How a Harrowing Photo of One Woman's Death Became an Iconic Pro-Choice Symbol
In 1973, Ms. magazine published a haunting photo of a woman named Gerri Santoro, who'd died of a back-alley abortion. At the time, no one could have predicted what an impact it would have on the pro-choice movement.
Illustration by Julia Kuo
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People knew of Geraldine "Gerri" Santoro's cause of death—an air embolism caused by a back-alley abortion—before they ever knew her name.
On June 8, 1964, the 28-year-old married woman and her lover, Clyde Dixon, checked into Connecticut's now-closed Norwich Motel with no vacation suitcases or change of clothes for an overnight stay. Instead, she brought a catheter and a textbook. Santoro, six and a half months pregnant, was prepared to let Dixon perform her illegal abortion—that is, until she started hemorrhaging during the process and Dixon panicked, abandoning Santoro to bleed to death on the motel floor.
It wasn't until the next day that a maid discovered Santoro's naked body—her torso collapsed over her kneeling legs, with only blood-soaked sheets between her and the carpet.
Santoro's body was photographed for crime scene documentation at the time; in April 1973, nine years after her death and just half a year after the passing of Roe v. Wade, Ms. magazine published the photo of Santoro. At the time, the body was anonymous to them.
"Never Again" was the headline that ran with the story and image, which quickly became an iconic symbol of the pro-choice movement. After the passing of Roe v. Wade, the editors at Ms. thought the struggle was finally over.
"At that point, we naively believed that would be the end of the story, and that never again would women be lying on the floor in their own blood in a hotel room because of a botched abortion," says Suzanne Braun Levine, who served as Ms.'s first editor from its founding in 1972 to 1988. "That once the Supreme Court had made that ruling, safe abortions would be available to everyone, everywhere."
On the other end of the phone, Levine laughs.
Born on August 16, 1935, Gerri Twerdy grew up with ten brothers and four sisters in an old farmhouse in rural, South Coventry, Connecticut. In the 1995 documentary Leona's Sister Gerri, her family and friends recall memories of her: She climbed trees to avoid the chores she disliked, she and her best friend would sneak out of school to change out of their dress code-mandated dresses and into their jeans when playing hooky, and she always smelled like Juicy Fruit gum.
But when she was just 18 years old, in a rush to get hitched before her best friend, Gerri decided to marry a man she had met four weeks prior at a bus stop. His name was Sam Santoro, and he would go on to father two daughters with Gerri—all of whom would become victims of his physical abuse. So when she met 43-year-old Clyde Dixon, a fellow employee at the Mansfield Training School who ostensibly cared for her, she took him as her lover when Sam was living and working in California. But when Gerri found herself pregnant and Sam, unknowing of everything and with an imminent return to Connecticut to visit Gerri and their daughters, she feared for her safety.
So Gerri, or "Margaret Reynolds" according to the motel ledger, checked in to the motel room with Dixon, only to die alone after Dixon had attempted and failed to abort the fetus with a catheter.
Three days later, Dixon and Milton Ray Morgan, a colleague at Mansfield who helped Dixon access the textbook, would be arrested, and Dixon would be charged with manslaughter and "conspiring to commit an illegal abortion." He would go on to serve one year.
An estimated 1.2 million women in the US resorted to illegal abortions every single year before Roe v. Wade, and those abortions directly led to as many as 5,000 annual deaths, according to the NARAL Foundation. The more restrictive the abortions laws are in a given state or country, the higher the instances of unsafe abortions, which today account for about 13 percent of maternal deaths globally, according to a 2008 World Health Organization study.
"Unsafe abortions are frequently performed by providers lacking qualifications and skills to perform induced abortion, and some abortions are self-induced," the WHO study explains. The lack of safeguards, hygienic conditions, and incorrect administration of medication can lead to things like post-abortion sepsis, hemorrhaging, and genital trauma—all of which can all lead to death.
When the Supreme Court decided 7-2 in Roe v. Wade on January 22, 1973, overruling all state laws that restrict or prohibit a woman's right to obtain an abortion during her first three months of pregnancy, Levine and Roberta Brandes-Gratz, the woman who wrote the accompanying story with the nine-year-old image in Ms., both believed that they had won the fight.
