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Coming of age during Roe v. Wade: Women tell us how they saw the moment then and now

Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe in the 1973 court case, on left, and her attorney Gloria Allred. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/Washington Post illustration)
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A blip on the screen. A sigh of relief. A miracle. An afterthought.

The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision came at a time of great political turmoil: The antiwar movement was in full swing, and the Watergate scandal had crested among the American public. Across the country, women’s and civil rights activists were fighting to get states to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee legal equality for women and men.

So when a majority conservative court upheld the constitutional right to an abortion, not everyone noticed. It was met with both elation and sadness by people who had experienced or knew someone who had the procedure. For others, it would take years before realizing the full impact of the landmark court decision.

We asked readers about their memories of that time. For many of the dozen who responded, it was part of a larger coming of age, of understanding who they were as women, the rights available to them and the choices that would shape their lives.

Their reflections are especially relevant now, as Jan. 22 marks the 49th anniversary of Roe — and the decision faces its greatest threat in decades. The Supreme Court is poised to potentially overturn the landmark decision, in full or in part, when it reaches its decision on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban.

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Megan Zurawicz was 19 at the time of the decision. She had grown up in a Chicago suburb that leaned conservative — she remembers being bullied by her classmates for choosing John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon in an elementary school mock election.

In 1973, Zurawicz was at a crossroads: She was zealous about women’s rights and deeply invested in securing passage of the ERA. She was beginning to notice how social structures had impacted her mother and aunt’s lives.

It was also the year she left school to get married.

She had mixed feelings about Roe. She valued a woman’s autonomy, but saw the more pressing issues at the time as equal pay, equal rights and financial freedom. Zurawicz was also concerned about the message the decision would send: She said she was particularly disturbed by some young women she knew who spoke casually about getting an abortion.

Zurawicz, 68, now works for a company that provides care for the developmentally disabled and said those concerns ended up being unfounded. She is a staunch supporter of abortion rights, a transformation that happened soon after Roe, once she learned more about abortions and the circumstances under which people seek them, she said.

“I did not really register how impactful Roe was,” Zurawicz said. Now, she wants it to be “unretractable.”

Carol Crossed, 78, also did not pay much attention to Roe at the time.

“I was against abortion,” Crossed said. “It was just a nonissue for me.”

In 1973, Crossed was an antiwar activist and mother of three living in Rochester, N.Y. She was “not even aware” of the Supreme Court decision, though she learned about it “soon after.”

Crossed opposed abortion on the same grounds that she is against all forms of war and capital punishment: To her, a fetus at any stage is a human life, and it is wrong to take a life.

Still, the impact of Roe didn’t register, she said, in large part because she underestimated how widespread abortion was in the United States. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion research organization, the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s could have been anywhere from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year.

But while the early ’80s saw peaks in abortion rates (roughly 30 abortions per 1,000 women), this has declined over the last two decades, note Guttmacher researchers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that abortion rates hit a “historic low” in 2016, due in part to lower pregnancy rates and decreasing abortion access.

Crossed said she didn’t learn about how common the procedure was until the mid-1980s. And when she learned how deeply abortion rights was entrenched in the feminist movement, Crossed said she was taken aback: “I was just totally puzzled. I thought we were feminists because we wanted to protect life.”

Now the president of the antiabortion advocacy group Feminists Choosing Life of New York, Crossed views abortion in much the same way she views war: as a form of state-sanctioned violence.

“I think abortion is an individual violence, it’s one-on-one,” she said. “A nuclear war is going to destroy many people all at once, whereas I think abortion is just a progressive nuclear war. Day by day, destroying people slowly.”

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For some, Roe was significant because they were either familiar with the process of trying to get an illegal abortion, or knew women who suffered in their efforts to terminate their pregnancies.

One reader remembered being 15 at the time, and finding her mom “sobbing uncontrollably” at the news that Roe had legalized abortion.

“I asked her if she was crying with joy,” she wrote via our callout form. Her mom responded that she was crying for three friends who died in the last year from botched procedures.

The conversation changed the reader’s relationship with her mom, drawing them closer: “It would break her heart to see what is going on today,” she wrote.

In the early 1960s, Sarah Stuart McIlvain said she walked in on her roommate at Michigan State University with a knitting needle in her hand, attempting to give herself an abortion.

It was a shocking and formative experience for McIlvain, now 78, a “retired mother” and “third-generation Planned Parenthood” supporter. By the time Roe was decided, McIlvain had long supported abortion rights.

