State Rep. Nick Schroer, a Republican sponsor of the bill, argued that the state’s lawmakers had an obligation to “save as many lives as we can.”
The problem is, these new antiabortion laws are not going to save lives. They’re going to take them. Abortions will not stop happening: Women will have them whether they are illegal or not. But performing self-abortions or finding a practitioner willing to break the law creates profound risks for women’s health. And history shows that the consequences of illegal abortions — increased costs, difficulty finding a provider and more severe repercussions, both legal and extralegal — fall disproportionately on poor women, people of color, non-binary people and transgender men.
Abortions were common and legal in the United States until the mid- to late 1800s, when states began rapidly passing antiabortion laws. By 1880, abortions were illegal nationwide, yet tens of thousands of women from all classes still had them. One physician in 1911 claimed, “Those who apply for abortions are from every walk of life, from the factory girl to the millionaire’s daughter; from the laborer’s wife to that of the banker.”
Wealthier women had several advantages, however. They had their own private physicians and the ability to pay the high fees charged for illegal abortions. They also had access to birth control, which was also often illegal, which made abortion only a backup plan for them.
These were luxuries other women could not afford. In 1916, a working-class woman in Chicago explained that she had an abortion because she and her husband “had enough children and wanted something done so we would not have to support another.” Another woman wrote in the Birth Control Review in 1918 that her three daughters all had frequent abortions because “they will be better dead than to live in hell with a big family and nothing to raise them on.”
The need to regulate family size continued to be a major driver of illegal abortion for the next half-century. In 1983, Diane Sands conducted oral histories with 10 women who had abortions in Montana before it was legalized in 1973. All of the women emphasized that they wanted children, but only when they had the ability and resources to raise them.
One of the women, who went by E.M., had three abortions in the early 1930s, in the first few years of her marriage. She tried all kinds of birth control methods, including cold water or turpentine douches, condoms and diaphragms, but she still got pregnant multiple times. During the Depression, she and her husband felt it was unethical to have children that they would be unable to provide for. E.M. found an abortion provider with the help of her pharmacist and endured all of them without painkillers.
E.M. wasn’t alone in this era. By the Great Depression era, the demand for abortions increased, and at least 681,000 abortions were happening per year in the United States. Even though abortions were still generally banned, medical attitudes toward abortion softened for those in poverty, and an increasing number of physicians began performing illegal abortions.
By the 1950s, however, it became harder and more expensive for women to find safe abortions, and the illegal nature of the procedure put vulnerable women in dangerous situations. Author Joyce Johnson wrote about her abortion in 1955 in her memoir “Minor Characters.” She was 22 and making $50 a week when she got pregnant from a one-night-stand. Given the illegal nature of the procedure, knowledge of how to procure an abortion almost always came from friends. Joyce finally found someone who knew of a doctor, but he’d only give her the doctor’s name if she had a drink with him at the bar.
When she met the doctor, she asked him to perform her abortion on a Friday so her mom wouldn’t find out. He said that Fridays cost extra. The doctor charged Joyce $500, money she had to borrow from her friend who borrowed it from her wealthy boyfriend. Her doctor yelled at her throughout the process, trying to get Joyce to cancel the procedure. Despite the obstacles, she persisted, a sign of how important the decision was to her.
The obstacles were even higher for women of color. Several of the women interviewed in Montana claimed that in one town, there was an abortionist who “worked on coloreds and immigrants” while another worked “on the respectable women.” While white, middle-class women had access to clergy services to help them secure abortions, “the women who really needed the help” did not, explained the Rev. Charles Straut of New Jersey to The Washington Post in 1989. The church’s “counseling service” could help find “a whole lot of $400 abortions, and a whole lot of $1,000 and $2,000 dollar abortions,” he reflected, “but we couldn’t find any abortions for free.” And so the poorest women received “back-alley abortions done with coat hangers.”
I had an abortion of my own four years ago, and it is striking how similar my abortion story is to these historical accounts. I had to rush to find a provider, and I had to ask around to find the money to pay for it. My experience also resonated with theirs in another way: Like me, all 10 women said they were relieved after their abortions, despite feeling societal pressures to feel guilty. One interviewee claimed: “Now I’m aware how demeaning that was, that the whole thing was so shameful. You had to go away, you had to keep it a secret, you had to pretend it never happened.”
For more than 100 years, antiabortion laws have functioned as a physical, mental and economic attack on women, with the burden falling most heavily of the most vulnerable. This new wave of laws criminalizing abortion will do the same. While we fight to keep access to abortion legal throughout the United States, then, we must also work to support the women most harmed by these laws, with funding, transportation, informational resources and defense funds. That is how, unlike the Missouri legislators, we will “save as many lives as we can” — by blunting the effects of their life-threatening legislation.