What It Was Like to Have an Abortion Before Roe v. Wade

Today, Pamela Mason is 63 years old and lives in Princeton, N.J. But in 1971, before the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade made abortion legal across the United States, she was a college student in Ohio facing an unintended pregnancy — and limited options. In honor of the 44th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling on Sunday, Jan. 22, Mason shared her story with Yahoo Beauty on what it was like to get an abortion before Roe.

It was 1971 and I was 18. I had just turned 18. I was a student at Ohio State University. My boyfriend was also a student. He was a year ahead of me. We were high school sweethearts and we had already started having sex around this time. And unfortunately, I got pregnant.

I went to the Planned Parenthood on campus to get a pregnancy test and when it came back positive, I said, “I want to have an abortion — what do I do?” There were no other options to me other than abortion. I knew immediately it was my only option.

They gave me the name and number of a clinic in New York City. It was upstairs from the Copacabana nightclub. The state of New York had just passed a really liberal abortion law the year before, in 1970, so I knew it was an option for us to go there.

When I found out I was pregnant, I called my boyfriend. And when I told him I was pregnant, he hung up the phone. So I called him back and said, “Hello?” and he said, “I just need a minute.” And I said, “Fine, take a minute — but we need to figure out what we’re going to do here.” And he said, “What do you want to do?’” I said, “I want to have an abortion. I don’t want to have this baby. I don’t want us to get married.” And he said, “Take care of it.” And I said, “I will.” And he hung up the phone.

So now I had two more dilemmas: How are we going to get to New York and how are we going to pay for it?

The abortion itself was $150. For two broke college students, it might have been a million dollars. I had $50 in my savings account. My boyfriend had $50 in his. We borrowed $25. And for the remaining $25, we collected soda bottles and redeemed them for cash. We needed a little extra than just the additional $25 to cover gas and travel, but we scraped it together.

The other drama was that my boyfriend’s car had blown up the weekend before we were supposed to go to New York, so now we had no transportation either. I tried lying to my mother and saying I needed to borrow her car to take my friend Sharon to New York for an abortion. I remember I just looked over at her — as soon as I looked over at her and asked for the car, she was like, “You’re kidding me. You’re not getting the car.” I burst into tears. She said to me, “I hope if this happened to you, you would tell me.” Of course I broke down and said, “It’s me.” And she loaned me her car.

She told me later that when I told her it was me, it was like all the air went out of her. She felt like she had been hit in the stomach with a baseball bat. She said her first thought was, “Please, God — let her be having an abortion.” She was so relieved that I had chosen to do that. She was on board. It was a relief.

When I got to the clinic, everybody was wonderful. They were warm, they were friendly. They were really friendly. They did one-on-one counseling there and the counselor was in the room with me during the procedure the whole time. She held my hand.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the procedure itself. They had given me at the Planned Parenthood on campus some literature on what’s involved in getting an abortion. But that was the first time in my life I had ever had a pelvic exam, when I had an abortion. I had never even had a pelvic exam before.

They used local anesthesia and they did tell me it was going to hurt — and it did. It hurt a lot. I got sick and threw up a couple of times. Afterwards and driving home, there was bleeding, but that was expected. But there were no other issues.

When I left the clinic, they gave me a month supply of birth control pills. From that point on, I stayed on birth control — on the pill for a few more years after that until I got an IUD in 1973. And I had an IUD until I got pregnant at the age of 41.

After the procedure, I felt the most relief I have ever felt in my life. To this day, I have never felt that kind of relief, that sheer enormity of relief. And frankly, I felt lucky that New York was only a 12-hour drive away. What if I were in Kansas? Ohio was close enough to make the trip. If I had to walk over broken glass to get there, I would have done it. I was getting an abortion. That was all there was to it.

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The drive to New York was OK, but the drive back was in complete silence. My boyfriend wouldn’t talk to me. To this day, I don’t understand. I said to him, “Are you mad at me?” He wouldn’t answer. When he dropped me off at my house, he opened the door to the car and didn’t say a word to me. It wasn’t a pleasant trip.

And after my abortion, I just went back to being a broke college student — and then the next time I got pregnant was when I was 41 years old, when I had my son.

There were a group of doctors in Ohio who were asked to open a clinic after the Roe ruling, and I was asked to work there and I did. We were the only clinic in a five-state radius in 1973. If we could have, we would have seen patients 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Amazingly, the clinic is still there after 43 years, and I’m very proud of the work that I did there.

It’s important for younger women to realize what’s at stake here. They’ve always grown up with legal abortion. I live in New Jersey now — there are many Planned Parenthood clinics here. You could have your choice of where to go. I want people to know what we faced and how far we’ve come. Education, financial gains — all the inroads that women have made in the last 44 years, none of those will matter if we can’t control our reproductive lives.

My son is 22. I talk to a lot of young women, to his friends. I’m going with a bunch of them to the march this weekend. I say to them, “There was a time you could risk your life for having an abortion” and they give me this blank stare back, like, “Really?”

Since Roe, the Supreme Court has chipped away at the decision, but they haven’t flat out repealed it. It’s a very scary time right now for reproductive health. I try to impart that to the 20-somethings my son is friends with. It just can’t be my generation who are vocal and activists around this issue because we went through it. This is a grave situation we are facing with this president.

The attitude I’ve experienced with these young women, maybe they don’t know that there are places in the country where there’s literally no access to abortion. Their attitude is, “If I need an abortion, I can get one.” And they can in New Jersey. But not everywhere else in the country. There is just one abortion clinic in Louisiana, and the doctor has to fly there to do abortions and risk his life. But it’s too abstract to women today, if it’s not where they are. For us, it’s not abstract. It’s real.

It’s been over 40 years, but I still remember the feeling of finding out I was pregnant and then finding out that I could drive to New York and get an abortion. There was this horrible feeling, and then relief. Being handed a positive pregnancy test — and then being told, “Here’s where you can go.”

Related: How, Exactly, Could Roe v. Wade Be Overturned?

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