McIlvain recalls her roommate being “talked down” after having a conversation with her mother. Her roommate’s family, who McIlvain remembers as being well-connected, ended up finding a doctor who would terminate the pregnancy.

McIlvain sees that incident as a turning point in her fight for abortion rights: “It just reinforced everything I knew growing up. It was better to have than to have not, because then the rules were a little bit different for you.”

By 1973, McIlvain had observed the effects of illegal abortion for a decade. Job applications at the time asked applicants if they had ever done something illegal, and some women who had the procedure felt morally conflicted about whether to answer the question and how, she said.

When Roe affirmed the constitutional right to an abortion, McIlvain said she felt “phenomenal relief,” though she added that she wasn’t particularly surprised by the decision, even with an all-male, conservative majority at the Supreme Court.

“I’m sure each one of them knew a woman who died from an illegal abortion,” she said.

Donna Harrison remembers supporting the Roe decision when it came out.

A junior high school student at the time, Harrison considered herself “pro-choice”: “I thought abortion was simply about women being able to do with their bodies what they wanted.”

Her view of the issue was also shaped by the media, Harrison said. In her memory, “old male Catholics” were the spokesmen against abortion back then, and “the ongoing narrative” was that if someone wasn’t “pro-choice,” it was because they were ignorant.

Harrison saw herself as “a strong female who likes to do what I like to do,” she said. She knew she was not ignorant.

But her view of abortion shifted five years later, when she went off to college and studied biochemistry.

It was during a biology class her freshman year that Harrison began to see the beginning of life as starting with “the sperm-egg membrane fusion,” for all mammals — including humans.

“[It] became clear to me that there’s another human being that’s involved from the moment of fertilization,” she said.

It wasn’t an “aha!” moment, Harrison said — “it was little more painful than that, because I hate to be wrong.”

Harrison is now the chief executive of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, considered the largest nonsectarian antiabortion physician organization in the world. She considers the science “exquisitely clear” that fetuses are human beings, not simply a “blob of tissue.”

Byron Calhoun says abortion is never necessary to save a mother’s life. He’s the only high-risk OB/GYN in central West Virginia.

The larger medical community is divided on the issue of how “personhood” applies to embryos. Many medical professionals follow a “fetal viability” standard, which is when a fetus can survive outside of the uterus. Generally, this is considered to be at around 23 to 24 weeks.

Harrison thinks medical advances have helped convince others that fetuses ought to be protected: “Ultrasound has changed the narrative.”

As Roe hangs in the balance, readers who support abortion rights emphasized that the widespread illegality of abortion did not stop the procedure from happening before the Supreme Court decision. Lawmakers need to remember that “many women were dying from botched abortions done by unqualified individuals,” one woman wrote.

Those who terminated their pregnancies pre-Roe had sharp recollections of the culture of shame around abortions, as well as out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

When Suzanne Brunzie thinks of Roe, she thinks of the girls at her Catholic high school in Springfield, Ill., who “disappeared” — were pulled out of school — due to unplanned pregnancies.

Brunzie, 66, is a retired nurse living in the San Francisco Bay area; she still volunteers to help covid vaccination efforts. A graduating senior in 1973, Brunzie recalls feeling “relief” at the decision.

At the time, “I didn’t really understand what an abortion was,” she said. But, she added, she recognized that for some of her peers, the decision meant having more choices.

Brunzie said there were “no options whatsoever” when it came to family planning: “No birth control, no sex ed. Just a real clash between this message — you can be anything, you can be great, you can be involved in politics or march, but there’s this whole other side where you have no choices.”

It was understood among her peers that the girls who “disappeared” were probably taken out of school to finish their pregnancies, said Brunzie. And it happened to her friend, Mary.

Brunzie remembers sleepovers with Mary: how she would bring booze to pass around and “talk about the adventures she wanted to have.” Then, Mary got pregnant and was “whisked away” to a pregnancy center, Brunzie said. Also known as “maternity homes,” pregnancy centers housed young, unwed mothers to complete their pregnancies, out of sight of their families and communities.

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For Brunzie, Roe meant that a girl like Mary could have different choices — and, potentially, a different life.

Now, Brunzie thinks Roe hasn’t just helped people end their pregnancies, it has helped to remove the stigma and shame around sex and birth control.

“I don’t remember thinking heavily about my own personal choice,” said Brunzie, “but I remember thinking out there in the world, there’s got to be thousands and thousands of women who deserve an alternative.”