Brandes-Gratz had intended to publish her story in a pre- Roe v. Wade country. She wrote a feature on abortion in the months before the Supreme Court ruling, but when the decision fell just weeks before her story went to print, she scrambled to change the tone of the story. "I used to write about a number of directly women-related issues, like rape, divorce, and adoption," says Brandes-Gratz of her time at Ms. She recalls a story she wrote about rape that prompted a change in New York law. "So after the abortion article and Roe v. Wade, I said, 'Okay, now that issue is taken care of, what's next?'"
She had also always planned on publishing the image of Santoro. Westchester Coalition for Legal Abortion (WCLA) had given a copy of the photo to the NYC Medical Examiner, which Ms. consequently got ahold of (though neither Levine nor Brandes-Gratz remember exactly how). And in the spring 1973 issue, on a two-page spread, the picture, shrunken in size and placed in the middle of the page, ran on the left; the story, taking up a whole page, ran on the right.
"It was like a little island in the middle of a blank page, as if you were looking [at the scene] through a peephole," Levine recalls.
She says she had voted to have the image be the issue cover, but the staff found the smaller image to have more of an impact, which Levine thinks is the right decision in retrospect. "Though I still don't know whether or not [publishing the image] was the right decision, given how that picture has haunted people," she says.
Despite the political charge of the image, neither Levine nor Brandes-Gratz remember it having much of an initial reaction—positive or negative. Both women attribute the general lack of attention to women's reluctance to applaud abortion at the time. It wasn't until Brandes-Gratz was at a pro-choice march in the 1980s with her daughter that she became aware of the image's influence; it was then she saw a woman carrying a blown-up poster of it, after which her daughter explained that the photo was ubiquitous.
How dare they take my beautiful mom and put this in front of the public eye?
In the 1990s, Brandes-Gratz reconsidered the ethics of publishing it when Santoro's family members, upset over the image, contacted her. Santoro's sister Leona Gordon, who recognized the photo of the "anonymous" woman in Ms. as her sister, was upset about the publication of the nearly 10-year-old photo. Gerri's daughters, Joannie and Judy, were told—and up until the photo's publication in Ms., believed—that their mother had died in a car accident.
Gordon went on to release the documentary Leona's Sister Gerri in 1995 to give her sister's life, not just death, an identity. "How dare they take my beautiful mom and put this in front of the public eye?" Joannie is quoted saying in a 1995 article in the New York Times.
That anonymous identity in death is likely what made that photo so iconic: Geraldine Santoro, that nameless, faceless person, was every woman who had suffered from a botched illegal abortion, and every woman who feared one day she may find herself in the same position.
In 2004, Joannie signed up for her first abortions rights rally with her daughter, channeling her anger into activism to ensure that no one else suffer the fate of her mother. She later also blogged about a woman's right to choose after her daughter was told by a friend how to perform an abortion on herself. "Until a few years ago I would have said that the horrors of the past were just the scars of a hard won battle," she wrote. "Now, as my daughters' freedoms slip away before my eyes and the horrors of my past become their reality, I realize I haven't done a damn thing to stop it. I don't know if I'll ever make a difference but I know it's time I started trying—before it's too late...I am Gerri Santoro's daughter and my daughters will not carry on her legacy."
"Given the visual politics of the early 1970s in the United States, in which fetal images were receiving unprecedented attention within anti-choice campaigns, it is unsurprising that this image ended up in the pages of a major feminist publication," Maureen McNeil writes of Santoro's photo in Transformations: Thinking Through Feminism. "Images which seem to offer us the evidence of women's collective experience, a 'truth' upon which political claims can be made, do important work in mediating the construction of the subjects of feminist struggle."
In the early 1960s, ultrasound imagery—which had originally been used in sonar detectors for submarine warfare, but was slowly entering various medical fields—was introduced into the obstetrical field, according to David Graham's 1982 study "Ultrasound in Clinical Obstetrics." Shortly after the advent of fetal imagery in clinical rooms, the images started infiltrating the media. In 1962, as promotion for a book called The First Nine Months of Life, images of a solitary, floating fetus appeared in Look magazine, in which the fetus was referred to as "the baby," and despite being gendered as a "he," this "baby" turned out to be a "she." Three years late, LIFE magazine published Lennart Nilsson's landmark photo essay of an 18-week-old fetus with the headline, "Drama of Life Before Birth." The photos instantly became anti-abortion propaganda, and to this day, activists still promote Nilsson's work on their websites.
