CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Four years ago, Fran Moreland Johns realized that she better write her abortion story down so that young women could read it. “I decided to record some of the stories of people like me, who had abortions before Roe, because we’re dying off!” Moreland Johns explained.
But when she started doing the research for a potential book, and collecting stories from women who had chosen to have risky abortions, her focus quickly changed. She realized that writing about unsafe abortions didn’t just involve talking to women who ended a pregnancy four decades ago. Young women today are still having similar experiences, even while Roe v. Wade stands.
“I very quickly began hearing the same stories happening right now — and I thought, oh my lord, we’re going right back there,” Moreland Johns said. “So it became more of a cause than a book.”
Moreland Johns’ book, Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before — and after — Roe v. Wade, ended up including a mix of stories from women of all ages. For instance, one of the women who agreed to be interviewed, Trish, had an illegal abortion in 1946 with the help of a compassionate physician who recorded it as an appendectomy. Another interview subject, Rachel, landed in the hospital in 2009 after she took an abortion-inducing drug obtained by her boyfriend. Carol, a mother of four, had an illegal abortion in the early 1960s after she became pregnant in the midst of going through a divorce. Meanwhile, Mandy didn’t have the money for a legal abortion in 2009 and now has two children under the age of two with serious health problems.
“I hate to be a pessimist, but all I see is things getting worse,” Moreland Johns said. “What propelled Roe was that we had dead women everywhere. It became hard for anybody to ignore the fact that people were dying because they didn’t have safe options. Now, people are still dying, but it’s different. It may not be a problem in major cities. But if you’re poor, if you’re a minority, if you live too far away — you don’t have any choices. So you do desperate things.”
That may be supported by Moreland Johns’ anecdotal evidence, but it’s also backed up by research in the field. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the global rate of unsafe abortions has actually been on the rise since 1995. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a direct relationship between the countries with harsh abortion bans and the countries where women are resorting to dangerous methods of ending a pregnancy. Even though abortion is technically legal in this country, the United States isn’t exempt from this trend. Women here are increasingly buying abortion-inducing drugs on the internet and trying to end pregnancies on their own.
This is a particularly big problem in areas with high rates of poverty and significant barriers to legal abortion clinics. For instance, the rate of self-induced abortions in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley — an impoverished border community that lacks access to basic health services — is one of the highest in the nation. Now that Texas has enacted harsh new restrictions on abortion that are forcing dozens of clinics to close, the situation is getting even worse. Women are increasingly crossing the border into Mexico to buy abortion pills on the black market.
“Those are the people who are hurt. They’re poor, they’re rural, they don’t have any power,” Moreland Johns pointed out. “That’s what moves me and keeps me moving on this.”
And just like doctors in the decades before Roe had to pretend to perform a different procedure in order to help women end a pregnancy, some medical professionals are still unable to provide safe abortion care out in the open. The anti-choice community has turned its attention to abortion doctors, attempting to make it too difficult for them to continue practicing, and unnecessary regulations are increasingly resulting in doctors’ licenses getting yanked. In order to ensure women don’t die from black market abortion drugs, doctors can legally provide “miscarriage management” even if they’re not allowed to perform abortions.
It makes sense, then, that the women who had abortions before Roe aren’t the only ones noticing a dangerous effort to roll back those rights. Last year, a group of one hundred OB-GYNs published an op-ed warning that women’s access to legal abortion has regressed further than doctors who were alive during the 1970s believed would ever be possible.
Moreland Johns doesn’t have a background in activism, and she says she didn’t set out to do anything dramatic. But she wanted to help women tell their stories, and try to put a human face on the desperate need for legal abortion rights.
“You didn’t talk about it in the olden days, and I’m afraid people still don’t,” Moreland Johns, who shared her own abortion story for the first time in Perilous Times, noted. “There’s still a huge amount of shame and guilt attached to having had a perfectly legal abortion for perfectly good reasons. That’s part of what slows down the movement for rights, and I think we have to change that.”
Other reproductive rights advocates agree. There’s a growing movement to eliminate the persistent stigma surrounding abortion by creating safe spaces for women to tell their stories. Activists are encouraging the estimated one in three U.S. women who have had abortions to help other people understand that it’s an issue that impacts a huge swath of the country — and eventually encourage policy change in this area.
And some women like Moreland Johns, who had abortions before the procedure was legalized, are using their stories as cautionary tales to remind Americans that 1.2 million women used to resort to unsafe abortions every year before Roe v. Wade.
“We can’t ban it and have it go away. If we ban it, people will die,” Moreland Johns said. “I hope we don’t ever give up and abandon women as they were abandoned before 1973. That’s my hope.”