Devery H. had an illegal abortion in South Carolina in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade gave women the right to choose. Today, she is a 69-year-old retired medical scientist living in Pennsylvania. In light of states such as Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri enacting measures that reproductive rights advocates consider de facto bans on abortion, Devery is speaking up about the risks she took to terminate her pregnancy illegally. This is her story, as told to Andrea González-Ramírez.
It was 1970 and I had recently left home. I was 19 and I was estranged from my family, so I was supporting myself, working and going to school, trying to put myself through college. One week, I felt sick, and I had no idea what was wrong with me, so I went to the student health centre. Unbeknownst to me, they did a pregnancy test and it came back positive.
I was in total shock. I was very inexperienced, we had no sex education back in those days, and [you only knew about reproductive health] based on what you could find to read or what people told you. Back in those days, the worst thing that could happen was that you became pregnant. We didn’t have to worry about HIV/AIDS, most sexually transmitted diseases were curable, so the big fear was getting pregnant. When that happened to me, I was just totally in shock. I was living alone and there’s no way I could possibly go through a pregnancy and support someone else — I was barely taking care of myself. The only way, for me, was terminating the pregnancy. I couldn’t imagine anything else.
Luckily, I was able to find someone in the underground who had a connection with someone who could do the abortion — a back-alley type of abortion. It was in the middle of the night and we drove out to this motel, somewhere out in the country. I had no idea where we were. I was scared to death, but I didn’t feel like there was any alternative for me. I was determined to do what I needed to do. They took me into a room and there was a guy there. He called himself a doctor, but to this day I have no idea if he was a doctor or not.
It was in the middle of the night and we drove out to this motel, somewhere out in the country. I had no idea where we were. I was scared to death, but I didn’t feel like there was any alternative for me.
He inserted this red rubber tube [inside me] and it was supposed to induce the abortion a few days later, which it did. After that, I had some side effects, with a lot of bleeding. I finally went to the gynaecologist, another man, who scolded me and made me feel ashamed because I had to tell him what I had done. He treated me for the bleeding. After that, I went on with my chaotic life. Mentally, it was a huge relief. I didn’t really look back that much, because I knew I had done the right thing. I was just glad it was over. I went on with my life, and I was able to have two children, go to school, and have a career that might have not happened if I had been a single mom at age 20 with no money.
[These abortion bans] make me feel furious, angry, and betrayed. I’m sort of incredulous that this could be happening again. And, you know what? I don’t know if this is really about abortion anyway. These are mostly white men who want to keep women from having any type of power. I don’t like the term "pro-life" because that’s not what it is. It’s anti-abortion and it’s anti-women. Poor women and women of colour are going to be more impacted than affluent white women.
It has been almost 50 years since I had my illegal abortion, and it’s unimaginable that women would go back to those days. Abortions are not going to stop just because they are illegal. They are just going to be unsafe. Women who are desperate, like I was, are going to do what they have to do to find someone who can do the procedure. At least now, there’s the medical-abortion option, which didn’t exist back then. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, heaven forbid, I don’t think it’s going to be like back then. There will be a lot more support for women and more pushback [against these bans]. But nevertheless, I was one of those who survived. Some of my sisters back then did not. It makes me furious.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Devery's surname has been withheld to protect her identity.