It started with an email. “Hi, Mom. I think you know Lena and I are starting a newsletter. We are doing a story about women who had abortions before Roe vs. Wade. Did you have one?”
This is the way we communicate, my mother and I. Simply. Directly. She responded right away. “Yes, in Mexico. On my birthday. It involved meeting a guy, holding sunglasses in my hand, and driving 300 miles into Ensenada. I was sure I was going to die. But it turned out well.”
It turned out well. There it was.
My mother is one of those rare native Angelenos. She grew up in the fifties and sixties, near the beach, mostly barefoot. After college she would live in London (where her friend dated Rod Stewart!), New York—where she made the tragic mistake of trying to keep her barefoot lifestyle—Cambridge, where she would get a degree in special education from Harvard. Years later she would become a television writer, on shows like Hart to Hart and Cagney and Lacey, and a mother, to my brother Jeremy and me. When she was in her forties she had a stroke that left her quadriplegic but she remained social, writerly, informed, rabidly political, and fully available to answer my abortion questions.
Before this story idea it had never occurred to me to ask my mother if she had had an abortion. I’m not sure why. She was very open with me about sex and birth control. Maybe I assumed she would’ve mentioned it. Maybe because I’ve never had one—probably due largely to the fact that she educated me properly and rigorously about birth control. Maybe I was just a narcissistic teenager who couldn’t imagine my mother being a woman my own age with thoughts and feelings and sexuality, because, ew.
The good news is not when it happened, but that it happened. I asked my mother. And it was amazing. It was healing. It was informative. And it was heartbreaking.
My mother shared her story with Lena and me at her dining room table, speaking softly and laughing at the details of her story that appear absurd to her over 50 years later. She brought her friend Leah Appet, another wise, funny writer with an abortion story to share, different in tone than my mother’s but sharing many of the same surreal details. Placing blind faith in a nameless doctor. Making the only choice they could. Trusting that they deserved to. They were generous with their time and words, pausing often to remember hazy details—and murmur their approval of the L.A. health food dinner we brought in plastic containers. For once, Lena and I didn’t have much to say. We just listened and learned.
I have been raised in a world where until very recently it was a given that I would have the right to choose. Today, that right is at risk. We’re publishing one last preview before our official launch because Republicans are threatening to shut down the federal government unless Planned Parenthood is defunded right now. We’re already seeing women in places like Texas—where many of the state’s abortion providers have been put out of business by onerous, unfair restrictions—buying pills on the black market and getting unsafe abortions in order to terminate unwanted pregnancies. These include many poor women of color, who are hurt the most when abortion is unavailable.
It’s important that we learn what life was like before Roe v. Wade as we watch our reproductive rights evaporate. #Askyourmother is wide open to interpretation. Ask your grandmother. Ask your father. Ask all the women in your lives who remember life before safe and legal abortion was an option. Because talking about it keeps it from being shameful. It reminds us where we’ve come from and why we can’t go back there.
After having some time to think after the interview, I found this in my inbox from my mother yesterday:
“Our time is over. It’s your time … It has to be done all over, but you guys are a lot stronger and a lot smarter than we were. You have a good head start.”
Let’s prove her right.
__RONNIE KONNER, AGE 72__
I want to stress that middle-class girls like me that got pregnant in the ’60s were either forced to get married and have the baby, forced to go to an unwed mothers home and give the baby up for adoption, or let their parents raise the child and give a cockamamie story about the baby belonging to a cousin. I had no access to abortion in the U.S. I had heard horror stories about Mexico, but had never met anyone that had been there.
I must have been 19 when I had mine. I had a boyfriend for three years who was incredibly narcissistic. He was an artist. He was a sculptor, and he couldn’t have been less interested in me or my problem—or what he considered my problem. Or going with me to take care of it.
I overheard somebody talk about abortion at a college I was attending in southern California. The people gave me a number. I called it and they said, “You have to meet us over the border, hold sunglasses in your left hand, and we’ll lead you down there.” It would cost $300. It never occurred to me to ask if the doctor was any good. I was just doing it no matter what. If I had had a child back then, he’d still be in therapy.
The abortion experience wasn’t bad in itself, but the ride down was a nightmare. On the trip with me were a cheerleader and her boyfriend. She cried for the 300 miles to Ensenada. And there was another girl that never said a word, who was also with her boyfriend. We had to have the sunglasses in our left hands so we could find this young Mexican guy who would show us the way to the doctor’s.
By the time we got to Ensenada, it was dark. We were on the cliffs, near the water, and I thought, “I’m going to die.” It was my birthday. I was sure I was going to die. I was wondering what they did with the bodies, and if anybody would ever find me.
