High-Profile Women Tell of Terrors of Illegal Abortion

Times Staff Writer

Actress Polly Bergen was the first to speak Saturday, frankly describing a day 40 years ago when she was driven “to some little house somewhere in downtown Los Angeles” and endured a kitchen table abortion.

Then, attorney Gloria Allred spoke of hemorrhaging until she was near death after a “botched abortion” in the 1960s. Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, recalled that when she was a teen-ager “to even think you might be pregnant was a horror you would not believe.”

These high-profile women and others gathered Saturday in the cozy comfort of a Coldwater Canyon home to remind their daughters and other women in their 20s about what life was like before abortion became legal in the United States in 1973.


Their quiet gathering was an attempt, Ripston said, to “fill in a generational memory gap,” about the importance of the pro-choice movement.

“Young women have grown up with this freedom and may not realize what it is like not to have it,” Ripston told the living-room meeting, which was organized by the ACLU and the Show Coalition, an entertainment industry political group. “But suddenly the government and others want to take it away from us.”

Next month, the Supreme Court plans to hear a Missouri case that could alter or overturn the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion. This week, the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue will bring thousands of its crusaders to protest at abortion clinics throughout Southern California.

Bergen spoke with a sense of urgency in her voice as she described her illegal abortion at 17, when she was a band singer alone in Los Angeles.

She remembers the money her friends gave her, she thinks it was in the hundreds of dollars. She said she has forgotten much of the details of “that day” except for the strange man and woman who stood over her as she lay on a kitchen table--performing an illegal operation that left her bleeding for a week and infertile for the rest of her life.

“I was forced to go through this because there were not other choices,” Bergen said, her two adopted daughters at her side. She said that being an adoptive parent “allows me to see this issue on all sides. . . . But I realize every woman has to make her own choice. I would never want that right taken away.”


To bolster Bergen’s point, Allred read a letter she has written to the Supreme Court describing her personal reason behind her public pro-choice activism.

Allred was a divorced schoolteacher when she had an abortion after being raped while visiting Mexico. The man who performed her abortion told her he would not be available if troubles arose. An infection developed, Allred’s temperature rose to 106 degrees and she said she had nearly bled to death before a friend took her to a hospital.

“The doctor (at the hospital) told me he didn’t care if I lived or died. The nurse told me this was my fault,” Allred said.