My Illegal Abortion: One Woman Recounts Ending Her Pregnancy Pre-Roe v. Wade As More States Pass Near-Bans on the Procedure
CHICAGO — Shortly after nightfall, the 17-year-old girl joined her mother in the back seat of an unfamiliar car driven by a stranger to an undisclosed location on the South Side of Chicago.
It was a summer weekend in 1966. The recent high school graduate, by then more than eight weeks pregnant, had made her choice. But it required much stealth and secrecy at the time.
“My gut said this is my only option to not ruin my own life,” recalled Leta Dally, now 70, of the city’s Far North Side. “My life would have been over.”
The car parked at a designated spot. On foot, the male driver escorted the mom and daughter through an alleyway to the back door of a nondescript building. Dally never knew the name of the doctor who terminated her pregnancy that night or the address of the site, an underground abortion clinic operating in the years before the procedure was permitted by law.
Over the next five decades, she rarely spoke of her illegal abortion. Yet Dally said she has been recounting that clandestine night more often lately amid mounting threats to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion across the country.
“It doesn’t take that long for people to forget,” she said on a recent weekday, her fingers brushing back wisps of white hair that had broken free from her ponytail. “If it becomes illegal, girls who are being born today aren’t going to have options. And I had a relatively good experience. It wasn’t a coat hanger. It was with a physician who wasn’t a hack. … Most damaging to me, psychologically, was that I felt as though I was damaged goods.”
Abortion opponents across the country have rejoiced as states including Alabama, Georgia and Missouri recently passed near-total bans on the procedure, with the prospect of challenging Roe v. Wade, a cause supported by President Donald Trump. If the decision were overturned, the matter would then be regulated by individual states.
“With two new justices on the Supreme Court and more than 100 new judges on the appellate and federal courts, we can hope and expect that the coming years will see our Constitution not scorned and rejected for someone’s personal opinion,” said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, in a written statement last . “When it comes to protecting unborn children, President Trump is a man of his word.”
Meanwhile, Illinois, Virginia, New York and other states have expanded abortion rights, widening the chasm between parts of the country with access to the procedure and those without. Last month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed sweeping abortion legislation solidifying the right to terminate a pregnancy in Illinois regardless of the fate of Roe.
Dally, though, said she worries that right is in peril in sections of the country threatening to revert to the laws and culture of her youth.
“Young women have so many options today that they don’t realize they could all be taken away,” she said. “Every time somebody refuses to fill a prescription for the morning-after pill. Every time somebody refuses to fulfill a prescription for contraceptives. It’s just another bite out of the apple that could end up back to the way things were. And it’s going to be a lot harder to get the rights back again.”
There was no morning sickness, no swelled belly, no fatigue.
Except for one missed period, the pregnancy seemed to have no signs or symptoms.
“I didn’t feel like I had changed any,” Dally said.
At-home pregnancy tests weren’t available back then. So she anxiously awaited results from her physician, who she believes used an old-fashioned rabbit test where urine was injected into the animal and changes in its ovaries would determine if the pregnancy hormone was present.
Her parents seemed more bewildered at the thought of her having sex than disappointed or angry.
“Times were so different,” she said. “Nobody talked about sex. Children were born by immaculate conception.”
She recalled her mother and father meeting in their living room with the parents of her then-boyfriend, who was preparing to go to college in the fall.
“His life was going to go on,” she said. “Mine, on the other hand, was going to be blown up. I remember how odd it was to sit in a room and have people talk about the situation and how it affected all of them, but not how it affected me.”
That night, she couldn’t stop sobbing until her mother gave her a heavy sedative from the pharmacy.
“I felt like I had no control,” she said.
It was her boyfriend’s mother who asked if she would have an abortion, offering for their family to arrange and pay for the $600 procedure, Dally said.
“Yes,” she recalled saying, without any hesitation. “I said yes, no looking back. I wanted to do anything to make this horrible situation stop.”
Throughout much of American history, abortion was traditionally legal until “quickening,” when fetal movements could be detected. But in the mid-to-late 19th century, states began outlawing the procedure.
The pages of the Chicago Tribune in the late 1960s were sprinkled with stories of physicians arrested for performing abortions. A February 1966 article by the director of the American Medical Writers Association claimed that some 10,000 illegal abortions were performed in Chicago annually back then.
