When Abortion Was Illegal

When Abortion Was Illegal
08/05/1985

updated 08/05/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/05/1985 01:00AM

The decision to have—or not have—an abortion should be a private one, actress Ali MacGraw believes. Her pro-choice convictions stem from personal experience: While unmarried and in her early 20s, she underwent an illegal abortion in New York. MacGraw, now 46, lives in Malibu with her only child, Joshua Evans, 14. She agreed to talk about that long-ago episode with reporter Gay Daly in the hope that it would contribute to the national debate by recalling the dangers women faced prior to the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.

I don't think of myself as a crusader or a political person. But I have spent a lot of energy on social causes, including working with battered, unwanted children. I have seen discarded children in institutions who are wards of the state because their parents couldn't deal with them. I have seen them grow and stumble through life feeling worthless and unloved. I think in making a decision to have an abortion you have to think about the life that the child you are bringing into the world will have. Children are precious and you must cherish and nurture them. All of this entered into my own decision to have an abortion.

A lot of people think an abortion is something a woman does casually, like changing the color of her hair. But I defy anybody to tell me that she has had a casual abortion. There is nothing casual about it. It's a horrific decision to make.

I had been involved with a lovely man for more than a year. My birth control method—I was taking the Pill—failed. It was not as if I was winging it or had forgotten to take the Pill and was hoping for the best. It just didn't work.

My friend and I were not ready to decide if we wanted to marry, much less start a family. We cared for each other and briefly talked about whether we wanted to have a baby. We had longer discussions on the morality of having an abortion. But I was young and trying to make career decisions and was in no way ready for a family. As it turned out I had my child at 31. That experience is the most extraordinary and important thing in my life. In my early 20s, however, I simply wasn't ready emotionally or financially for the kind of responsibility that good parenting involves.

Once you made the decision to have an abortion in those days, the process became humiliating and terrifying. You started with the horror of the underground network of telephone calls. Unless you were rich, that is. It was easier to get a safe, clean abortion if you had money. I was making $80 a week before taxes. My parents had no money. It wasn't as if I could call my father and have him take care of it for me. So there was this terrifying period of shock, fright and "Oh, God, what am I going to do?"

A friend told me about a doctor in Pennsylvania. But he was booked and I couldn't get in to see him. People started telling me, "Well, I know of a guy in..." or "You can go to Mexico...." The farther away it was, the scarier it got. And we couldn't have jumped on a plane and checked into some wonderful hotel. It breaks down right from the beginning to economics.

Finally a friend of a friend told me about a man in a hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He would give you an injection that induced labor. You would go home feeling horrendous and come back the next day with a "miscarriage." He would then scrape the fetus from the uterus. I gathered it was a relatively safe procedure. I didn't know anything about him; I didn't even know if he was a doctor. But I felt I had no choice because I was nearing the 12-week deadline for a "safe" abortion. In those days it was thought that if you had an abortion after three months, the mother could die.

The night before my appointment I didn't get much sleep. In the morning my friend drove me to the hotel. He was very supportive, and I was lucky not to be there alone. I don't know how a woman manages if her partner takes a walk.

When we arrived at the building, my friend asked if I wanted him to go with me. I said, "No, but would you wait downstairs?" He stayed in his station wagon while I went in. The office was on the 17th floor of the filthiest, seediest building I had ever been in. It seemed overrun with junkies and prostitutes. And here I was in my little blue-and-white-checked sleeveless shirt, my shiny, clean hair, my white A-line skirt and my Capezios, looking like I had just gotten out of school.

It was 9 in the morning when I arrived. I remember thinking, "I'm scared and I feel badly and I don't know if I should be doing this." But we had made our decision.

People came and went. There were some happy couples and some women who were obviously pregnant. Suddenly I started thinking, "Wait a minute, who is this guy?" I didn't know if these women were coming in for pregnancy tests or checkups or what. I sat there like a pristine little lady, thumbing through magazines and wilting. I started thinking, "I've been here longer than anybody. Why am I waiting?" But I couldn't threaten to take my problem somewhere else. This guy was the end of the line.

Every so often the door to his office would open, and I would see antiquated porcelain equipment and a dirty-looking steel table. And out would come a short man in a doctor's white coat. He was dark haired, swarthy, harried, tired. Who knows what kind of guy? And he would say gruffly, "Okay, you're next." But never to me.

The longer I waited, the more frightened I became. My imagination—which is overactive anyway—went berserk with possibilities. I was scared of the operation. I was scared I might die. I was scared I might be maimed. I was scared he might rape me. I was scared he would kill me.

