Fearing Court Ruling, Woman Tells of Illegal Abortion : Remembering Days Before Roe vs. Wade

Columbia News Service

Beulah, a 74-year-old widow from New York City, remembers the one time she broke the law as if it were yesterday. Forty-three years ago, she had an abortion.

“I was greeted at the door by a woman in white. She asked me for the money--$800--and led me to the kitchen to a man wearing a surgical mask who one assumes was a doctor.”

Women like Beulah, who went to untrained “back alley” abortionists, do not want to see the days of illegal abortion return.

Spoke at Manhattan Forum


Recently Beulah spoke at a Manhattan forum that marked the 16th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision declaring abortion legal throughout the country. Though she used her full name at the forum, Beulah did not want to give her last name for this story because she has come to fear reprisals from anti-abortion groups.

The Supreme Court last week began weighing a Missouri statute designed to limit access to abortion. The Reagan Administration had asked the Supreme Court to use the statute to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

“I think that we have to get as many people as possible to fight against its overturn,” Beulah said. “Abortions should be performed under legal, safe, sanitary conditions at low cost with counseling.”

There are no accurate figures available for the number of abortions performed secretly before 1973, when Roe vs. Wade was decided. In 1985, 1.3 million abortions were performed in the United States, according to the latest data available from the National Center for Health Statistics. Of 272 pregnancy-related deaths in 1986, three were the result of abortions.


Most provisions of the Missouri statute, which could limit public funds for abortions or counseling about the procedure, were struck down by the federal district court in Missouri and the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court is now faced with the appeal.

Married People Also

“Nowadays, many people think that it’s just the young, single people who need abortions. But married, mature people need them too,” Beulah said.

Beulah and her husband had been married nine years when they discovered that she was pregnant again. They already had two children. Beulah worked as a secretary before she started rearing her family. Her husband was a salesman. Money was tight--they could not afford to rear another child, Beulah said. Though they discussed an abortion, her husband left the decision to her. Beulah does not regret her choice.

“We did not know what the future held. We had just come through the Depression and World War II,” Beulah said last year during an interview on the “Sally Jessy Raphael” television talk show. “I wanted to bring up two children, who are now adults and parents on their own, whom I wanted to take care of properly from all angles. And we felt that if we had more, or I felt that if we had more, we could not bring them up properly and nurture them and care for them the way they should have been cared for.”

Using the pseudonym “Cecile,” Beulah appeared on the talk show with a representative of the National Abortion Rights Action League and the leader of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group that stages protests at abortion clinics. Operation Rescue members try to prevent women scheduled for abortions from entering the clinics.

“It’s those who tend to be poor or low income who are hit” when access to abortion is limited, said Judy Epstein, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit health agency. “The people who are wealthier can pretty much find a way to have it handled.”

Beulah said she worries about the position the Supreme Court might take on the Missouri statute. As a volunteer at Harlem Hospital, she cares for babies abandoned by their parents.


“The babies just languish in the hospital,” Beulah said. “They don’t get adopted, and they don’t get foster care.”