I remember the smell of blood. Metallic, almost like rust. My friend sat on the toilet as blood streamed out of her; I was perched on the edge of the tub in her small bathroom. She and the guy she’d been dating were careless one time after a few drinks, resulting in her getting pregnant. It was 1972, a year before Roe v. Wade would change the landscape for women in America. The options for anyone with an unwanted pregnancy were frightening and dangerous. With that in mind, I had told my friend about an herb called Pennyroyal. It was said to induce an abortion and after she drank several cups of it, the pain that doubled her over confirmed that claim. Her eyes were haunted and sad, and I didn’t know if I should feel guilty for having suggested the herb. The alternatives would have meant risking her health and perhaps even her life. She did end up going to the doctor to get medication for the bleeding, and I remember her telling me that she convinced him that she had suffered a miscarriage. 

“I want to be a mother someday,” she said that night as blood poured out of her. “But it’s impossible right now. I’m still in college.”

Another friend of mine found someone who arranged a bus trip to Mexico with other girls who found themselves pregnant. Once the bus crossed the border they were blindfolded and told to keep the blindfolds on. None of them ever saw the person who performed the abortions, nor did they know if the room was clean or the instruments sterilized. My friend had an infection afterward and I suspect other girls did as well. Desperation pushes aside reason, smothers caution. You do what you have to do.

A woman I worked with in a summer job had been molested at 17 by a family friend. When she realized she was pregnant, she was too frightened to tell her parents. She found out about a man doing abortions on his kitchen table. Her instructions were to have someone drive her to a field near his house, let her out where she would have to walk quite a ways and return that same way after having the abortion. Midway through the procedure there were sirens approaching the house. He pushed her off the table, told her to get out and she stumbled back across the field, bleeding and in pain. She left a pool of blood on her friend’s car seat. She had no choice but to tell her parents, who rushed her to the hospital where she stayed for two days, she was so mangled inside. Her eyes too were haunted and sad when she told me she would never be able to have children. “Too much scarring,” she said. It was clear that the scars weren’t just physical.

These are just some of the stories from a time that many are too young to remember. As abortion rights are sliced away, as the subject becomes another political grenade, as people shout about a fetal heartbeat, the fact that a woman’s heartbeat matters too is ignored. There is a very real possibility that this Supreme Court, weighted in favor of conservative opposition to Roe v. Wade, could send us careening back to a time when desperate girls lay down on kitchen tables, or went blindfolded to a stranger to open their legs and have a dangerous abortion. 

They say you never forget the smell of blood once you have inhaled it. I can attest to that. But scores of us also can’t forget the terror of an unwanted pregnancy, the climate of danger and desperation that was the world we lived in before 1973. If we return to that world, what will we say about the women who are hopelessly scarred or who die? Will we talk about their heartbeats?


  1. Kara Fox says:

    very powerful

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