HOW I GOT ARRESTED FOR AN ILLEGAL ABORTION:
I wish I had known that night spent in jail that the worst night of my life would lead to some of the most exciting moments of my life.
It began some time at the beginning of April 1962. I had been going steady with the captain of the Hunter College in the Bronx swim team since January, and on this day were at Queens College for a swimming meet. If you’ve never been to a swimming meet you might not know that they are the biggest sexual turn on of any sport. The guys are all wearing skimpy nylon Speedos that get practically transparent when wet. They all have amazing bodies that are strong and lanky from the hours of swimming practice and the fact that they are 19 to 21 years old. The heat of the pool and the smell of the chlorine are an intoxicating mixture.
Mike won two silver medals that day, which he gave to me, and we both agreed that silver was more ethnic than gold. While we waited for the long distance events to finish so that we could ride back on the bus with the team, we snuck into an empty student lounge we found unlocked. Because we both lived at home we were used to finding out of the way places to get together. Mike pulled a condom out of his shirt pocket.
“It looks as though my mother washed this with my shirt,”
“Oh well,” is what I said, as we threw caution to the wind.
Two weeks later when I missed my period, I tracked it back to that day in Queens. Every day when I saw Mike in school he would as me “cheverai?” That was our code for “did you get your period yet?” It wasn’t too much after that that my breasts got tender and I knew I was pregnant. I tried every homemade concoction I had ever heard about, cod liver oil, quinine, hot baths and jumping up and down. Nothing worked.
I didn’t want to have this baby. I was 19 years old, a sophomore in college, the first one in my family to ever go to college. To have to drop out because I was knocked up would be huge disgrace in 1962, a year that was more like the 50’s than the 60’s. If other people were having sex, they never talked about it.
We talked about the idea of going to California and Mike becoming a life guard, but we really both wanted to find a way to erase what was just a huge mistake. Mike knew a girl from Orchard Beach who had had an illegal abortion and she gave him a list of ten abortion doctors in the city.
The next two weeks we walked around the city and had nine doors slammed in our face. “No, the doctor does not do that” we were told over and over. The heat was on abortion doctors then because a girl in New Rochelle had died during a procedure and the doctor had cut her body in pieces and put her down the sewer, but they found her.
Finally a doctor on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx agreed to do the procedure for $550, which is probably the equivalent of $2,000 today. Mike had some money saved up from his summer job, but not enough. We went to Harlem and pawned my accordion for $25; his friend Henry sold his entire record collection.
The doctor’s office was on the 13th floor of a fancy apartment building that took up an entire square block. The doctor also had an ordinary practice, and his Jewish seventy-year old face gave me confidence. He took me into a room with a table with stirrups. He told me not to make any noise. Then without any anesthesia of any kind he proceeded to scrape the inside of my uterus for half an hour. It hurt, but not as much as childbirth.
Mike was in the waiting room, writing a suicide note. He decided that if I died he would jump out of the window. When it was over the doctor said to Mike, “take her out for a steak dinner.” He gave Mike $20 back so that if infection set in he could buy antibiotics.
We got into the elevator and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. The feeling of euphoria lasted until we got out on the street. Then the cops surrounded us. They had the whole block filled with cops and cop cars. They put Mike in one car and me in another. They drove me to a doctor who examined me for evidence. The two Irish cops were saying to me, “why couldn’t he just be a man and marry you?”
“Because I didn’t want to get married.”
They booked me at the 44th precinct in the Bronx. They tried to find out who my parents were, but I insisted that I was an orphan. I didn’t want my parents to find out about this. They always believed I wasn’t that kind of girl.
They put me in a jail cell with a box of Kotex. I used them for a pillow. I lay there the whole night and sang Joan Baez songs to myself.
In the morning they brought us downtown to be fingerprinted and photographed. I would love to see the mug shot of the defiant girl I was then. We were released to the recognizance of our parents. (Mike had told them who my parents were.)
The page two story in the New York Post was "HUNTER CO-EDS CAUGHT IN ABORTION RING." Because we were only 19 they couldn’t publish our names, but a reporter had gotten my mother to reveal details so that if you knew us it was easy to figure out which Orchard Beach lifeguard was going with a girl who was who was one of four children. My brother went around our apartment building removing everyone’s paper so that our neighbors couldn’t read about me.
It is impossible for me to explain what it feels like to know that everyone is talking about you behind your back, but afraid to say anything to your face. Abortion as something that no one talked about. This all seems like such ancient times. After that, the only acknowledgment I had that everyone knew what was going on was that when someone else got pregnant they always came to me to find the name of a doctor.
During that spring we had to keep going back to court as the matter kept getting postponed. Finally the charges were dropped because the doctor had hired a top Mafia lawyer.
One of the highlights of my life was getting to be on the Oprah show. She was doing an abortion show to coincide with the HBO movie, “If These Walls Could Talk”. The producers of the show called my friend Ellen Messer because she had written a book filled with abortion stories. They asked her if she knew anyone who would be willing to share a poignant abortion story. She said my story immediately sprang to mind. She asked me if I was interested in going on the Oprah Show. I started jumping around the room. “I’d love it.” This was the show I took my four o’clock nap to every day. I was always interested in finding ways to share my story, especially with young girls who had o clue to the way things used to be. The Oprah Show was seen worldwide. The producer, Teresa, called me to get the facts of my story. When she heard that I have been married for 35 years and have two children with the boy who I had the abortion with, she invited him to be on show she invited him to be on the show as well.
We both loved getting driven to the airport in a stretch limo and having a all-expense trip to Chicago, staying in a fancy suite, with dinner in the hotel restaurant. We were on the same who as Demi Moore, Cher and Sissy Spacek. I had someone to do my makeup and hair.
Oprah introduced us as “college sweethearts.” As I was telling our story, they flashed a photo of the two of us on the beach in 1962 and a photo of the whole family at my daughter Jill’s wedding.
After the show Demi, Cher and Sissy all came over to hug me. Demi said, “I admire your courage.” Does it get much better than that?
The next day I had friends come over to watch on my TV. My daughter called from the emergency room where she was working to say that all her co-workers had stopped what they were doing to watch, and she was very proud of me. The day after my exercise class applauded as I walked in. I felt like the Rosa Parks of the right-to-choose movement.
The worst experience of my life had been transformed into one of the most important. It helps me to feel that I am a part of history. It was that abortion that enabled me to have the children I wanted when I wanted them. I was able to graduate from college. I was able to enjoy young married life in a studio apartment in Manhattan and have children when I was ready to accept the responsibility and move to a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.