In the 1987 study "The Power of Visual Culture in the Politics of Reproduction," Rosalind Pollack Petchesky delves into how fetal imagery—a favorite of the anti-abortion movement—has historically presented the fetus as "primary and autonomous," treating the mother's body as a mere environment in which this new life can flourish. Therefore, these voyeuristic images have become the perfect propaganda to pass around clinics, courtrooms, and abortion centers.
"When legions of right-wing women in the anti-abortion movement brandish pictures of gory dead or dreamlike space-floating fetuses outside clinics or in demonstrations, they are participating in a visual pageant that directly degrades women—and thus themselves," Petchesky writes. "Wafting these fetus-pictures as icons, literal fetishes, they both propagate and celebrate the image of the fetus as autonomous space-hero and the pregnant woman as 'empty space.'"
The anti-abortion message in this iconography is simple: Fetuses have an ontological, spiritual existence unrelated to their mother. These images of "babies," as anti-abortion supporters will call them, have a chance at life. Which is why Ms. magazine, looking to rebut the popularity of these photos, answered with death.
This image that was the consequence of a backwards legal system that turned women not only into criminals, but often into corpses.
"Taken up as a pro-choice symbol, an image of a dead woman has been, and will continue to be, read in relation to fetal images and the circulating discourses of fetal personhood these images work to mediate," Petchesky writes of the image of Santoro. "The complexity of issues facing political actors is reduced to dichotomized and morally loaded questions of life versus murder, women versus fetuses, and right versus wrong."
Nina Berman, a documentary photographer and professor at the Columbia Journalism School, also touches on dichotomy between fetishist, "tissue- and fetus-centric" anti-abortion propaganda and woman-centric pro-choice imagery. Therefore, she understands why it was published in Ms., a magazine that had a specific political agenda, but she says she can't imagine it ever appearing in a popular magazine—in the 1970s or now.
"The American press has been much more cautious about publishing graphic depictions of violence of subjects who are American, and where the violence took place here," she says. "It's much more likely, though still done tamely, to publish photos of graphic violence happening elsewhere. There's a sort of trepidation of putting out anything too disturbing because that would shatter certain societal myths about who we are and what we do."
To Berman, the death-centric image also connotes a time past. Though abortion access is still obstructed today, the focus of the fight has changed.
"It's less about death," she says, "and much more about access."
Today the death rate from induced abortion is 0.6 for every 100,000 procedures in the US, making abortion as safe as an injection of penicillin, according to the WHO. Abortion-related deaths are also "rare in countries where the procedure is legal, accessible, and performed early in pregnancy by skilled providers," according to NARAL.
However, the WHO also states that in 2003, 13 percent of maternal deaths worldwide were due to unsafe abortion—and this number was unchanged in 2008. While the passing of Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in the US more than 40 years ago, accessing safe, legal abortion—both in the US and the rest of the world—is not always possible. In Indiana this past year, Governor Mike Pence signed a vicious law that would require Indiana women to pay for funerals for their aborted fetuses; and in many states, there still exist laws around "admitting privileges," waiting periods, and patient transfer agreements—all of which obstruct women's legal access to reproductive care.
"While back then, there weren't a lot of options, and today there are [more]—with birth control, morning after pills, and legal abortion—there are still a lot of obstacles," Berman says. "There isn't this sense that women are dying from back-alley abortion, which is why visuals now focus on things like, 'What do women go through to get around the people screaming that they're baby killers at clinics?'"
When Levine and Brandes-Gratz published the photo of the anonymous woman in 1973, they intended for it to serve as a relic of a time past—to graphically illustrate the progress made with Roe v. Wade. But as Levine and Brandes-Gratz speak of the image forty years later, the inflection in their voices does not mimic the celebratory tone of "Never Again."
"One or two generations of young women don't know the genesis of this photograph," Brandes-Gratz says. "This image that was the consequence of a backwards legal system that turned women not only into criminals, but often into corpses. Who expected, who would've anticipated, how much backtracking would occur since."