Women reflect on what life was like before Roe v. Wade

In light of the leaked Supreme Court opinion that would reverse the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, the country faces the prospect of a future where abortion will no longer be legal nationwide. Amna Nawaz spoke to women who remember what life was like for them before Roe.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In light of the leaked Supreme Court opinion that would reverse the landmark Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade, the country faces the prospect of a future where abortion will no longer be legal nationwide.

    Amna Nawaz is back now with a report based on her talking with women who remember what life was like before Roe.

  • Roberta Brandes Gratz, Journalist:

    It was just not something that any woman should have to go through, period. It's just as simple as that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Decades ago, now 81-year-old Roberta Brandes Gratz was a reporter in New York City in her 20s when she had an unplanned pregnancy. She traveled to a clinic in Puerto Rico for what was then an illegal procedure in New York state and across much of America, an abortion.

  • Roberta Brandes Gratz:

    It was the kind of hospital where women gave birth, as well as had abortions. So you heard babies crying, and you saw women who were there for the same reason you were.

    I had an anesthetic. It did not totally take, so it was partially painful. But it was humiliating, because I knew I was doing something illegal.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Before the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, abortions were prohibited in 33 states and only allowed in special circumstances in 13 others. But women in those states still had abortions, some through unsafe, so-called back alley procedures. Others tried to induce abortions themselves.

  • Byllye Avery, Health Care Activist:

    We had almost no options. You would either put yourself at risk by self-inflicting an abortion, using knitting needles, crochet needles, anything that could stop — take big black pills. There was no other option that I knew anything about.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Byllye Avery is a health care activist. She has been working on reproductive rights issues since 1971.

    At the time, women would also travel to terminate their pregnancies abroad or to New York, where abortions were legalized in 1970. But Avery says that kind of travel just wasn't possible for many women she counseled in Florida, where the procedure was illegal in most cases.

  • Byllye Avery:

    A Black woman came, and we started giving her this information. She said: "I don't have any money to go to New York. I don't know anybody there."

    And about a month or two later, she died from a self-induced abortion. So that really opened my eyes that, even if we had access to abortion, if women didn't have the means by which the paper that, they still didn't really have access.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, an estimated 200,000 to 1.2 million illegal abortions were performed a year in the United States. Hundreds of women died every year from botched procedures.

    In the early 1960s, in New York City alone, abortion accounted for half of all childbirth-related deaths among non-white and Puerto Rican women.

  • Heather Booth, Co-Founder, Jane:

    Before Roe, there were septic abortion wards in hospitals of women who had tried to either induce their own abortion or went to someone who wasn't reliable, wasn't trustworthy, and had done damage to them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    As a graduate student in 1965, Heather Booth co-founded an underground abortion service in Chicago using a code name.

  • Person:

    I said, we could use my phone, but change it so that they don't ask for Eleanor. How about Jane? Nobody's called Jane anymore.

  • Person:

    We had the phone numbers on bulletin boards around Chicago. Pregnant, call Jane.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A new film, "The Janes," airing on HBO and HBO Max tells the story of those women, who called themselves The Service. Between 1969 and 1973, using a network of secret communications and safe houses to protect each other and the women seeking help, the Janes performed thousands of safe and affordable abortions.

  • Person:

    Women would launch into these stories: I have three children. I have no more money. My husband is leaving, or my husband is sick, or I don't have a husband. I'm 17. I want to go to college, and I have got this scholarship. And if I don't do this now — they were really cogent and important reasons.

    But we would really try to make clear to them they didn't have to justify themselves.

  • Heather Booth:

    It was both the question of providing the care at all, creating a community, ensuring the cost was feasible, and that it was accessible to anyone who wanted it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In 1972, the Chicago Police Department arrested seven members of the service and charged them with 11 counts of abortion and conspiracy to commit abortion.

    One of the Janes, Judith Arcana, remember that day.

  • Judith Arcana, Former Jane Member:

    They took me out to the parking lot, where they cuffed me, and then they took me into this van, an ordinary police van, metal, cold. I was nervous. I was physically uncomfortable, literally shuttering from the cold.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Arcana was the first of the Janes to be let out on bail, because she had recently had a child and was still nursing.

    What do you remember about going home to your baby after that?

  • Judith Arcana:

    I went and stood up. Maybe I have to cry. I went and stood next to his crib. And he woke up.

    And so I picked him up and nursed him. And while I was nursing him, I could feel the tension, which I had not even been conscious of, just streaming out of my body, mostly down my arms and legs.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A few months after their arrest, the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide. The charges against the Janes were dropped.

    Nearly 50 years on, the leaked draft opinion that would reverse Roe worries many activists who lived in America before the landmark case.

  • Heather Booth:

    Women's lives will — be will be thwarted. They will be lessened. They will be diminished because their freedoms are diminished.

    It means, if you're raped, if you're a victim of incest, in many states, you won't have an option to have another direction in your life.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When you heard about the leaked Supreme Court draft earlier this year, and it looks as if Roe could be overturned, what did you think.

  • Byllye Avery:

    I was devastated.

    I think it's going to be worse for a lot of women. It's going to be worse for women who live on lower incomes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nevertheless, Avery believes, like in the days before Roe, women will find a way around restrictions.

  • Byllye Avery:

    This might seem like a step backwards, but I think it's going to have a different kind of effect.

    It's an unjust law. And these young women are not going to take a backseat to anybody. They're going to do it. I have faith in them. They will, because their lives depend on it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Back in New York, Gratz says, getting her own illegal abortion motivated her to report on other women's abortion stories. And just months after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, she wrote a groundbreaking piece in "Ms." magazine illustrated with a gruesome photo of a woman who died years earlier from a botched illegal abortion.

    The headline was "Never Again."

  • Roberta Brandes Gratz:

    It was entitled "Never Again" because, ironically, we thought never again would women have to go through what Gerri Santoro did, who was pictured in the photograph that accompanied the article, dead on a motel room floor.

    We thought, never again. Who ever thought that the whole thing could be turned around?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The future of abortion access in America now rests with the Supreme Court and a decision that's expected in the coming days.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz.

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