The meaning of choice

    Many people do not remember a time when abortion was illegal, but Maggie Myers, a former nurse and counselor at Planned Parenthood, remembers it all too well.

    Tyler Huff
    Guardian

    “”When I was in nurses’ training at County Hospital, which is where UCSD hospital is now, I was assigned for one of my rotations to the infected OB/GYN ward,”” Myers said. “”That ward had 23 beds in one big room and almost every bed was full of women who had illegal abortions.””

    Myers aided many women — some whose lives could be saved and some who died. One woman’s story stands out in Myers memory.

    “”A patient that I particularly remember was a young woman — she was 24 with four children,”” Myers said. “”When she got pregnant for the fifth time, she gave herself an abortion with an umbrella rod. [She] forced it up through her uterus and her liver and stomach up into her lung, and I took care of her for a week until she died. I can still see her.””

    In 1948, when Myers was working as a nurse, most forms of contraception were also illegal, and the options of preventing an unwanted pregnancy were slim to none. After marrying and giving birth to two children, Myers found herself in the same situation as many of the women in her hospital ward.

    “”I knew that I didn’t want more than two children, and I got pregnant a couple of years after having my second child,”” Myers said. “”I was using a method of birth control which failed. So when I got pregnant I asked my doctor, ‘Could you help me?’ and he said, ‘I can’t do anything, but talk to my nurse.’ She gave me the names of three doctors in Tijuana. My husband took the day off of work and we took money out of the bank and down we went to Tijuana.””

    South of the border, Myers found a doctor who performed abortions in a secluded warehouse in the back of his office. Without any anesthetic, in a corner of a Tijuana warehouse, Myers held back any sounds of pain and got her abortion. Myers’ story, while certainly not unique, is just one story of the complex issue of abortion.

    The history of abortion in America is a long and complex tale. It is surprising to many that abortion was not always illegal before Roe v. Wade.

    “”We didn’t have that concept, per se,”” said M.E. Stephens, a San Diego attorney who teaches UCSD’s “”Gender Equality and the Law”” class. “”The first thing in terms of childbearing that was illegal were certain forms of contraception for women.””

    The late 19th century Comstock Laws outlawed contraception as well as abortion deeming them forms of obscenity. In the 1910s, during the suffrage movement, many women began to speak out against the obscenity laws. One of the most outspoken was a maternity nurse from New York’s lower east side named Margaret Sanger.

    Sanger, who would later go on to found Planned Parenthood, witnessed the results of illegal abortions. She traveled to Europe to learn about contraceptive methods; she then published in her newsletter, “”The Women Rebel.”” Sanger was thrown in jail for the information dispensed in this newsletter, but the damage to the Comstock Laws had already been done, and the beginnings of a birth control revolution were on its way.

    “”The Seneca Falls women’s movement that eventually led to the right to vote — that was kind of the genesis for a change,”” Stephens said.

    By the 1960s, America was changing at a rapid pace, and the government’s views on regulating sexuality and reproduction began to be reconsidered. It was not until the 1965 landmark decision of Griswold v. Connecticut, however, that married couples gained the right to use contraception.

    “”By the 1960s, it stopped making sense for the government to intrude into an individual’s relationship in that way,”” Stephens said.

    As the feminist movement progressed, women’s autonomy over their bodies became a central issue. Radical branches of feminism that grew mainly out of the 1960s New Left movement felt that the right to abortion was pivotal to female independence. The spark that Sanger set with her move toward legalized contraception was about to become a fire that is still burning today.

    The country, pre-Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, varied from place to place.

    “”The laws really have been different in different places,”” Stephens said. “”Women were using other means of obtaining abortions because it required a thing like parental consent or spousal consent.””

    Norma N. McCorver, better known as “”Jane Roe,”” sought and was unable to obtain a legal abortion in Texas. Her life was not in danger, and thus “”Roe”” was forced to have a child, which she later gave up for adoption. However, “”Roe”” did go on to become the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that Sara Weddington and Linda Coffee, two lawyers fresh out of law school, brought before the Supreme Court.

