What Having An Abortion In 1959 Was Like
Illegal, secret, expensive, and incredibly scary. A 74-year-old grandmother tells her story.
Saturday morning, March 7, 1959
An icy rain pelted the Grand Concourse, so I waited in the vestibule of the apartment building for the taxi. From the rear window, the woman gestured for me to hurry, and I ran across the sidewalk without an umbrella.
I had only been to the Bronx a few times. I had no idea where I was.
The cab stopped at a high-rise apartment building. My escort brought me to the 12th floor and left as the door opened. A fiftysomething blonde woman invited me into the well-furnished apartment.
I could see into the dining room, the table covered with a white sheet. “First things first,” she said. “Do you have the money?” I handed her the cash and she counted it: five $50 bills. More than I earned in four weeks.
A tall man came toward me, managing a weak smile. I had been told he was an Italian doctor waiting for American licensing. He only knew my first name; I referred to him only as “Doctor.”
“Are you sure you’re pregnant? How many weeks? When was your last period?”
“I’m so irregular I didn’t know I had even missed one. I had a test at the hospital — I’m about eight weeks.”
The woman showed me to the bathroom and told me to empty my bladder and remove my panties.
I followed her to the table and crawled onto it. She helped me into position on my back and put a pillow under my head. It was a small comfort, a bit of humanity in this transaction. The gloved doctor raised my knees, vaginally examined me, and inserted a speculum.
“Stay very still and keep your knees apart.” A thin metal rod was threaded through my cervix, my vagina packed with gauze to keep it immobile. I felt the sharpness of a hypodermic needle stab my buttock and was told to sit up.
I didn’t have to stay in bed; walking was actually recommended. The cervix would dilate and uterus contract in response to the foreign object’s intrusion. In 24 hours, the probe would be removed.
Cramping was to be expected. If I had severe pain, copious bleeding, or lost consciousness, I was not to go to a hospital or doctor. I was to call the transporter, who would contact the blonde woman’s answering service; I was not to return to the apartment without their prior knowledge.
It was the July 4 holiday weekend, 1958.
The resident training and School of Nursing programs at the 500-bed hospital in Brooklyn were considered among the finest in the city. In February, I had received my student cap and uniform, officially accepted into the three-year nursing program after six months of probationary training. I was almost 18.
I watched him walk into the cafeteria carrying his lunch tray. Dark hair, fair skin, and blue, oh-so-blue eyes. I could barely stop looking at him or swallow my food. He sat facing my table. I felt his gaze, a potent force mixing with the summer air.
I left the room without a nod, without a word to him.
My evening shift assignment was on the second floor ward. Preparing meds for 10 p.m., I discovered one of the prescriptions was short a dose. The pharmacy was closed, and after calling the other floors, the gynecology ward had it. I could pick it up at the nursing station.
The elevator doors opened and there he was, leaning on the back wall, so handsome in his whites. I stepped in and turned to face the door, blushing. He came behind me, his lips close to my ear. “Hello.” My mouth was so dry I couldn’t respond. The doors opened and I stepped out. He followed. I hurried down the hall, his footsteps close behind. At the desk, I said, “Good-bye.” He smiled, then turned into the darkened ward, and I asked for the medication.
I pushed the elevator button and heard a loud whisper. “Wait…” It was otherworldly, watching him rush down the hall toward me. With gentle pressure on my elbow, he led me into the darkened radiology department. I could feel his breath on my face, so close was he. “Can I call you?” “You know where to find me — I live in Nurses Residence.” Then he asked, “How old are you? It’s important, because I’m an old man, 29.” I said, “I’m old enough to take care of myself.”
Shirley offered me something to eat, which I declined. I knew if I wound up in a Bronx hospital operating room that day, I couldn’t complicate the anesthesiologist’s job.
He came to see me that evening at Shirley’s, another resident covering his absence from Labor and Delivery. He complained about the trip to the Bronx, the rain, and the traffic.
