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This Is What It Was Like to Have an Illegal Abortion Before Roe v. Wade

Back-country motels, mysterious “doctors,” medical complications: One brave woman shares her story

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Pro-choice signs are seen in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Alex Brandon/AP/REX Shutterstock

On Monday evening, President Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court seat vacated by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. As the court’s swing vote, Kennedy helped safeguard reproductive rights for decades, but many court-watchers now feel that Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that declared a woman’s right to an abortion was enshrined in the 14th amendment to the Constitution, is now in jeopardy of being overturned. Pro-life organizations like the Alliance for Defending Freedom have already begun the work of seeding the lower courts with cases that could act as a vehicle for the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe as soon as next year. If that happens, federal protection for abortion would disappear overnight and individual state laws would govern whether or not a woman could choose to end her own pregnancy. For 45 years, Roe protected a woman’s right to choose, but there are women who remember what it was like when abortion was illegal – and what it might be like again very soon. Dev Howerton is one of those women; she spoke to Rolling Stone about the decision made when she was just 20 years old and how it changed the trajectory of her entire life. What follows is her story, lightly edited for length and clarity.

I’m 68 now, retired. I have two grown children and one grandchild. I’ve had a fairly good life.

I was 20 when I had the abortion. At 19, I’d packed everything that I owned in my car and drove to the nearest town with a state university in South Carolina. I found a part-time job as a long-distance telephone operator for Southern Bell, and a small two-room apartment. I didn’t have much sex education. I knew about condoms and birth control pills – birth control wasn’t widely available – but that was about it.

I was working and going to school, taking classes to get a medical technology degree. One day I started feeling sick. I just thought I had the flu. I went to the student health clinic and, unbeknownst to me, they gave me a pregnancy test. A few days later, I got a phone call and they told me that the test was positive. I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock. I thought I’d been careful. I didn’t know how this could have happened. I started feeling panicked. I was totally on my own. I didn’t have any family support. I didn’t have very many friends. But I knew right away there was no way I could have a child – I was just barely able to take care of myself. And I knew that I had to find a way to get an abortion.

This this was 1970. I knew abortion was illegal. I knew I had to find somebody that had connections to the underground. I had met a guy at a party, and I dated him a little bit, who seemed like he might have a kind of connection – a lot of friends who were in the fast crowd, a little shady and living on the edge. He said he could make the arrangements.

I had to come up with $400, which was a lot of money in 1970, especially working part-time, making $75 or $80 a week. I approached the guy that I had slept with and told him what happened. He was sort of flabbergasted, didn’t really want to have anything to do with it. OK, here’s some money, go away. I think he paid half, as I remember. I didn’t really know him that well. I was just kind of being wild and crazy at that time, and when you’re 20 and young and invincible things happen that you don’t expect.

It took me a couple weeks to get the money together, but I did it. The next thing I knew, I was riding in the back seat of this car in the middle of the night. It was pitch-black. I didn’t know where we were going; it felt like we drove forever. We finally got to this motel. I don’t know where it was – I don’t think they wanted me to know – but it was one of those country motels that are all one floor, kind of a rundown place, out in the Boondocks. They escorted me into the room and introduced me to another man they said was a doctor. I have no idea if he was a doctor.

I was terrified; really scared. I knew that I had to do this. I just wanted to get it over with. It was like: Here’s the doctor, lie down on the bed. And I just followed instructions.

The procedure, which I’ve learned more about since then, was not really an abortion. It was an induced miscarriage. They insert a foreign object into the uterus – this long rubber tube – and I had to leave in. I don’t remember if it fell out or I had to take it out. I wasn’t sure if it was going to take. Then It finally happened. I was on the toilet. I flushed down whatever unrecognizable tissue there was.

It was somewhat painful to think about what I’d done, but I just knew there was no other choice. I tried not to dwell on it too much; just kept on with my life. I had some complications – bleeding that wouldn’t stop – so eventually I had to go to a gynecologist, who reprimanded me and told me that I was lucky to be alive, that I had done something pretty stupid. I remember feeling shameful at the time, but I also think I was mad at him for his attitude. Like: You have no idea.

But that was basically the end of it. My life went on. I was married a year later. Roe v. Wade was decided a couple of years after that. I was sort of oblivious to politics at the time – I was just keeping my nose to the ground, trying to survive – but I remember being really excited that it was finally resolved and other women wouldn’t go through what I had gone through. And I do remember that Ms. Magazine asked women who had illegal abortions if they could publish their names and I sent my name in.

I had my first child, a pregnancy that was planned, when I was almost 26. I was just finishing up a master’s degree in microbiology and immunology at Emory University. I worked for several years in research labs and medical labs, got divorced, remarried, went back to school again to work on a PhD, then had my son with my second husband when I was 38. I always tell people I have two only children because they’re so far apart.

I know my whole life would have been different if I hadn’t had access to that abortion. I would have been a single mom, and without finishing my degree, I don’t know how I would have done that. It would have been a totally different life. About 10 years ago I started being more active – escorting for Planned Parenthood, getting involved in the legislative action network, donating more money. But I hadn’t really told my story until maybe two years ago. That was really the first time I’d actually put it into words and tried to articulate what has happened to me.

It’s shocking that they would want to overturn Roe v. Wade, but it fits with a pattern, knowing who’s making these decisions now. I don’t know that I am surprised, but I feel really angry at these old white men who are trying to take away a right that women and families have had for so many years. I have mixed emotions – anger is the top one, but also disbelief that they think they can get away with it, and fear, too, for the young women, many of them who are sort of complacent, and they don’t realize what it was like before we had Roe. It’s already really bad in a lot of places right now – I lived in Georgia and now I live in Pennsylvania where it’s even worse than Georgia with the state legislature trying to put restrictions on abortion – but to turn it back nationally, I just think its abhorrent. And I think if it does happen, there’s going to be a huge backlash.

As told to Tessa Stuart

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