    On Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Texas law prohibiting an abortion except for the purpose of saving a woman’s life unconstitutional by a vote of 7-2. The decision invalidated abortion laws in 46 states.

    “”Essentially, it was a case that was designed to protect a women’s right to choose in the face of a very restrictive Texas law,”” Stephens said. “”What the court did was they made up a new standard. What they looked at was the individual’s interest versus the state’s interest.””

    The case was actually argued twice. On the first try, Weddington began her arguments in front of seven, not nine justices because two of the justices had recently retired. Weddington was poised in her argument, but failed to peg her case in a specific constitutional provision. Her opponent, Jay Floyd, also got off to a less-than-eloquent start. He began, “”It’s an old joke, but when a man argues against two beautiful ladies like this, they are going to have the last word.”” The justices were not amused. The court, now including two new justices, William H. Rehnquist and Lewis F. Powell Jr., decided to hear second arguments for Roe.

    Justice Harry A. Blackmun crafted the decision that did not specify a constitutionally guaranteed right, but rather based the decision on the right to privacy protected by the due process clause under the 14th Amendment. Ultimately, the court was enforcing a right that the Constitution did not specify.

    Contrary to popular belief, Roe only legalized abortion during the first three months of pregnancy. The court went on to state that in the interest of protecting a woman’s health, states may restrict but not prohibit abortions in the second three months of pregnancy. In the last three months of pregnancy, states may regulate — or even prohibit — abortions to protect the life of the fetus, except when medical judgment determines that an abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother.

    The debate over abortion has only escalated since the 1970s, with activists on both sides of the aisle becoming more radical and militant.

    “”What the [anti-choice movement] has done is attack the right to choose by putting restrictions and seeing if those will hold up,”” Stephens said. “”For example, if a woman is married, how much can the government require in terms of a disclosure between the husband and the wife? In the best of both worlds, you would want that to be a loving and mutual decision, but that’s not always part of the real world.””

    A point of contention between abortion rights and anti-abortion rights activists is the subject of so-called partial-birth abortions.

    “”It’s a misnomer,”” Stephens said. “”We’re using words that are expressly associated with the life of the fetus. It’s a hyperbolic way of using these notions that play to what we have socialized women to believe that they have an obligation to society and to those cells that are growing within you.””

    In fact, there is no actual medical term called a partial-birth abortion, which is why legislation referring to such a procedure has had trouble passing through congress. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates only one-50th of 1 percent of all abortions occur when a fetus is developed enough to survive outside the uterus. The CDCP also estimates that 88 percent of all abortions take place within the first trimester.

    However, for Operation Rescue West, one of the most prominent anti-abortion activist groups, the philosophy in one abortion is one too many.

    “”If Hell’s gates were a storefront on Main Street, wouldn’t you go and tell its customers about Jesus Christ?”” Operation Rescue states on its Web site. “”The baby-killing center (abortion clinic) is a storefront on Main Street. All those who are entering the clinic have no hope. They have given up on all that is good and are about to murder their own child. The act they are about to perform is paramount to suicide.””

    While not all anti-abortion proponents agree with Operation Rescue’s evangelical tactics, they see abortion as the taking of a life — something that is immoral and illegal.The Catholic Church contends that “”the inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation.””

    In California, the law treats a women’s right to have an abortion significantly different than the rest of the country. Gov. Gray Davis has signed several bills that guarantee women the right to privacy, as well as expanding access to emergency contraceptives. However, according to the Allen Guttmacher Institute, 86 percent of U.S. counties do not have an abortion provider.

    “”The government is still said to have an interest in a women’s body and her bearing a child at the point of viability,”” Stephens said. “”Various states have interpreted that in different ways.””

    In the years since Roe, the days of illegal abortions have become, for the most part, a thing of the past. Too late for women like Myers, who just hopes that younger women see a world without safe, legal abortions.

    More to Discover
    Donate to The UCSD Guardian
    $200
    $500
    Contributed
    Our Goal

    Your donation will support the student journalists at University of California, San Diego. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment, keep printing our papers, and cover our annual website hosting costs.

    Donate to The UCSD Guardian
    $200
    $500
    Contributed
    Our Goal