For much of this country’s early history, women aborting a pregnancy was fairly common — even openly advertised — with little to do with morality or laws.
It wasn’t until 1873 that Congress passed the Comstock Act criminalizing contraception and abortion.
But even then, women continued to seek abortions to end unwanted pregnancies, often resulting in serious injuries or death. For women born after Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision guaranteeing a constitutional right to abortion, that era may seem like ancient history.
It’s a history that may soon be revisited.
In December, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider the legality of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. That ruling could reverse Roe v. Wade. If that happens, 26 states are ready to ban abortion, according to Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights policy organization. In Texas, abortion rights have already shutdown due to a state ban that allows unaffected residents to file lawsuits and claim bounties on those who perform or help a woman obtain an abortion.
When I’ve written columns about the impending legal decisions and ramifications of them, I hear stories from women who came of age before Roe, whose reproductive lives were restricted in ways many younger women can’t fathom.
The pre-Roe and post-Roe reality is a false dichotomy, in many ways. Back then, abortion was illegal but not for everyone, they say. Nowadays, it is legal not but not an available option for everyone who desires it.
Across generations, there are commonalities that run through their experiences — feelings of shame, secrecy and helplessness and the persistent streak of inequity.
If the past is prologue, these experiences may offer a window of what might happen in states where abortion becomes completely inaccessible.
As the women who shared their personal stories reminded me: We’ve lived this history before.
Dr. Frederick Joseph Taussig, a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine, treated women whose bodies were broken from botched, back-alley abortions beginning in the early 1900s.
“He saw in those years how many women were suffering. … There were so many self-inflicted abortions, and women dying from them,” said his granddaughter Anne Taussig, who has spent the past year and a half researching his work.
In 1932, Taussig and other doctors established a clinic in the Central West End, across the street from Left Bank Books. It was called the Maternal Health Association of Missouri. In 1936, a federal appeals court ruled that physicians had the right to distribute contraceptives to patients for medical purposes. The St. Louis clinic began providing diaphragms and spermicides. Initially, they could only dispense contraceptives to married white women.
Taussig was a pioneer in the field in many ways. He traveled to Russia, where abortion was legal and took extensive notes on how the procedure could be performed safely. He published a book for physicians, “Abortion: Spontaneous and Induced,” which became a seminal text for decades. In 1943, the clinic changed its name to Planned Parenthood, as part of the national movement to increase access to birth control.
“We should not close our eyes to the direct effect of a burden of more children upon an already impoverished and unfed family,” he wrote. “Burdens that are safely carried out by one woman may readily undermine the health of another.”
Earl and Anne Broden married in 1948 in Nashville, Tennessee. A year later, Earl contracted polio when his wife was seven months pregnant with their first child. The disease paralyzed him from the neck down. He spent nine months in an iron lung and was transferred to the Veterans Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Anne packed up and moved with their baby to be close to her husband.
She cared for him for the next 30 years he spent in the hospital. But Anne knew she would have to find a way to provide for herself and their daughter, Cathy. She became a real estate agent in the 1950s, eventually owning her own business.
She was in her 80s when she confided a secret she had harbored for nearly three decades. One of her work colleagues had raped her in 1955, she told Cathy. The assault resulted in a pregnancy.
Anne, a practicing Catholic, faced an impossible decision. She could not bear the thought of breaking her husband’s heart by telling him what had happened to her. A former Marine, now paralyzed, he would have blamed himself for being unable to protect her.
She traveled to the Ozarks for an illegal abortion.
She told her daughter she carried so much guilt for what she had done.
“If you were in the exact same position, would you make the same decision today?” Cathy asked her.
“In a heartbeat,” her mother said.
Even though they had barely been married a year when Earl became paralyzed, Anne never wavered from his side.
“Mom and my dad were devoted to one another to his dying day,” Cathy said.
“Ther Ab.” Ann Marie Anderson wondered what that abbreviation on the Labor and Delivery board meant. It was scrawled next to a few patients’ names every few weeks. Anderson was in training as a student nurse at Jewish Hospital in St. Louis in 1970. She asked one of the experienced nurses during her obstetrics rotation about the unfamiliar notation.
Those patients would be getting “therapeutic abortions,” the nurse informed her.
Shocked by that response, she said, “I thought that was illegal.” She now recognizes how naïve her question must have sounded.
Despite state law outlawing the procedure, abortion was indeed a legal option for certain girls and women — those whose families had the means to get doctors to say a pregnancy would be detrimental to their physical or mental health.
