The Confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett
I was a girl without a choice
In the spring of 1970, a couple of months before my baby was due, I sat at my desk in my bedroom late into the night and wrote two suicide notes, one to my boyfriend and one to my parents. I folded the letters into tight, flat squares small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. The next morning at school I stood on tiptoe in front of my locker, stretching my arm across the top shelf, and slipped them into the crevice against the locker’s back wall. Only the edges of the bright pink paper were visible. I hoped that afterwards, someone would find them.
As improbable as it sounds, I got pregnant during my first sexual encounter. Also improbably, I kept my pregnancy a secret from everyone. Sex, birth control, and abortion were all taboo subjects in my small, Catholic town — and once I discovered that I was pregnant, I felt there was no one I could ask for help. Instead, I employed intense denial and made two radically different plans that could extract me from my predicament.
The gas station at the edge of town doubled as a bus depot. I’d memorized the schedule and would buy myself a last-minute ticket. I’d board the bus without luggage, without anything that might provide a clue to my identity. When I arrived in Chicago, I’d find my way back to the church where my high school chorus had sung the Messiah during the previous Christmas season. Most likely there would be a convent nearby. I imagined a set of steep steps, a carved wooden door with a metal doorknocker. I rehearsed the amnesia scene in my head.
“Hello, Sister. What’s the name of this city I’m in? Do you know me? I’m lost, and I can’t remember my name or where I live. Can you help me and my baby?” I was 17, and the irony escaped me. The very institution that had the least sympathy for my plight was the only place I knew to go for help.The mercy of nuns or suicide felt like my only options.
Ultimately, I did not have the courage to execute either of my plans. A few weeks later my mother walked into my bedroom and shook me awake. “Are you pregnant?” she asked.
Norma L. McCorvey discovered she was pregnant with her third child the June before I confessed my pregnancy to my mother. McCorvey, like me, was a Catholic girl — but with a rough childhood that included sexual abuse. Her first child was taken from her against her will and legally adopted by her own mother, and her second child, born in June of 1970 like my son, was, also like my son, placed in a sealed-record adoption. Advised by friends to claim that her third pregnancy was the result of rape, McCorvey sought an abortion, but because there was no police documentation, the abortion could not be obtained in the state of Texas where McCorvey resided. When attorneys took McCorvey’s case, McCorvey became Jane Roe, and the challenge to the Texas state law prohibiting abortion went all the way to the Supreme Court.
In the 18th century and continuing into most of the 19th century, abortions were legally permitted in the United States until the point at which the pregnant woman could feel the fetus move — what was called quickening (usually around the third or fourth month) or what the Catholic Church then termed ensoulment. At the insistence of the medical profession, abortion began to be regulated in1869, ostensibly due to concerns about the various drugs administered that sometimes resulted in poisoning. Underscoring this power struggle was a battle that pitted male physicians against midwives, herbalists, and homeopaths.
Women, in the post-Civil War era, were beginning to seek out medical careers, and abortion regulations became a means for male doctors to assert their control over the medical field, over the procedure itself, and over women’s reproduction in general. Eugenics was also part of the debate, with politicians and Protestant leaders afraid that Catholic immigrants would soon outnumber the Protestant establishment since Protestant women were having fewer babies. According to the Feminist Women’s Health Center of Washington State, 40 states and territories passed some type of anti-abortion laws between 1860 and 1880. Massachusetts passed the first state law deeming abortion, or attempted abortion, at any point during a pregnancy, a crime. By the turn of the century almost all states had followed suit.
Around the time individual states began criminalizing abortion, the Comstock Laws, also known as the “Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use,” were passed in 1873. When Margaret Sanger coined the term birth control in 1914 and began educating women about sexuality and methods for avoiding pregnancy, the Comstock Laws, which expressly prohibited devices for birth control, were invoked. After intense harassment, Sanger eventually left the U.S. for Europe but not before her pamphlet, “Family Limitation,” was released in a wave of 100,000 copies.
Even with the progress of birth control, “some 15,000 women a year died from abortions” in the 1920s. (“Abortion in American History,” Katha Pollit, The Atlantic,May 1997) Though illegal, abortion continued to be readily available in the 1920s and 30s through well-used networks that let women know whom to ask and where to go. According to the same Atlantic article, which cites Leslie J. Reagan’s book, When Abortion Was a Crime,(University of California Press, January 30,1997) women during the Great Depression, fearful of losing a precious job, pooled money into collective funds from which abortion money could be drawn if needed. Despite the congenial image of women helping women, and improvements in care and methodology between 1920 and 1930, the Guttmacher Institute reports that in 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women — nearly one-fifth (18%) of maternal deaths recorded in that year. By 1965 that number had fallen only one percentage point.
According to Dr. David Grimes, quoted in the article “What It was Like to Perform Abortions Before Roe v. Wade” (Hannah Smothers, Cosmopolitan, November 2, 2016) prospects were grim for girls and women who, like me, felt they were out of options.
“Back in the ’50s and ’60s, every major metropolitan hospital in the U.S. had a septic abortion ward. The most common reason for admission to gynecological services in America was complication of abortion. When I was a doctor at L.A. County hospital in 1986, my predecessors who’d trained there told me the septic abortion ward at that hospital was a 20-bed, U-shaped ward, and they had two private rooms. These private rooms were there so women could be alone with their families as they died from complications of illegal abortions, and those rooms were always full.”
When I got pregnant at the age of 16 in October of 1969, my personal world and the larger world were both changing rapidly. Neil Armstrong had taken his first steps on the moon just a few months earlier. Two years before that the social revolution embodied by the 1967 “Summer of Love” had taken place a half a continent away in San Francisco, and as far as I was concerned, might as well have occurred on the moon. While I can still remember Neil bounding through the lunar dust as the evening buzzed with insects and the wonder of it all, I have no recollection of any discussion about the social upheaval that ensued when young people in San Francisco were experiencing their own release from gravity.
The summer after Armstrong’s moonwalk, I gave birth to my son. By then the idea that men had the right to control women and their bodies was eroding. At the intersection of the struggle for women’s rights and the struggle for reproductive rights, the criminalization of abortion had begun to seem absurd. And in January of 1973, with a seven to two decision, the Supreme Court decided that women had a right to privacy that, guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, protected a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.
It’s hard to say how many women’s lives have been saved by the safe medical abortions guaranteed by Roe v. Wade. It’s even harder to say how many women will perish as a result of illegal abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned. If Roe v. Wade stands and Amy Coney Barrett helps to overturn the Affordable Care Act, women without health care coverage will most certainly not be able to afford an abortion — nor will they be able to afford proper prenatal care or post-natal care for themselves and their babies. Birth control is likely an expense that will be beyond their reach as well. Choice, as it always has, will reside mostly with the privileged. It’s a monstrous step, not a giant one, that the woman who has replaced Ruth Bader Ginsburg will leave her footprints on the history of reproductive rights.