Commentary: My Abortion Experience in 1962

1962 Chicago

I walked cautiously out the back door for the second time that day and down the block to a busy commercial street. I was looking for a taxi, although the doctor had asked me to walk several blocks before getting in a cab. I was anxious to get home; I was tired, but more than that, I was afraid — afraid of somehow being found out.

There was a drug store down the block and around the corner: I headed straight for it. There were only two people who knew where I was going, and they were sitting anxiously by their landlines waiting to hear from me. The drug store had customers — a couple of men roaming around and a male clerk who seemed busy and didn’t notice me slipping into the booth. Good.

As I dialed the number I happened to glance down. Oh my God: there was blood running off me and making a small puddle on the floor of the booth. I quickly put the receiver down and retraced my bloody steps; back to the end of that block, around the corner and back up the other block. I walked slowly but tried to seem normal and hoped no one would notice the state I was in. Under normal circumstances I would be overcome with shame, but my fear was greater.

When I came to the backdoor I realized that the blood that was running down my legs had already soaked through the sanitary napkin, through my socks and the slip I had worn under my summer dress. It was alarmingly visible. I jutted my chin and walked resolutely up past the workers again and on to the front door of the doctor’s house/office. I rang the bell and a couple of minutes later he came and peeked through the hole in the little window. Upon seeing me he turned the lock on the door and opened it a bit. I just stood gesturing down at my bloodied lower body. “Look,” was all I could say. He ushered me into the vestibule, saying “this has never happened before.” Great. The very thing that I had most dreaded seemed to be happening.

He led me silently through the home’s large living room where there were 8 or 9 women glumly seated in silence. I didn’t say a word, but I bet their fear factor jumped several notches, seeing me like that. The doctor quickly put me in a little room with a cot, gave me an injection of something, and told me to stay there. I wasn’t about to move.

It had not been easy for me to find this doctor in the first place. When the rabbit confirmed my pregnancy (by dying, as was the case with all pregnancy tests in that day and age), I had been working as an executive secretary for an international firm with a branch down in the Loop. I had not been in town for long, having moved there from Michigan to get a job to support my two daughters (a two-year-old and an infant). My recent separation from their father was fueled by the ravages of the major depressive disorder I had been struggling with for months. 

I knew few people in the city. I had been away to have my last baby and get our lives back on track. It was obvious that I had to work to support my little family and it was also obvious that I couldn’t work very far into a pregnancy. This was 1962, when employers could still fire someone for being pregnant, which is what happened to me when I was only six months pregnant with my first child.  I could not have that happen again, not to mention the fact that I could barely take care of two daughters, let alone three. 

I knew I needed an abortion, but I had no idea where to begin. Before Roe v. Wade there were no social workers, medical workers, church workers, or folks in any position that could counsel someone like me. None that I’d ever heard of, anyway. There were also no clinics one could fly to. Abortion was against the law and most poor pregnant women were as afraid of being arrested as they were of the abortion itself.

I was in a panic. I was sure there were doctors — and others — who would perform abortions for a price, but how to find one? Of books I had read and movies I had seen, none of them portrayed a friendly priest or social worker coming around and helping. It was always bad guys — shady folk were around whenever abortion was the subject.

I thought of everyone I knew in Chicago, asking myself, “Where can I find someone shady enough to get me through this?” There was a man who ran a sort of cigar store under the “L” Train who looked the part; I’d overheard snippets of conversation now and then that sparked my dark imagination. This guy would know. So, I screwed up my courage and approached the guy one day. I took him aside and asked if he knew anyone — and he did! 

Well, he didn’t personally know someone, but he knew someone who knew someone who maybe knew someone. 

It was a Wednesday. I had made arrangements to send my daughters to Grandma in Michigan for a couple of weeks. Friends from the suburbs had driven them and the plan (my version of the plan) was for these friends to pick me up and we’d all go to Michigan to pick up my daughters, spend a couple of days in the country and then all drive back to Chicago on Sunday.

First, I had to get home.

I don’t know how long I lay in the doctor’s make-shift recovery room — a couple of hours, maybe. 

I had been watching through a curtain as woman after woman went from the living room to the “operating room,” and out the back door, each one quietly handing the doctor the requisite sanitary napkin and $300 in cash we were all told to bring. My bleeding had slowed down and the doctor was anxious to have me out of there. I was concerned because my sister and my friend (my two phone calls) had not heard from me for hours by now. Eventually, the doctor came and showed me out the back door to once again walk down the block and find a cab.

His parting words, ”If you have any problems, don’t call me.”

I got home, away from the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere. Now I was in a new reality. I was bleeding in my basement apartment from an illegal abortion, afraid to get medical help. I was broke. I had no phone. Only three people knew where I was. I was lonelier than I had ever been in my life. I cried. I prayed.

For three days and two nights I lay there, getting weaker and weaker: in pain, afraid, ashamed, desolate. During the third night I started passing out on my frequent trips to the bathroom. I was passing large clots of blood every hour or two amidst much pain. I was waiting for my friends to come on their way to Michigan so I could get to a doctor. They were to be my contact with the outside world. I had begun to worry that they wouldn’t get here in time. I finally decided to try to reach my landlady who lived upstairs to call my friends and ask them to hurry.

I slowly began to crawl up the stairway to the landing of the building; there was a bell by our mailboxes. I was on my hands and knees as I crawled up the stairs. After a couple of steps, I decided not to have her call my friends, just call a doctor directly. By the time I got up to the landing, I just wanted someone to call an ambulance. I pushed her doorbell and crumpled to the floor. She came out, assessed the situation, called an ambulance, and brought a blanket to cover me as I lay there on the stairs waiting.

A city ambulance came and took me to the emergency room of the nearest hospital. As they began to offload the gurney, the drivers were told that the hospital wouldn’t take me because I didn’t have insurance. The drivers were compassionate, but still they had to follow the protocol. Back into the ambulance (as I kept bleeding) and another ride, this time to Cook County Hospital.

 I was no longer afraid of dying on the spot, but now a new, powerful emotion took over: now the whole world, it seemed, would know my shame. This wasn’t anywhere near the life I wanted. I was so far from my hopes and dreams. 

I lied every time someone asked me if I had done anything to myself. I didn’t want to escape death just to go to jail for having had an abortion. I was woefully ignorant of the law on the matter. Most women were.

It was late at night before my friends caught up with me at Cook County Hospital.

When they finally found me, I was in a very large room with 30 to 40 women, all on gurneys, all having “miscarriages.”

I couldn’t stop crying.  I was still in pain and now my friends and my whole family — everyone — would know what I had done even without me admitting it.

My friends decided they would go on to Michigan without me and work out with my mother how to take care of my kids.

I stayed one day in Cook County hospital and then went home to recuperate. My job was lost, but even if it hadn’t been, I could barely move from my chair to my bed. I was incredibly weak and unable to perform the lightest of housekeeping tasks. My sister, who lived in the suburbs, had an obstetrician who happened to have a practice in the city just blocks from me. She got me an appointment. He was good. He was kind. He was also aghast at the treatment I had undergone, and I found out he was even on the advisory board of Cook County Hospital. The doctor said that he’d been practicing for over 30 years and never had he seen someone with such a low blood count. The hospital had not given me a transfusion of any kind. But they did save my life.

I left Chicago soon after that. It would take several years for me to get my life back in order. 

Today I’m an ordained clergy person, in retirement. My kids have grandkids. I was going to take this secret to my grave. Who would have guessed? Now, after 60 years, the overturn of Roe v. Wade has given me new courage.

We must keep abortions legal and safe. This is my contribution to the cause.