I was born in 1963, so for me, though it hasn't been a piece of cake working my way in this world as a single woman, there are many things I had that weren't available to women until I was born. For example, when I was 17, I was able to obtain birth control pills without my parent's consent. I could get the medical help I needed. Since abortion has been legal for all but 10 years of my life, the only time abortion comes up is when the Religious Right is screaming about it. So, I did some research. I wanted to know what women did before it was legal. Below is what I found.
My source is a very very interesting and informative report that was written in 1998. It was a case study and the author followed the lives/stories of several women. The study discusses how they got pregnant, what they knew and understood about sexuality and then how each one attempted to terminate her pregnancy. If you would like to read the article/study in it's entirety here is a link. The article is titled: No Choice
Statistics say that 40% of all women will end a pregnancy by abortion(link).
So, here is what it was like:
"Many women in these stories first tried one or more traditional folk recipes, such as taking laxatives or castor oil or douching with potassium permanganate, to bring on a miscarriage. Nancy’s experience was typical: “I tried all the things I knew — hot baths and gin, jumping down stairs, scrubbing floors, carrying heavy things up stairs, taking quinine, punching my stomach — nothing worked.” Such attempts were miserably unsuccessful. Ursula describes how she tried to induce a miscarriage: “I drank a bottle of quinine and I didn’t know if I was standing on my head or my feet. Quinine and gin and I got into a hot mustard bath and nothing — you suffer, mentally and physically.”
There were a couple of successful exceptions, however. It is perhaps such exceptions that account for the fact that folk remedies continued to be passed on. Nicola aborted after taking a patent medicine called “Silver Pills” — a purgative. And Gillian attributed her mother’s abortion to quinine.
The abortion method most commonly described by the women involved the insertion of a foreign object into the cervix: slippery elm bark, a knitting needle, a ballpoint pen, a hard rubber catheter, a douche nozzle or some kind of “sharp instrument.” In one method, the inserted object was left there, held in place by gauze packing which plugged the vagina. In a variation on this method, a solution was introduced into the uterus through the catheter or nozzle. These same basic methods were used both by abortionists and by women on themselves. Here is Andrea’s description of the method she used to self-induce an abortion:
One should do it ten days before the next period. One needs an enema with the thin nozzle, warm soapy water (carbolic soap), Dettol, patience and courage. It is such a lonely thing this abortion business. It’s like being born and dying. It always took at least two weeks. If the womb was placed high then you were just out of luck. You had to find the entrance to the womb, hold the nozzle in place, and gently but firmly, pour in the water. When the fetus finally appeared it wasn’t much bigger than a bean.
Carbolic soap and water was the most common douche, but the recipe could be anything from glycerine to an “acid-like liquid.” Joan’s waitress-abortionist made up a solution of “lye, soap, quinine, and oil which she had boiled on the stove.” The solution would be inserted once or twice by an abortionist. If the woman was self-inducing, she inserted it much more frequently.
Both these methods involved a delay of hours, days or weeks before the interference produced contractions of the uterus which expelled the fetus. “It was not a quick process,” comments Betty. The woman usually suffered hours of painful contractions “as bad as any labour pains,” and a great deal of bleeding. She was often alone when she aborted the fetus and would have to dispose of it herself.
By the time most women reached this point, they were often three months pregnant or more, according to their own reckoning. There were a disproportionately high number of late abortions in these women’s stories, due at least in part to obstacles involved in finding and carrying out the procedure illegally.
Some of the medical doctors who performed illegal abortions used these same slow-working, rather primitive methods. However, the professional physicians we encounter in Pat, Natalie, Karen, Julia and Kirby’s cases used the D&C (dilatation and curettage) method, a relatively fast and simple operation in which the cervix is opened (dilated) and the uterus is scraped out using a curette.
In decade after decade after decade, the same basic abortion methods are used under the same tawdry and dangerous circumstances: an illegal abortion story from the 1960s describes the same primitive procedure as a story from the 1920s. It is interesting that by the 1960s heart transplants were being performed in Canada, while abortions, being clandestine, remained such remarkably crude and dangerous operations.
Ellen’s story was unique, in that she described the experience of an illegal abortion using the modern vacuum aspiration method. It was done at Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s clinic in 1968, the year before the abortion law was liberalized, and is basically the same abortion technique being used in Canada today: “Dilators were ... used and a vacuum aspiration tube applied and turned on. There was very little feeling, just noise and some vibrating. All the while those two lovely humans talked to me ... It was all over within ten minutes.”
It is not surprising to find that most women having illegal abortions received poor medical care from their abortionists. Often nothing was done by way of proper preparation, as Gail’s story makes clear: “I was taken to the bedroom, asked for the money, told to keep my coat on and my shoulder bag in my hand — in case I left evidence behind, I assume — and to pull my underpants down to one ankle.” There was often little or no attempt at sterility: Muriel remembers that her abortionist “hadn’t washed his hands first.”
Most women were given no anaesthetic and described their illegal abortion as a torturously painful procedure. While undergoing the operation without anaesthetic, the patient “was not to make a sound ... not one!” Women like Mary and Louise remember “biting a pillow to keep from screaming.” Most women were given no rest or recovery period, nor any aftercare whatsoever. They were told to leave right after getting off the table. The instructions were usually the same as those given to Mary: “Don’t you dare tell anyone. If anything goes wrong don’t call a doctor or the police because you’ve just broken the law and you can go to jail.” Although infection was highly possible, antibiotics were almost never provided.
These stories contain several incidents of women being sexually abused by the abortionist or by his “middle man.” Joanne, Patti, Nicola, Louise, Mary and Muriel all encountered this problem; most suffered in silence. As Joanne says, “Since you are terrified that you aren’t going to get the abortion, and that’s all you are thinking of, you submit to a lot of indignities that I probably would never have submitted to otherwise. Fondling and things like that.”"