I posted this in March of 2006 - in light of recent events, I thought I would re-post it.
(The original post has been viewed at least 6 times a day - it is my sincere hope
that viewers are researching for information purposes only and not that
they are in a desperate situation to abort a pregnancy. It isn't that
I'm against abortion as much as I am empathetic to the party who finds
themself this difficult and painful situation.)
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:
The Techniques of Illegal Abortion
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”"