The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She survived a K Street abortion speakeasy. Is that our future?

Antiabortion protesters use bull horns to counter a gathering of mostly abortion rights advocates in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on May 3 in Washington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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When Eleanor Oliver needed an abortion in the late 1950s as a breadwinner and newly married graduate student, she had to ask around the office quietly. A woman gave her a name. It was like an abortion speakeasy. Right on K Street.

It was traumatic. Oliver is furious that the U.S. Supreme Court may overturn Roe v. Wade and push people back into the shadows.

Those who came before us — who know what it’s like to sneak around, to be terrified, to pay a lawbreaking doctor almost a year’s worth of rent for an abortion, then pull your hose back on and wobble back to work as if nothing happened — are telling us it’s time to fight. Like they fought.

“They want to send us back to the dark ages,” Oliver, now 85, blurted, as soon as I answered the phone the morning after the U.S. Supreme Court’s draft of a decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked. “They want us back in alleys, in bathrooms, bleeding. They want control.”

And though the lawmakers, judges and legislators who are driving the restrictions on women’s bodies are primarily men, their moves have all been made possible by women — White women, 52 percent of whom put President Donald Trump into office, where he packed the Supreme Court with the three justices opposed to a woman’s right to choose.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) became the vote that put Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh — another Roe opponent — into his robes. And Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the only woman who joined the justices opposed to Roe in the draft decision, is the final White woman who let down the majority — 62 percent — of all American women who support the right to an abortion, according to Pew Research.

How much do anti-abortion protesters really care about children?

“Do you know what America would look like if men carried children?” Oliver said. “There would be an abortion clinic every two blocks. And they’d be carpeted. With pastries and coffee. It would be like Starbucks, but for abortions.”

Her incandescent rage is understandable. Oliver’s illegal abortion was traumatic, but it was the best-case scenario and nothing like the things she saw later, when she became active in the abortion rights movement.

“Mine was a pretty standard, young, White woman abortion,” Oliver said. “It was expensive.”

She was warned that the K Street doctor who did illegal abortions for the Washington women who could afford them may want “a cuddle” before the procedure.

“He didn’t, thank God,” Oliver said. It cost almost $1,000 — the equivalent of about eight months of rent in D.C. at the time.

But he told her he’d have to work without anesthesia so she could “get up and walk out of there as if nothing had happened.”

She bled after the procedure — “badly.” But the doctor didn’t want her back in the K Street practice when she called him, so he told her to put her feet up and ice herself. She survived.

But she remembered. So when they moved to Chicago for her husband’s studies, she became one of the founders of the Jane Collective, a group of women who helped thousands of other women get access to illegal abortions. They posted their phone number — which was actually her number — across the city: “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane.”

Volunteers like Oliver shuttled women to doctors who would do abortions, then an abortionist (who wasn’t a doctor), and then they learned to do the procedure themselves. They helped the women pay for the abortions. They made sure the procedure was explained, that everyone was kind and supportive. “We told them that nobody would make a pass at them,” Oliver said.

Eventually, when abortion became legal in New York, they saw their wealthier, Whiter clients fly out of state for the procedures. And they continued to help the less affluent, primarily women of color who couldn’t afford to skip across states according to their laws.

I met Oliver at the premiere of “The Janes,” the documentary by my friend Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes about the Chicago collective that just won the audience award at the D.C. Film Festival. (It’s on HBO on June 8.)

The Janes were hoping no one would need to call them again.

Oliver’s sewing group was there at the premiere. “Their faces! They had no idea what I had been up to,” she said.

She’s angry, but she’s also 85.

“And like I said to my daughter, it’s your ballgame now,” Oliver said. “You’ve got to win this one.”

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