Checking for complications, he asked, “Are you having any pain? Are you bleeding?” He checked my blood pressure and pulse. His clinical detachment was annoying; was he my doctor or my lover? This was our unwanted pregnancy, not just mine, wasn’t it?
I felt abandoned, but what else could he do? In the end it was only my problem, my pregnancy. I had insisted I was a woman able to control this event, but the reality was terrifying: I was a child alone in a very serious situation.
Attempting to rid the steel intruder, my uterus contracted. With each spasm, a nagging fear grew: This could go terribly wrong. Withdrawing into myself, I found little to say to him. I never doubted my decision to abort, and yet until now I had never considered the idea that I actually could die.
He left close to midnight. “I’ll be back tomorrow at 3 to take you home. If you’re worried or there is any kind of emergency, call me immediately. We’ll get through this. Just know that I love you with all my heart.”
I slept fitfully, obsessing on my vital signs, but there was only mild cramping — no fever, no hemorrhage. At daybreak, I thought, I’ll survive this.
There were few other patrons in the club that Tuesday night. We sat at in a booth and ordered drinks. He told me about going to medical school in Italy and his dreams of the good life.
The small band played jazzy ballads and we danced, alone on the floor. His hand at the small of my back owned me. I surrendered and we moved together as one, our bodies a perfect fit. It was as if we had danced together all our lives. My lips pressed against his cheek, my breath warming it.
We were both stunned into silence on the drive back to the hospital. I felt so alive. The world around was vague and superfluous, there was only us.
I rushed inside, the taste of him still on my lips, the sense of his embrace still enveloping me. All these years later, the night sky filled with stars and the scent of his aftershave remain vivid in memory.
I was a good girl, conditioned to protect my reputation in the repressive sexual climate of the 1950s. There had been no mother-daughter discussion about sex; you learned all that from your friends. If you were going to do “it,” you relied on your partner to take care of the condom. Nice girls didn’t ask.
But I was ready.
The summer was driven by desire, and in September we set our goals: I would quit school to support us. He would finish the residency program and then open a practice in Brooklyn.
I predicted a houseful of kids: “Maybe five.” He said, “Maybe two.” It was so romantic; we would live happily ever after, a perfect life.
Our families met, and plans began for a March wedding. He lived in Doctor’s Residence and I moved back home to Coney Island, commuting to my job in Manhattan.
It was almost impossible to find a place for intimacy, but we managed it. Making love was our obsession. Christmas and New Year’s passed, and we counted the days until we would share a married bed.
By the end of February, it was clear I’d missed my period, and I left a “Joan Doe” urine sample at the hospital lab; it was too shameful to use my name. Three days later, I got the positive results.
We had to solve this problem quickly; our wedding was in three weeks. But this was not sordid! Others might have chosen to have the baby, but we didn’t want one. Not yet.
We sat in the darkened living room, our world in limbo. “What are we going to do? We have no resources to start a family. This is not the plan.” In a small voice, I said, “You’ll do it.”
After all, there was a very simple answer to the mess: He could induce a miscarriage. He was an obstetrical resident for god’s sake; it would be safe and easy, and secret. He looked at me as if I were insane. “There’s no way I’ll take the chance. It’s too dangerous.”
So I had no choice. At work, I spoke to my friend Shirley, who promised to call around her Bronx neighborhood that night. She knew someone who knew someone, and in a few days, it was arranged. I would stay with her and everything would be all right.
The escort waited in a taxi curbside outside Shirley’s apartment at 11 a.m. The pelvic cramps were tolerable; I was nauseous and light-headed, but I remained stoic.
Once I was positioned on the table, the doctor began removing the packing and probe. He cautioned me to stay very still and inserted the curette. I felt an intense cramping as the sharp-edged metal loop scraped away the lining of my insides. I held my breath, did not move, utter a sound, or weep. In a flash of psychic disconnect, I seemed to be floating above the scene. I could clearly see the room, myself on the table, the doctor working between my legs. After a few minutes, the curette was pulled slowly through my cervix and out of me.