“The woman may find a physician who disregards the law — he may feel a need to help such women; he may just want the money,” the article said. “Or she may make connections with an abortion ring, secretly meeting someone on a street corner and suffering the degradation of an operation on a table set up in temporary, often unclean quarters that are moved every few days to elude police. Or she may be packed with irritating gauze, be given some pills, and rushed out after 15 minutes, to await pain, bleeding and expulsion of the fetus. Or she may go to a friend or stranger who tries to induce abortion with caustic soda solution … or who tries scraping the uterus with stiffened rubber tubing or crude instruments or even coat hangers, nails or knitting needles.”
Today, at least half of all states would likely choose to make abortion illegal again, akin to the days before Roe v. Wade or even more restrictive than then, said Geoffrey R. Stone, law professor at the University of Chicago and author of the book “Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion and Law from America’s Origins to the Twenty-First Century.”
“What that world will ultimately look like remains to be seen,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty horrible for most women that do not have the resources to travel to other states freely to have abortions. So that’s the world we’re likely to be heading back to, given the current state of the Supreme Court.”
Yet it’s difficult to forecast what cases the court will take up and how they’ll be decided, said Richard W. Garnett, law professor at the Notre Dame Law School. Even if Roe were to be overturned, the question of how to regulate abortion would still be up to state legislatures, which could be a better process, he said.
While most Americans might agree abortion should be legal in some circumstances, Garnett believes many also find the most liberal laws — like the one recently enacted in Illinois — too permissive and extreme.
“It’s tricky,” he said. “For a lot of people who are pro-life, they’d say, actually no, it really shouldn’t be up to the states, because if the unborn child is a person would we let states leave these people unprotected by the law?”
But leaving the matter to the states could promote compromise and legislation more in line with public values, he said.
“The way our Constitution was structured, it was seen from the very beginning that Americans were going to disagree about things,” he said. “One of the benefits of a federal system, the founders thought, was that you could kind of turn down the heat on disagreement on some issues by allowing for variation from place to place.”
No anesthetic was used during the surgical abortion.
Dally recalled that the clinic gave her Valium to ease the pain, but even the cold metal speculum still hurt. A kindly nurse tried to keep her mind off what was happening inside her body by chatting about the charm bracelet on the teen’s wrist.
“Horrible,” she said of the sensation. “It felt like someone is scraping inside your uterus.”
Her parents never judged or treated her differently, she said, and most of her friends and family didn’t know about the abortion. But for years following the unwanted pregnancy, she carried a certain inner shame.
“I was a 17-year-old girl who had done the unspeakable,” she said.
By the late 1960s, an underground abortion service referred to by some as the Jane Collective had emerged on the city’s South Side.
Heather Booth, activist and a founder of Jane, recalled that it started in 1965 when she was a University of Chicago student and arranged an abortion for the sister of a friend. A few years later, Booth said, other women took over, at first referring patients to a medical provider, but ultimately performing the procedure themselves. Seven members were arrested in 1972, but the charges were dropped following the 1973 Roe decision.
“Today there’s certainly a threat to overturn Roe, but it’s being functionally overturned now with cuts to the law, cuts to women’s rights,” Booth said. “It’s being fought out state by state, rule by rule.”
As for Dally, she went on to study English literature at Northwestern University and joined a sorority there, opportunities she says she would have missed had she carried the pregnancy to term.
Political and social norms were shifting rapidly across the country, lacing her college years with Vietnam War protests and bra burnings and talk of free love.
Then in January 1973, a headline on the front page of the Tribune declared, Top court strikes down abortion laws: Supreme Court rules laws banning abortions are invalid.
“I was just happy that women could get an abortion,” Dally said. “That it was legal. That they wouldn’t have to go through what I did.”
Dally remembered taking part in a 1989 march in Washington, D.C., as the Supreme Court was deciding Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, which ultimately upheld Missouri restrictions on abortion.
“Well, I actually had one,” she told fellow marchers at a gathering before the demonstration, one of the few times she’d mentioned terminating a pregnancy.
Even at a pro-reproductive rights event, she recalled that everyone in the room appeared shocked that someone had experienced an illegal abortion.
“If you don’t want to be a mother, you don’t want to be a mother. Why should you be an incubator?” she said. “It helped make me who I am. I don’t regret it and I don’t regret who I am.”
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