‘Abortion May Be Legal But…’: The Uneven Promise of ‘Roe’

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Culture & Conversation Abortion

‘Abortion May Be Legal But…’: The Uneven Promise of ‘Roe’

Nicole Knight

Two women, one who had an abortion pre-Roe and one who ended a pregnancy after, share their stories.

Aziza Jones sat in a row of folding chairs with more than a dozen women in the basement of Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. Around her, the talk was of abortion.

It was 2012. Jones, 33 at the time, was getting an abortion that day.

Outside, it was dreary spring day. Inside, women who had ended a pregnancy in the past offered reassurance to those undergoing abortion care for the first time, Jones recalled.

“I felt like, OK, people do this every day,” Jones, now 38, recently told Rewire by phone. “It’s a safe procedure. It’s not so stigmatizing that people feel they can’t talk to other people about it.”

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Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision, ushered in decades of safe, legal abortion care. Terminating a pregnancy today comes with fewer complications than wisdom tooth removal, and is many times safer than childbirth.

Inherent in the decades-old decision was this promise: that Americans of reproductive age could live the lives of their choosing. To plan their families. To space their children. To choose parenthood, or not.

Before Roe, “abortion wasn’t something people discussed,” Rosalyn Levy Jonas told Rewire in a recent interview. Jonas, now 70, ended her pregnancy before the Supreme Court ruling, in 1966.

Rosalyn Levy Jonas

“My life was about to unfold ahead of me,” Jonas said recently of her decades-old decision. “I was 19. I didn’t want a baby.”

She and Jones, who is around half her age, stand as counterpoints to the pre- and post-Roe era.

Today, as we mark the ruling’s 44th anniversary, it’s fair to say the promise of Roe has yielded uneven results.

***

In 1966, Rosalyn Levy Jonas was working for a congressman on Capitol Hill.

Around the nation, protesters marched against the Vietnam War. Gas was 32 cents a gallon. Mini skirts were the rage.

Jonas had her first boyfriend. She knew nothing about birth control. Then, her period was late.

“I’m freaking out because what am I supposed to do,” Jonas said. She didn’t tell her family about the pregnancy. Instead, she shared the news with a friend at Goucher College in Maryland, who told her where to turn for help.

“It turns out there was a pipeline from Goucher where all the girls went to this one gynecologist in downtown Baltimore.”

The gynecologist gave Jonas a small white piece of a paper with just a phone number. No name.

Jonas called.

“Somebody answered, somebody said it’ll be $600 in cash,” Jonas recalled. “$600 is thousands of dollars today.” They told her to stand outside a movie theater on Eutaw Street in Baltimore on a certain day.

Jonas scraped together the money from friends, but the day before her procedure she was $200 short.

***

Aziza Jones, a self-described word nerd and traveler, has lived her entire life in a post-Roe era. So in 2012, when her home pregnancy test turned out positive, her first call was to Planned Parenthood.

Aziza Jones

Aziza Jones

“Planned Parenthood is what everyone kind of knows about going to have an abortion and other reproductive health options,” said Jones, who was living in Chicago at the time. Her boyfriend was far away in another city. He already had two children, and he left the decision to her.

Jones recalled Planned Parenthood told her a first-trimester abortion would cost $400 to $450.

“There was no way I could afford that with rent, groceries, and everything else,” she said.

Jones, who was 33 at the time, had recently been laid off and was making ends meet with part-time work. She didn’t have health insurance.

The Roe decision was followed by one of the earliest significant curbs on legal abortion access: a federal funding ban on abortion called the Hyde Amendment. The amendment means that the nation’s poorest women, those without health insurance through their employer, who rely on government health insurance via Medicaid, cannot get abortion coverage, except in a few instances. Of the seven million Medicaid enrollees subject to the Hyde Amendment, more than half are women of color.

Hyde’s restrictions fall heaviest on women who need abortion coverage the most. Women who are financially struggling experience higher rates of unintended pregnancy, due to limited contraceptive access and other factors. A University of California-San Francisco study of women seeking abortion care found that for more than half of the women, the out-of-pocket costs (medical expense, travel, and lodging, if necessary) were equivalent to more than one-third of their monthly income.

The receptionist at Planned Parenthood suggested Jones try other area providers, including the Cook County Hospital, which operates a reproductive health unit, with lower costs.

Jones called Cook County Hospital. They told her the abortion would cost between $50 and $75.

***

Rosalyn Levy Jonas had one day to come up with $200. She dialed her boyfriend’s parents and told them she was having an abortion. Would they help?

They drove from their Virginia Beach home to Washington, D.C., and gave her boyfriend $600. The next day, he dropped her off at the movie theater on Eutaw Street. She waited, alone.

