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'I'd Never Had Such Pain in My Life': On Getting a Botched, Illegal Abortion

One woman shares her story of what it was like getting an abortion before Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized the procedure in the US.

This piece was published in collaboration with The Abortion Diary, a podcast of abortion stories from people around the world, and included in a series of firsthand accounts republished on Broadly. Read the full story here.

Before abortion was legalized in the US 45 years ago, women with unwanted pregnancies often found themselves in desperate situations. A privileged few could afford to leave the country for abortions, but the vast majority had to deal with unsafe, unsanitary conditions and risk their own health and welfare—and even that was too expensive for many. When Barbara was 18, she got pregnant and knew she couldn't keep it, but when she went to get a back-alley procedure, it was far too expensive for her to afford on a typist's salary. So she took some pills to induce a miscarriage. "I thought I had killed myself because I'd never had such pain in my life," she said. "It was horrible, and it just kept aching and aching." Eventually, she went to the hospital, where a doctor told her she would have died had she not sought medical help.


You can listen to this excerpt of Barbara's story or read it below. You can also listen to her full story on The Abortion Diary.

Barbara S, Ph.D., 77. Tulsa, OK, 1955/56

I had [my] abortion when I was 18, and it was a man I didn't love… I asked my girlfriend if she could help me, and she gave me the number of a guy who did abortions. I didn't know anything about him—back then you didn't, you just took your chance of going to an abortionist. I went to a house up in the northern part of Tulsa. I knocked on the door and this guy came to the door. I didn't know if he was a fry cook, a doctor, or a plumber. I didn't know what he was or what he did.

I followed him into the kitchen and climbed up on the on the table, and he examined me and said that I was two months pregnant and that it would be $200. Well, I was just a typist. I didn't have a whole lot of money, and I certainly didn't have $200. I left there crying. I went back home and talked to my girlfriend, and she somehow got some pills for me to take. I took them and I thought I had killed myself because I'd never had such pain in my life. It was horrible, and it just kept aching and aching. I didn't have any bleeding, but in about four or five days I started having blood clots that came through. They were just like having a heavy period. So, I thought, "Well, thank God. I'm going to have to be more careful in the future."

I burned inside really badly for about a week and then I went to a regular doctor. He said, “You need to get over to the hospital.” I said, "Well, I have to work and I can't go." He said, "Get over there now." So I went to the hospital and they pushed me down the hallway to the operating room, and on my chest they had put a sign that said, "Incomplete abortion." I just felt that they were somehow saying, "This woman is a sinner.” This was a Catholic hospital. They operated on me and saved my life because the doctor said if I had not gone then, if I'd waited 24 hours, I would have been dead.