“In my brief experience, these patients were always white and always privileged,” she said. It was a stark contrast to what she experienced in her clinic rotations, where they treated poor patients. She remembers a Black mother bringing in her pregnant 14-year-old daughter. The doctor told her daughter she had no choice but to carry the pregnancy to term.
“I can remember the mother’s eyes swimming in tears. She was devastated,” Anderson, now 71, said. She retired around 2000 after nearly 30 years of nursing.
“Even now, sitting on my patio in Kirkwood, I can remember how stunned I was at the inequity,” she said.
The college student
Maureen Jordan, now 73, of Manchester, was studying at Michigan State University in the late ’60s. One of her close friends became pregnant and sought an illegal abortion scheduled late at night.
Jordan, along with her other friends, waited up to hear how it went. She received word that it was gruesome and extraordinarily painful. Her friend began running a fever and felt extremely sick.
Friends persuaded her to go to a hospital in East Lansing. Doctors discovered she was infected and that the botched abortion had failed. She was still pregnant.
“She was just devastated,” Jordan recalled. The hospital had a therapeutic abortion committee that ruled against completing the abortion. Jordan’s friend became suicidal.
“She was in anguish. Depressed and beside herself,” she said. Someone got her case before the doctors committee at the University of Michigan hospital, which considered her high risk for suicide. They ruled in favor of allowing the procedure.
“That story stuck with me my entire life,” Jordan said. It was pivotal to how she viewed the debate around “life” — her friend had nearly lost hers.
In 2019, Jordan joined the board for Planned Parenthood of Missouri and Southwest Region.
“Who would have known that I would be protesting again after 50 years,” she said.
Love Holt began dating a year after her divorce in 2017. She became seriously involved with a man for several months. The relationship was on the brink of falling apart when they attempted to make up. They went to Mardi Gras together, and they took an Uber back to his place. They had been drinking during the day, and she passed out in bed next to him.
She woke up naked and feeling as though he may have had sex with her.
“Obviously, this was not a consensual thing,” she said to him. She dumped him and moved on with her life. Months later, she started feeling sick and began vomiting. She went to a clinic, where she learned she was 22 weeks pregnant.
“Oh my God, that’s impossible,” she said. “How did I miss a whole five months of pregnancy?”
The Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis told her that after the mandatory 72-hour waiting period, she would be too far along to get an abortion under Missouri law. Holt called a clinic in Illinois, but she didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford the fee. She already had four children.
“How am I going to feed another kid when I can’t even come up with $800?” she thought. As she got further along in the pregnancy, the procedure would be twice as expensive. She became deeply depressed. Part of the horror was the feeling that each step of the way someone else had made decisions about her body for her — against her will.
“It’s already tough to decide to have an abortion,” she said. “Even though that was what I felt was best, I still did not have a choice.”
She was dealing with an unwanted pregnancy decades after Roe, but the abortion she wanted was still not an option for her.
At 34 weeks of pregnancy, her liver began to shut down. Doctors induced her, but she could not get an epidural because of the baby’s position. After 26 hours of labor, she delivered a boy.
“He and I almost died,” she said.
She had decided to give him up for adoption, but a snowstorm delayed the prospective parents from arriving at the hospital. The next day, Holt decided to hold him for the first time.
“I can’t see anyone else giving you the love you deserve,” she said to him.
She called the adoptive parents and said she was going to keep her son.
Earlier this year she started a congregation that is part of the New Thought movement. She also advocates for reproductive rights.
It’s about more than protecting Roe v. Wade, Holt said.
“Whether or not someone can access abortion is about more than that. It’s about how much money they have, whether they have health insurance, their race.”
It was the summer before her senior year at Mary Institute, and Anne Taussig, then 18, was on the phone waiting for news that could change her life.
“The test came back positive,” the doctor said. “You are pregnant.”
She was stunned into silence. She gazed out the window, the hair standing up on the back of her neck.
“Well, what did you expect?” the doctor added.
She was a straight-A student, headed to Wellesley College after graduation. She grew up in a wealthy family in Ladue. Abortion was not yet legal, but she knew she would not carry this pregnancy to term.
“I knew I would find a way out of it,” she said. Her father said she could go to New York to have an abortion. She ended up miscarrying before her appointment.
Taussig, now 70, living in St. Louis, says despite her privileged circumstances as a teenager, she remembers her desperation and panic as soon as she heard the test results. She knew she was no longer in control of her situation.
That experience may have been part of the reason that she began researching her grandfather’s legacy.
Frederick Joseph Taussig died in 1943, long before Roe became law, years before his granddaughter, Anne, was born.
The obstetrician who had devoted his career to women’s reproductive freedom and health kept a sign posted in his surgery room.
It read, “SAVE THE MOTHER.”