” I’d always wanted to be asked that question. I was dressed in a peasant blouse, pleated skirt and Indian sandals and looked glaringly out of place, while Vanessa and Sheree and all the other women were wearing low cut, fitted dresses and spike heels. I chortled to myself. A girl who just had an abortion was hardly “nice,” but I didn’t tell him that.
I never regretted that abortion one bit. What I do regret is not managing to make friends with Vanessa and Sheree. They disappeared when we got back, totally disinterested in staying in touch with me. I believe they found me boring.
Vanessa and Sheree were my first experience with the powerful charm and overall fabulousness of certain black women and, despite many subsequent efforts, I never managed to insinuate myself into their circles. Maybe it was my lack of cool and disinterest in fashion, but more likely racism was the culprit. Interracial romance was a lot more common than interracial friendship back then, and seems still to be, even today.
I wasn’t traumatized by that abortion, or two subsequent legal ones, because I never wanted to give birth to kids. I have never really understood women’s drive to have biological children. By the time I started longing for children I was in my forties and never considered fertility treatments. I wound up fostering one child and adopting another.
I experienced a taste of the vicious pro-life movement when I took my foster daughter for an abortion in Westchester, New York in the early 2000’s. She was four months pregnant so it was considered late-term, and we had a terrible time finding a clinic although it was perfectly legal. When we finally got to her appointment, there were demonstrators outside yelling at us, waving pictures of dead fetuses and calling us baby-killers. That shocked me and was a lot scarier than my illegal abortion. That abortion doctor was the only one left in the entire upstate New York area, and he soon shut up shop.
I know what women are facing today with the end of Roe v Wade. Just because my illegal abortion didn’t end badly doesn’t mean that other women will be so lucky.