Whether you believe abortion should be legal or not, you should be upset when men like Judge Brett Kavanaugh advocate against access to effective contraception, because without it, abortion rates go way up—even when abortion is illegal. Denying women contraception and criminalizing abortion does NOT stop unwanted pregnancies. Before Roe v. Wade, there were an estimated one to two million illegal abortions in the U.S. every year—each year about two to four percent of U.S. girls and women of childbearing age had them. Illegal abortions not only put women and abortionists at great risk of legal jeopardy; they also often resulted in sepsis, hemorrhage, excruciating pain and death. The year after abortion was legalized in New York State, the maternal mortality rate there dropped by 45 percent.
Women were sometimes raped by their abortionists before the procedures in “punishment” for being “dirty.” They were often told by their doctors that they were bad women who didn’t deserve to have children later, and were told they were not welcome to return to their doctors’ medical practices. Those who could gather together enough money often flew to places where it was easier to get safe abortions than on the U.S. mainland. Women and girls without money often used all their savings or went into hock to pay off doctors who agreed to do abortions on the sly, or, more dangerously, bribed back-alley butchers with no medical training to do the deeds.
Only about two percent of low-income women are believed to have managed to have their abortions done by doctors. Midwives, who saw the misery caused by unplanned pregnancies, were often convinced to perform abortions; Frank Sinatra’s mother, a midwife nicknamed “Hatpin Dolly” for the instrument she was said to induce abortions with, was well known in her New Jersey community as just such person in the 1910s and 1920s.
One of my relatives was a single mother who worked a factory job and was the sole earner for a family of four, including two invalids, in the 1920s and 1930s. She did not want to risk inducing her own abortion with a coat hanger or knitting needle, as many women did (often resulting in fatal puncture wounds), so she submitted to an abortion with a button hook on a stranger’s kitchen table when the man who impregnated her wouldn’t marry her. To be an unwed mother would have meant her sickly family would starve and lose its home and possibly be sent to institutions, so she risked her life in hopes of saving her family from disaster.
In 1960, my mother’s college friend was dumped on a hospital lawn, bleeding nearly to death, when her pre-med boyfriend’s attempt to perform an abortion on her led to hemorrhaging and being left permanently scarred and sterile afterwards.
By 1965, illegal abortion accounted for 17% of all deaths officially attributed to pregnancy and childbirth that year. Because many families hid the fact that abortion was involved in the deaths of family members from official death reports, the actual number of deaths was likely much higher. In 1968, just five years before the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe vs. Wade decision, the University of Southern California Los Angeles County Medical Center, a large public facility that served primarily indigent patients, admitted 701 women with septic abortions—one admission for every 14 deliveries.
That was what happened when women were denied access to effective contraception and safe, legal abortions.
Remember, the majority of women who seek abortions already have children. When they are forced to endure unsafe pregnancies, or risk their lives to have the abortions they believe they need to be able to have the physical, financial and emotional stability required to care for children they already have, their children suffer greatly. When they die or are imprisoned because governments refuse them access to safe and legal abortions, their children are left motherless.
Of course, wealthier women can fly to other countries where abortion is legal when their own countries disallow the procedure. As film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film Vera Drake, which told the story of an abortionist working in 1950s London, “No matter what the law says, then or now, in England or America, if you can afford a plane ticket and the medical bill you will always be able to obtain a competent abortion, so laws essentially make it illegal to be poor and seek an abortion.”
We all want to see fewer women in situations where they feel they need abortions for the good of themselves and their families. But when they face such situations, they must have early, legal, safe and affordable medical options. The alternative is mutilation, incarceration, trauma or death, and misery for the millions they left behind when they are imprisoned or die from unsafe pregnancies and procedures.
If you want to see fewer abortions, you must choose and support lawmakers and justices who do not deny women access to basic contraceptive healthcare. To help others avoid unwanted pregnancies and to take better care of children and mothers who walk the earth right now—that is the most compassionate, pro-life stance there is.
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