He gave me another injection of antibiotic, told me to tidy up in the bathroom and leave. The white tablecloth was full of bloody gauze. My blood.
I was alive — but there was doubt.
At the hospital, I had seen the result of abortions gone wrong, young women hemorrhaging or burning with a fevered infection no antibiotic could kill. The parents stood at the bedside or in the hallway trying to accept that their daughters were dying. Some mothers were overcome with shame, some with grief, and some with righteous anger. Anguished parents asked one another: “Can we keep this a secret from the other children, friends, the neighbors?” “Why couldn’t she wait until she was married?” “Will the boy be held accountable?” “Why didn’t she come to us?” “When did we lose control?” “How could she have done this?” “Who brought her to the abortionist?” “Will he be punished?”
And they prayed. But God was unforgiving, the sin too enormous, the punishment: death. After a few days, septic shock — a full-body inflammatory response — caused the organs to fail. The dying girls were vilified by their families and deserted by the boys they loved, but the hospital staff were sympathetic. I cried when they died; I knew that could be me.
Until he came for me, I stayed quietly to myself, and Shirley accepted that I could not make small talk. I was waiting, and watching, for the signs of infection. It could take a week or two to be sure all was well. I managed to stay in control, stave off panic, and push the dark thoughts aside.
In all my distress, I never thought about the baby I had aborted. There was no baby; there was only me. It was all about me, my life, and my choice.
I went to work, no one the wiser. Sort of like having a period, I bled on and off for a week. Our wedding was five days away, and last-minute details occupied my mother. The weekend I spent in the Bronx, my parents had been in Maryland visiting my aunt. I never considered telling them about the abortion, and I never did. What was the point?
On the Brooklyn-bound subway Wednesday evening, I felt a warm rush of liquid leave my body. By the time the train entered Prospect Park station, blood was dripping from the edge of the wicker seat to the floor. I hobbled out of the car onto the platform, my knees pressed together. In the phone booth, I closed the door and reached into my purse for a Kotex and tissues, stuffing them between my legs. Fifteen minutes later, he came for me. I stayed the night at my soon-to-be mother-in-law’s and bled through the bed linen and mattress. She accepted that it was just “woman trouble.”
In the morning, we met one of the attending OB-GYN docs at a private women’s hospital on Eastern Parkway. The hemorrhage was probably caused by a bit of tissue the doctor’s curette had missed.
My mother and father came to the hospital. Since I had irregular, heavy periods, they accepted the doctor’s recommendation to do a dilation and curettage (D&C) to stop the bleeding. No one mentioned pregnancy.
In those days, there was no health insurance. My father paid the $125 hospital bill and brought me home on Saturday morning, just in time for my appointment at the beauty salon.
The next afternoon, 250 people attended our wedding. It was a beautiful and sunny Easter Sunday. I wore white.
Afterward, I used a diaphragm — most of the time. Our son was born a few weeks after our first wedding anniversary. Fifteen months later, we had a daughter. And then, a miracle: the Pill! The 10 mg Enovid was so strong, I was sick to my stomach all day long. But I was safe.
Two years later, I was at my gynecologist’s office for the IUD, and two years after that, I had it removed to have the only planned pregnancy of my life. When our son was a year old, I was pregnant again, an IUD failure. Abortion was still illegal, but I met my OB-GYN at his office, and he inserted a probe into my cervix to start bleeding. Later that day, I was admitted to the hospital, “miscarrying,” and had another D&C. In 1970 — despite using a diaphragm — I got pregnant with my fourth child; my husband delivered our daughter in 1971 (and then he had a vasectomy).
The abortions are part of my own history, and that of our 55-year marriage. I have no regrets about them, no wistful wondering of what might have been. Our children are grown now, and we have eight amazing grandchildren. They live in a post-Roe v. Wade world, and have access to effective, affordable birth control. I’ve told them all the story of my abortion; to me, it’s a matter of life and death. I think about the girls I watched die in 1958, their families, the lives they never lived. I think about the button I wore in 1970: Never Again!