Op-Ed: I’ve had an illegal abortion and a legal abortion. The experiences couldn’t have been more different

A demonstrator holds up a sign contrasting a coat hanger with a medical pill
A demonstrator stands outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday, two days after a leaked draft opinion indicated the court is poised to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

There is a huge difference between illegal and legal abortions. I know. I had one of each.

In 1960 when I was 19 and living with my boyfriend, a medical resident at Yale University hospital, I got pregnant. Thirteen years before Roe vs. Wade, in Connecticut the only ground for abortion was if the mother’s life were endangered. My boyfriend knew a doctor in his hometown of Philadelphia who agreed to perform a midnight abortion, and so he drove me through darkened streets late one evening. He dropped me at the door of the shuttered office. The doctor was alone, brusque, clearly uncomfortable. This was not a procedure he did regularly but was performing as a favor.

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“Lie down,” he instructed. I opened my legs and he began scraping my uterus with a curette. The pain was so excruciating and the sound so terrible I moaned, then screamed. The doctor clamped his hand over my mouth and admonished: “Shut up!”

When my boyfriend picked me up for the drive home, I was bleeding, wrapped in towels. For days I continued to hemorrhage, losing big red chunks of tissue. Finally it stopped and, since we were breaking up anyway, I soon left for a Catskills summer camp job. For the next few weeks cramps kept me awake each night, until finally the pain was so strong I hitched a ride to the nearest hospital and staggered into the emergency room. When I told the attending doctor about the abortion, he thundered, “Your pain is God’s punishment. And you will never have children! Your tubes are sealed.”


It turned out I had severe pelvic infection, with high fever, because the aborting doctor had not ensured a sterile environment. For many miserable days I lay recovering in the hospital, where the admitting doctor took every opportunity to scold me for my sin.

Five years later, married by then, I became pregnant again. This time the news was a joyful occasion, especially since I’d been told I would never be able to conceive. Thrilled with our baby daughter, in two years my husband and I welcomed another child, a son.

In 1974, when these children were in elementary school, I became pregnant again despite using a diaphragm for birth control. Knowing I could not care for a third child while teaching full time and taking night classes, and with my marriage growing rocky, I made an abortion appointment at a Planned Parenthood clinic in New York, where we lived. Arriving in daylight, I encountered pleasant nurses in a clean, well-lit space. After the torture of my first abortion, the brief, painless vacuum aspiration process, and the kindness of my providers, astonished me.

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My abortions were difficult and frightening decisions to make. Like all medical procedures, abortion carries some risk, though it is considerably less risky than childbirth. But no matter what the law says, women who often bear the sole responsibility for children will continue to seek and find abortions. When they are legal it’s an easy, safe procedure. When women are driven — as I was — to find practitioners in the shadows who may lack specific training or sterile conditions, or when we try to self-abort without medical support, the risk increases. And like people forced into any underground activity, we are vulnerable.

A 16-year-old babysitter I occasionally employed in 1966 had an abortion pre-Roe vs. Wade. It was expensive, as well as dangerous, and she had to borrow the $400 from family, friends and me. The so-called doctor she drove 500 miles to see raped her. But she had no recourse, since the medical procedure she needed was considered illegal.


I am 81 years old now, with no personal stake in abortions. But I know the disastrous consequences for younger women — including, potentially, my 22-year-old granddaughter — if we outlaw them again.

We must keep abortion safe. And to do that, it must be legal.

Joan Steinau Lester is the author of six books, most recently the award-winning memoir “Loving Before Loving: A Marriage in Black and White.”