We got down there, we walked in—the doctor had a beautiful house. Just beautiful. And we sat down. He took the other girls first, and they came out. So I thought, “They lived.” We went back. He anesthetized me. And when I woke up, he took my hand and said, “Look, I want you to know, I believe this is the right thing to do. I packed you so you won’t bleed, but I want you to get out of Mexico tonight, and go to your own doctor in the morning,” to make sure I was okay.
On the way back, I was so relieved I was alive that I started giggling. I’m sure people in the car thought I was nuts—or having a nervous breakdown.
When I got home, I went to my own doctor and told him I went down to Mexico and got an abortion. He was furious. He said, “You could have been killed,” and then he unpacked the bandages, and said the doctor actually did a very good job. At the time, I didn’t even think about whether or not my doctor was pro-choice, but I bet he was.
I hardly saw my boyfriend after that. Because it hurt. It was just so un-nurturing. He didn’t go with me. And he couldn’t have cared less. Although, when I came back a friend of his told me he was worried. But who cares.
I certainly didn’t tell my parents. My father was a 30-year Navy man, so it was out of the question. My mother was a liberal, but she had been raped as a young girl, so I’m sure she had a very skewed idea of sex. She told me about the rape later in life.
I have thought about the abortion very little since it happened. I was only about six weeks pregnant. It didn’t feel very good, but I didn’t think of it as a baby. I find the current attacks on the right to choose just, ugh, very depressing, and very scary, actually. I just can’t believe we have to fight this battle again.
__LEAH APPET, EARLY 70S__
I was in my mid twenties, living in New York City. I was working in the South Bronx as a social worker—a job I had learned to love—while I studied acting with a legendary actress. I was not on the Pill; it made me sick for some reason. I used, what was it called? Oh yes, a diaphragm. Just a few weeks ago I found my old one in a drawer I rarely open. For a moment I wondered if I should send it to the Smithsonian.
Someone I’d had a relationship with looked me up in New York on his way to Cape Cod. He asked me if wanted to go with him, and it turned out that I did. It was very romantic. It was very everything, and luckily I’d taken my diaphragm with me. By the time we got back to New York we both remembered why we broke up. It only took a week and a half before I started to feel nauseous. I brushed it off; probably a bug from the Cape, I thought. Then I started to throw up. Okay, so maybe it was a big bug.
A friend who I was working with said, “Are you by any chance pregnant?” And I said, “I don’t know.” And she said, “Well, you should find out.” I did. At Planned Parenthood, which was where I went for my gynecology care. I was pregnant. How could I be—I’d used my diaphragm! Of course, they’re not foolproof.
This was before Roe v. Wade and the only way not to be pregnant anymore was to seek an abortion, a medical procedure that had been declared not just illegal, but criminally illegal.
My friend guessed the pregnancy test was positive, and asked me if I was considering an abortion. I was, of course, but how do you even begin finding someone to do it, without worrying about winding up dead? I was immensely lucky; my friend told me she’d had an abortion recently, which was performed by an actual MD, in New Jersey. She gave me his number. I’d had no idea she was pregnant, let alone been through an abortion. I felt terrible that she’d been through all that alone. She offered to go with me, but I didn’t want her to have to go back there.
I knew this was a time in my life that I could not take care of a baby. My brother had just come to live with me. He had almost had a nervous breakdown and was recovering from that. I had a job that mattered to me, was also pursuing a career in the theater, and my brother to look after.
I did not have any hesitations about getting an abortion. I want to emphasize that. I didn’t sweat it. I didn’t worry that I was doing something wrong because I wasn’t bringing a baby into the world. But the ride back was very long and lonely. Then there was the cost of the procedure: $700 in cash.
You know how much $700 was back then? It was all my savings. But I was working, so it was okay. All the way home, I kept saying, “I’m never having sex again. I’m never having sex again.” But it really was a great relief.
I had a second abortion. Once again I got pregnant because of failed contraception. But it was after Roe v. Wade and the difference was palpable. I was able to be open about the pregnancy and the abortion, which I had at Planned Parenthood. The thing that struck me the most was the camaraderie everybody felt in that room where you waited before the abortion and also after, where they like to keep you keep you under observation.
There were mothers with their teenagers who needed an abortion, lots of the waiting women who already had children. There were some college students, often there with their boyfriends. No one was self-conscious or shamed.
When I had my first abortion, as I got down on the table, I thought, “He could kill me!” I didn’t know anything about the doctor, except that my friend vouched for him, and I trusted her. I was so happy when Roe v. Wade came through, and I am so miserable about the way that choice is losing this battle.
*–As told to Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner.*