A man pulled up in a sedan.

“He could have been a serial killer, for all I know,” she remembered. “He had a dog though, a black dog in the front seat with him. I figured it must be ok.”

They drove less than an hour, out into the countryside, until they arrived at a white farmhouse surrounded by a field.

Inside, there was a bed, a table with stirrups, and little else. An older woman told her to change and lie down.

Before Roe v. Wade, as many as 800,000 (mostly illegal) abortions were performed nationally each year, although good statistics from the era are hard to come by. A 1994 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology indicated that the number of women who died from illegal abortion dropped from 39 in 1972, a year before Roe, to two in 1976. That number of confirmed deaths is likely to be an undercount, since abortion’s illegality discouraged women seeking medical care and, as a result, accurate reporting.

Today, abortion care is about four times safer than a tonsillectomy. Complications occur in nearly of one-third of childbirths, but only 2 percent of abortions.

Jonas never got a good look at her doctor. His face was covered with a surgical hat and mask. She said the procedure didn’t take very long and was “very matter of fact.” She wasn’t anesthetized.

“I remember thinking I was really cold,” she said. “My knees were shaking.”

She was handed a sanitary pad, and soon found herself back in the sedan, headed to Eutaw Street.

“I just didn’t think about it,” she said of the experience. “I pulled the window shade down on it, and I was done with it. I was hugely relieved.”

***
On the day of her abortion, the words of the song “Fighter,” an empowerment anthem by Christina Aguilera, rang through Aziza Jones’ head. She arrived at Cook County Hospital at 6 a.m.

In previous visits, she’d had a pregnancy test, blood work, and had spoken to a counselor. The hospital offered medication abortion, which is pill-induced, and aspiration abortion; she had opted for the latter. On this day, she had a sonogram, then spent much of the day waiting.

Thinking back, Jones told Rewire she was grateful that she hadn’t had to overcome the obstacles that other pregnant people face, like taking time off of work, finding child care, or traveling far from home. Illinois doesn’t impose a waiting period for abortion care or mandate counseling, unlike some states.

In restrictive states, obstacles to accessing abortion care are leading more women to take matters in their own hands. A 2015 study by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project found that as many as 240,000 in that state had attempted in-home abortions.

Just before 3 in the afternoon, Jones and the others who were having abortions were directed down to a basement waiting room. She remembered sitting in a row of folding chairs with about 20 women.

“We changed into our gowns, they sat us down, then one person instructed us to take these pills,” Jones said.

They were told the pills softened the uterine lining, making it easier to perform the procedure. The pills were likely mifepristone.

“The person instructing us said once you take these pills you can’t go back, you can’t opt out of an abortion,” Jones said.

One woman said she’d changed her mind and left. Jones sat and waited. One by one, women were called in for the procedure.

“They would go to the back. You’d hear a little machine come on, hear a little suction, and then the person would come out and go to another room,” she said.

“I remember that I was humming [“Fighter”] to drown out people’s voices,” she said.

The song’s lyrics talk about becoming stronger, wiser, a fighter.

“When I actually got on the table to have the abortion, that song was running through my head.”

***

Looking back, now five years later, Aziza Jones said she was sad after her abortion, but didn’t second-guess her decision.

“If I had to do it over, I definitely would,” she said. “It was the best decision for me.”

Rosalyn Levy Jonas, meanwhile, said her abortion left her feeling relieved.

But, she said, “I would hate for anyone at all to have the same experience.”

Rewire met Jonas recently in a Los Angeles, where she was visiting one of her daughters. In the decades since her abortion, Jonas has championed reproductive rights, and she is former chair of the board of the advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America. By telling her story, she has shifted the stance of at least one formerly anti-choice lawmaker.

For all its promise, however, Roe has proven to be an imperfect backstop against a tide of state-level restrictions on legal abortion care. During the last 20 years, legislatures in a growing number of deeply red states have enacted 932 anti-choice measures. Fifteen states have banned abortion care at 20 weeks, a restriction that flies in the face of Roe‘s constitutional guarantees.

Four states—Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota—have instituted “trigger” bans to instantly outlaw abortion care in anticipation of the eventual overturning of Roe v. Wade. Other states are sure to follow, emboldened by a president-elect who told 60 Minutes he’d like to punish women who have abortions and intends to pack the Supreme Court with Roe opponents.

As such, the reproductive rights landscape is expected to worsen—a fact that the nation, which has spent more than four decades in the Roe era, is realizing. On Election Day, one of the top searches on Google was “abortion.”

“It’s a very different climate for people who would be in my situation today,” Jonas acknowledged. “Abortion may be legal but … there are many states where the impediments to it, you almost can’t get past them.”