The movie Dirty Dancing — aka The Greatest Movie of All Time — recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, and I’m pretty sure I’ve watched it no less than 40 times. The movie is best known for its unforgettable one-liners (“Nobody puts Baby in a corner”) and a sexy-as-hell Patrick Swayze, but perhaps the most powerful thing about the movie is the raw, accurate, and unapologetic way it shines a light on the horrors pre-Roe abortions.
You know the story: Penny — the lithe dancer at the tony Catskills resort where Baby and her family are vacationing (important side note: They are rich enough to use vacation as a verb) — gets pregnant after a brief tryst with sleazy douchebag Robbie.
Long story short, Penny gets an illegal abortion and nearly dies. But the storyline is rife with nuances that highlight just how dangerous, unjust, and barbaric pre-Roe abortions were. Eleanor Bergstein, the film’s screenwriter, told Glamour that the storyline almost didn’t make it into the movie because of the controversy surrounding abortion, but she insisted that it be kept in.
Even though abortion rates are at historic lows, the current administration and other politicians want to restrict a woman’s right to choose at the federal and state level. There is talk of repealing Roe v. Wade, which would transfer authority back to the states.
On its face, this might not seem problematic because, undoubtedly, some states would pass legislation that supports a woman’s right to choose and regulate safe abortions. But it is also possible that some states would make abortion illegal or severely limit the ability of a woman to get a safe abortion. One state’s policies might differ significantly from those of another, which would require women to travel great distances to obtain safe medical treatment — a luxury that many women simply do not have.
Since some of us weren’t even alive when Roe was decided, and many of us have taken it for granted most of our lives (seriously, how are we still talking about this?), let’s take a stroll down (bad) memory lane to consider what women’s health looked like in the pre-Roe era, so that we can understand what life might be like in the present if the government repeals it.
Before the Supreme Court made abortion legal in all 50 states in Roe v. Wade, state legislatures were authorized to decide abortion rights. As Cosmopolitan points out, in 1970, just three years before Roe was decided, only four states had legalized abortions, and even in those states where abortion was legal, politicians could create severe restrictions on a woman’s right to actually get an abortion.
In a video produced by The Scene, along with the help of the 1 in 3 Campaign, several women tell their pre-Roe abortion stories, and although each of their stories is different, every single one is chilling and heartbreaking.
There is Jane, who after being raped while in college, chose to have an abortion in 1968 by an abortionist after the hospital refused to do it. The unscrupulous “doctor” failed to remove all the tissue, and she suffered a massive infection and was hospitalized for two weeks.
“The doctor said basically I was seven hours away from death,” Jane said. Due to scar tissue, she was unable to conceive again.
Connie, another woman in the video, was only 16-years-old when she had an abortion, which she described as being scooped out “as if I were a piece of fruit or something.” After the procedure, she was instructed not to let boys touch her while the abortionist molested her.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to give you any anesthetic, and if you scream, they’ll hear you,’” Connie said. “The pain was so outrageous that I do remember leaving my body. I didn’t scream, but it was the feeling that I was up out of my body, looking down on it.”
In 1965, Dr. Samuels was a medical intern at a small hospital in Brooklyn. In the short time she was there, she witnessed three deaths as a result of unsafe abortions. She tells the story of a patient whose uterus and bowel were ruptured during a hanger abortion, which resulted in septic shock. Another woman, who was the mother of two young children and couldn’t afford a third, died of tetanus after a botched abortion. The third was a woman who bled out because she was afraid to go to the emergency room due to the stigma of having gotten an abortion.
Even the so-called “lucky ones” — the women who had the resources, access, and support necessary to get a safe abortion — suffered inconceivable trauma. Robin, whose father was a doctor, helped her make an appointment with a legit abortion facility, but because he feared he might be fired for doing so, when they went to the appointment, he hid all his identification.
Any time the abortion issue comes up, people shout, what about the rights of the unborn baby?! The comment section is probably filling up right now. But here’s the deal: We can debate the nuances and complexities of abortion until we’re angry as hell and blue in the face. But the bottom line is this: Pro-choice legislation and legal abortion saves lives.
Women will get abortions whether it is legal or not. They always have, and they always will. There will never be an end to abortion. The simple truth is that pro-choice legislation values life, supports life, and saves lives. Pro-choice legislation reduces the number of abortions, and access to legal and safe abortions saves lives.
If you consider yourself pro-life, and legitimately want to reduce the number of abortions and save lives, you simply cannot support anti-choice legislation. It has been proven over and over that pro-choice legislation reduces the number of abortions. This is fact. End of story.
Restricting access to abortion doesn’t just apply to elective abortions, but could also apply to a wide range of medical procedures that are technically abortions, even if we (those of us outside of the medical community) don’t think of them that way. Eight years ago, I had an abortion procedure after I suffered a missed miscarriage. The procedure is more commonly known as a D&C, but it is an abortion nonetheless. Repealing Roe v. Wade could mean that states could restrict access to such procedures or require women — like you and me — to undergo invasive tests before getting the medical procedure we need. Tossing Roe v. Wade out the window wouldn’t just impact some hypothetical stranger; it could impact your daughters and and sisters and friends. It could impact you.
Ultimately, it’s as simple as this: If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t have one. But if you are truly pro-life, then pro-choice legislation — and legal and safe abortions — are the only way to actually support life.
Let’s not let the coat hanger stories of the past become the reality of our future.
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