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Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era
Back Rooms & Abortion
Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era
by Ellen Messer and Kathryn E. May. Published by Prometheus Books.

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What would life be like if abortion were illegal? Many women alive today have grown up in a world where abortion has been a safe and legal part of their medical landscape. For an entire generation, legal abortion has been something they can simply assume would be there for them, should they ever need it. What might be in store for them, however, if all of that were to change?

Unfortunately, many don't realize how serious it might be - there are those who simply assume that their doctors will "take care of them," but that is naive. To understand such a possible future, it is necessary to get a better understanding of the past. Ellen Messer and Kathryn E. May have put together a book with just that purpose in mind, presenting the first-person stories of what it was like for women when seeking abortions had to rely upon others who were willing to break the law and risk jail.

An important aspect of these experiences was the profound isolation felt by the women involved. As desperate as they were, very often they could not turn to mothers or other family members for advice or solace. If they were lucky, they had a friend who could help them - perhaps with a contact name, sometimes as a companion.

For whatever reason, a few weren't successful in obtaining the abortions they wanted, resulting in unwanted births which they even today must deal with. According to one woman, identified as Liz:

People have said to me, 'How can you be in favor of abortion? If you'd had one, you wouldn't have these beautiful children.' But I would have had them. It just would have been later when I was better prepared to care for them. And maybe they would have a nicer man for their father. I would have been more prepared and all our lives would have been so much easier. Even though I love my children dearly, I regret that I did not have an abortion when I was given the option. I should never have let others influence my decision.

If successful in getting an abortion, they often viewed it as a life-affirming action because they now had a second chance at fulfilling their goals. Faced with two choices, an unwanted birth or possible sterility and perhaps death, they took the dangerous path and were still able to find something positive in it.

Another important aspect of the criminalization of abortion, and one which often goes unnoticed, is how it can put women under suspicion whenever they experience complications during pregnancy:

She was thin and frail. Even the early pregnancy was difficult for her, but she was delighted with her condition. Unfortunately, about halfway through her pregnancy, she began to miscarry. She was in pain and bleeding heavily. Under the law forbidding termination of pregnancy, she was guilty until proven innocent of having aborted herself. No painkillers, no assistance was given her when she went into the hospital, but rather she was treated as a suspected criminal, at a time when she was feeling close to suicidal over losing her baby.

This is something which affects all women, not simply those who are pro-choice or who actually seek out an abortion. What kind of world would it be when women with complications in pregnancy are treated like criminals?

This book only offers the voices of the survivors, or at least those who are now able to talk about what they endured. There are thousands upon thousands who never survived or who are, even today, unable to give voice to what happened. Because they must remain silent, this book is able to provide an important moral and personal dimension to the abortion debate, demonstrating clearly what people might have to endure if abortion were illegal. It is impossible to discuss criminalizing abortion without also discussing how that would affect actual women and actual lives: this volume helps inform that discussion.

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