I remember looking out the window and thinking, "I am 17 floors above the street, it is getting dark outside and who knows that I'm really here? My friend knows, but there's plenty of time for something awful to happen." I think this doctor, or whatever he was, was scared too. One good scream out of me and he could have gone to jail, because abortion was a felony.

By 8 p.m. there were only two people left in the waiting room, myself and an attractive young woman whom the doctor was seeing before me. By this time I was so terrified that I said to her, "Would you wait for me after you're done?" She said, "Sure." When she came out of his office, I said to her, "I won't be long." The doctor exploded. He started screaming, "How dare you! How dare you talk to one of my patients!" He pointed at the girl and said, "You! You leave right now!"

He locked the door behind her, and I thought, "Well, this is it. I'm going to be killed." I started crying. Really loud sobs. I said, "How could you do this to me?" He seemed panic-stricken. He said, "Shhh, how dare you make noise?" I said, "Look, I've been here since 9 this morning. You have to know that I am terrified." He stared at me coolly and said, "Well, then leave." I said, "I can't leave. I have to do this."

I was crying as I handed over the $2,000 in cash that we had managed to pull together. He said, "Be quiet. Don't you know that if you make any noise you will jeopardize my career?" I realized that he had his own problems. He asked if my friend was with me and sent me downstairs to get him. I was shaking as we returned. We both went into his office. It was filthy and revolting. Still, I managed to calm down. Once the "doctor" saw that I was not going to become hysterical and yell for help, he behaved decently. To this day I have not decided whether he was a good guy or a bad guy.

I know he gave me a shot, but the experience was so upsetting that I can't even remember where. It may have been saline, I don't know. I didn't bother to ask. As I was leaving, he said, "Call me if you're in real trouble in the middle of the night. Otherwise I will see you tomorrow morning at 7."

I was a wreck by the time I got home. Within two hours I began having excruciating cramps, but I was afraid to take any medication. It was an unspeakable night. They were the worst cramps that I have ever had, except for the ones during actual childbirth.

The next morning my friend drove me back to the office. The "doctor" was pleasant and businesslike. He gave me a shot of anesthesia—I have no idea which one—but I seemed to be floating. I felt no pain but I could hear him scraping inside me. When he was finished he sent me home to bed, where I fell into a drugged sleep for the rest of the day.

I didn't then and still don't feel any shame about what I did, but afterward I was sad and often wondered if I had done the right thing in the eyes of God. I hoped so.

I'll tell you an ironic story. It was 1979, about a year after my father died, and my mother was almost 80. She was fiercely independent—an artist who studied to be a scientist—and I have always considered her a pioneer and a very extraordinary lady. But I never discussed anything sexual with my parents or thought of them in a sexual context. That is a classic silliness of all generations. We think we invented passion and sex.

Anyway, I was taking my mother to an antique show. We were crossing Park Avenue in New York and Mummy said, "What are you doing these days?" And I said something like, "Oh, I'm killing myself with this film I'm making." She said, "No, I mean what are you doing, capital D?" Thinking I was stepping into the mouth of the cobra, I replied, "I'm very involved with groups that are working to preserve a woman's right to a legal abortion. That is to say, I'm lending my face and name to them so they can promote their cause, which I feel passionate about." I expected my mother to launch into a diatribe. Instead, she looked at me and said, "I think that's wonderful." I nearly fell off the sidewalk! Here was my mother, nearly 80, saying, "If I had the energy left, I'd like to work for them too. In my time the whole abortion issue was so terrifying that when I had the experience, I hoped I would die rather than bring shame on my family." I couldn't believe my mother was saying this. I did the math in my head. She was born in 1901, which means that she probably had the abortion in the early 1920s. I suddenly realized, as all kids do, that my parents were human.

Clearly I had underestimated my mother. It was so stupid that when I had my abortion, I hadn't turned to the one person I should have and said, "Mummy, I'm going to have this experience and I'm scared. What do I do?" She wouldn't have lectured me. She wouldn't have told my father. And she might have found somebody for me. Certainly she would have stood by me.

I don't understand why freedom of choice is such a threat. Those people who are passionate about not having abortions should live their lives accordingly. But if a woman really believes, after all of the soul-searching, that an abortion is the right thing to do, then she should have the right to obtain one legally and safely, regardless of her financial situation.

I have had years to formulate my thoughts on abortion. One unresolved question is when the soul enters an unborn child. Until that issue is settled, I don't know how anyone can pass judgment on any woman's decision to have an abortion. With the birth of my own child, I became more aware than ever of the priorities involved in parenting. I think that if we want to ensure the survival of our planet, we have to concern ourselves with the quality of life of our children. They need food, shelter and education, but most especially they need parents who want them. I respect any well-thought-out decision arrived at by a woman because I know how anguishing that decision is.

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