• Tue. Sep 26th, 2023


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America Before and After Roe v. Wade

Catherine Starr was 17 when she attended her first demonstration to push for abortion rights outside City Hall in St. Louis. It was May 24, 1973. Just a few months earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled on Roe v. Wade.

Women had gained a constitutional right to abortion, but America would continue arguing about it for another 50 years. The Supreme Court’s decision last week to overturn Roe has once again thrust the country into turbulence that feels all too familiar to those who lived it the first time around. Three women on the front lines of the abortion rights movement before Roe was the law and in the early years after the ruling told their stories to The New York Times.

When Ms. Starr protested that day in St. Louis, she was joined by her mother and grandmother. The three generations of women rallied together to protest Mayor John Poelker’s forbidding of city hospitals to perform abortions.

In the early days after Roe, legal access to abortion was still difficult or unavailable in many states. It was only the year before, in 1972, that unmarried men and women had been granted the right to access birth control.

The Roe decision had come too late for Ms. Starr. A year earlier, at 16, she was pregnant. Without the option of a safe, legal abortion, she said, she gave birth to a baby boy and then gave him up for adoption.

Ms. Starr went to the rally because she “wanted to be able to make sure that the next little girl that gets pregnant has an option,” she said.

“Giving up a child, it’s like losing one to death but in a way it’s worse because you don’t know anything about the child,” Ms. Starr, now 66, said. “I had a little boy, and years would go by and I’d sit back and wonder if he is even still alive, is he happy, is he healthy?”

About 10 years ago, Ms. Starr’s son found her and they reconnected. The conversation was initially awkward, she said, but ultimately therapeutic. Her son told her that he was grateful for her decision and that he had a pretty good life. He also told her that he is in favor of abortion rights, she said, a pleasant surprise for her.

“Most kids would probably not want to know that their mother thought about aborting them,” she said. “But I did. I was 15 when I was pregnant, and 16 when I had him and I was awfully young.”

“He asked me, ‘You could have gotten an abortion, why didn’t you do it?’ And I said, ‘Well, actually, I couldn’t have, it wasn’t legal at the time,’” she continued. “I said I didn’t want to get an illegal abortion and once I started feeling him in there, I just couldn’t do it.”

Susan Bilyeu was counseling a patient at an abortion clinic when she heard screaming. When she opened the door, she saw flames, and a nursing assistant on the floor, holding her eyes.

Ms. Bilyeu, who was 25 at the time, was swept up in an escalation of violence around abortion clinics in the late 1970s. Legal challenges to thwart abortion kept failing. People would chain themselves to the doors of clinics and shout at women and staff members as they entered the facilities. “It was really quite nasty,” said Karissa Haugeberg, assistant professor of history at Tulane University.

At Ms. Bilyeu’s clinic, a man posing as a delivery worker had splashed gasoline on the assistant’s face and set the building on fire. Ms. Bilyeu helped carry the injured worker out of the burning building. There was also a 16-year-old in the midst of having an abortion. They called an ambulance and took her to the women’s hospital two blocks away.

“Nobody changed their mind about having an abortion that day,” she said.

Ms. Bilyeu said she felt fundamentally connected to the abortion rights movement because of the stories her mother, born in 1917, told her, including about her aunt nearly dying from an abortion.

“I got involved because I knew people who were struggling,” she said. “I’m not pro-abortion, I’m pro-choice. No one should be forced to have a child, and I certainly don’t want someone to die from it.”

Loretta J. Ross grew up in a conservative household in the 1960s. She got pregnant at 14 after her cousin raped her. Her only choice at that time, she said, was to raise the child herself, or give him up for adoption. She gave birth to her son in 1969, and kept him.

The experience formed Ms. Ross, now a professor at Smith College, as an activist and a Black feminist, she said.

“I went from being a scared teenager to being an active teenage mother,” she said, “so that had a definite impact on my consciousness and it separated me from the rest of the kids in school.”

She enrolled at Howard University in 1970. Washington, D.C., was in turmoil after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ms. Ross was tear-gassed when she attended her first demonstration at 16. She also became pregnant again. Her older sister forged their mother’s signature on the permission slip, but because Washington had legalized abortion in 1971, she was able to get one.

Yet for Ms. Ross and her fellow classmates, other issues were priorities, such as apartheid and gentrification. There was not a sense of urgency around abortion rights for Ms. Ross, she said, until the Hyde Amendment passed in 1976, banning federal funding for abortion, which disproportionately affected low-income women.

For Ms. Ross, her activism on abortion rights dovetailed and sometimes complicated her political coming-of-age as a Black woman.

“When I was with the Black Nationalist movement people, I actually felt more feminist than not,” she said. “I would call myself a Black Marxist feminist. But then when I was with white women, I was just like, ‘I’m not a feminist like y’all are, so I don’t want to use the word.’”

Concerns that Black women lacked a presence in the women’s movement is what prompted Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s nonvoting House delegate, to co-found the National Black Feminist Organization. Despite the group’s forming in 1973, amid the backdrop of Roe, abortion did not loom large in their conversations, she said.

Black women receive about one-third of the abortions in the United States, according to recent data from the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research group that supports abortion rights. But Ms. Ross, who was trying to help the National Organization for Women plan a women’s rights march, said it was tough to get Black women’s organizations involved because few wanted to engage with the abortion debate.

For a second march in April 1989, which drew more than 600,000 people, Ms. Ross made a banner for women of color to gather around to make them visible.

Over the years, she held steadfast to one principle. “I definitely was going to stand up for women’s rights,” she said.