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Women advise young people about the Bad Old Days before Roe v. Wade

Virginia O'Brien (left) and Carol Deanow joined the Boston Red Cloaks on the steps of the State House while advocating for women’s rights on Saturday. The women are all part of the Bad Old Days Posse, a group of women, some of whom have had illegal abortions, who educate college students about what life was like before Roe v. Wade and break the stigma on the word abortion.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

When the nurse offered to hold her hand, Ginny O’Brien didn’t understand how much she would need it. Then the doctor began the abortion procedure without anesthesia.

“It was extraordinarily painful,” the 75-year-old Marblehead woman told a group of college students in Vermont last week. “They’re just ripping the inside of you out without any medication.”

Just as vivid is the shame she felt when she was 23, when the doctor with the Eastern European accent shoved her legs together and chided her to use birth control next time.

“At the time it was criminal. And I couldn’t tell anybody,” O’Brien recalled. “And I certainly wouldn’t tell anybody in my Irish-Catholic family because I was afraid they would consider me a murderer.”


Only last week, after reports that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, did O’Brien begin telling relatives that she’d had an abortion before the ruling made it legal in 1973. She is among a group of older women who call themselves the “Bad Old Days Posse” that is speaking out about life before Roe as they contemplate a life beyond it.

“We are trying to educate people so that they know what they’re facing if and when — and the probability is high — the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade and send it back to the states,” said Carol Deanow, of Brookline, who founded the group.

General Hospital Attendants removed Mary Kern, 39, from the home where women were arrested following the death of a 16-year-old girl from the effects of an illegal abortion. Two other women patients were found ill in bed when police raided the pseudo physician's headquarters. Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

O’Brien described the trauma of her illegal abortion last week to students at Middlebury College, depicting a world that young women struggled to imagine.

“It’s made it so much more real because right now, when I close my eyes, I kind of just see flashes of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ” said Lauren Garcia-Stille, a first-year student at Middlebury College.

Abortion has been constitutionally protected for nearly 50 years, making it difficult for anyone to imagine a modern America without it. Women will continue to seek abortions, even if states are permitted to restrict it, specialists agree. But it’s unclear how their risks will compare to the 1960s.


Today, an abortion can be had, at least early in pregnancy, without a back alley or a coat hanger, through a safe and self-administered prescription medication. Technology has also changed the landscape that left women at the mercy of underground abortion providers.

To obtain an illegal abortion in 1966, Louise Rice had to know someone who knew someone. She was told to wait alone on a New York street corner where two men had arranged to pick her up.

" I didn’t know where I’d be taken or what would happen next,” said Rice, 74, of Cambridge. One man accompanied her into the apartment where her abortion was performed on the dining room table.

“I realized at that point that the other man was there to hold me down,” she said.

Jen Villavicencio of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, pointed to the safety of medication abortions, available in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, that many expect to be the first alternative sought by women desperate for abortions if Roe is overturned.

“But we also know that not everyone is going to have access to that,” she noted. “There will be people who try to manage their abortions in unsafe ways.”

Even with technological advances, historians expect a return of some of the methods that patients resorted to before abortion became legal.


“From a historical perspective, we’re both in for repeating some of the past, but also we’re going into an unknown future,” said Lauren MacIvor Thompson, an assistant professor of history at Kennesaw State University and a historian of the reproductive rights movement.

“We’ll see features of the pre-Roe landscape. We’ll see those networks. We’ll see medication in the mail. We’ll see people doing abortions at home or seeking surgical abortions from whoever’s willing to provide them,” Thompson added. “But we also don’t know really what it’s going to look like.”

The draft opinion of a Supreme Court ruling, written by Justice Samuel Alito and posted by Politico last week, suggested a majority of the court has agreed to strike down Roe v. Wade and allow states to set their own restrictions. Though abortion rights are secured in state law in Massachusetts and most of New England, 26 states are expected to prohibit abortion if Roe falls, leaving large portions of the country without access.

As it did before Roe, that is expected to exacerbate socioeconomic and racial disparities, making abortion available only to those with the resources and wherewithal to travel.

In the years leading up to the 1973 decision, people with resources traveled abroad to undergo the procedure. Women in Boston traveled to New York, where abortion was legalized in 1970.

O’Brien was a 23-year-old stewardess who could fly to Washington, D.C., for the procedure with her fiancé and afford the $500 cost. Susan Etscovitz tried to borrow the $500 for her New York abortion from her sister’s husband, but he made it a condition that she tell her mother. She refused, told her sister she had suffered a miscarriage, and found a sponsor in the boyfriend of a friend.


The group of women telling their stories of illegal abortions represents a certain privilege, Deanow acknowledged. “We’re all white women of a certain age and we all came from a relatively middle class background,” she said. “We had many more options than women of color, native women, poor women.”

Mary Ziegler, a visiting professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School and a historian of the reproductive rights movement, pointed to disparate rates of abortion deaths before Roe.

“The rate was disproportionately high among people of color, who tended to have a harder time navigating the hurdles to get a legal abortion, either at home or in another state, and were, therefore, more likely to resort to dangerous methods of illegal abortion that would land them in the hospital,” Ziegler said.

Protesters, one holding a child, stood around a placard reading 'Free legal abortion' during a mass demonstration against New York State abortion laws in Manhattan on March 28, 1970. Graphic House/Getty Images

Some are predicting dangerous parallels in a post-Roe world.

“Women will die. They will die from bad abortions,” Martha Nencioli told Middlebury students last week. “So it’s very important to keep up the fight or to work at developing these underground networks.”

Nencioli, 76, of Somerville, worked as an ob-gyn nurse practitioner for 30 years, and vividly remembers taking a friend to get an illegal abortion in 1966. It was a dilapidated motel somewhere outside Boston. Her friend had been given a room number and strict instructions to show up alone.


With the procedure taking far longer than expected, Nencioli and a friend waited and worried in the car outside. Had something gone wrong? Should they knock on the door? Finally, a man hurried out carrying a doctor’s bag and disappeared. Their friend emerged behind him, and suddenly, three police cars showed up.

“It was quite terrifying,” Nencioli said. “One policeman got out of the car, took my friend by the arm before she even got to the bottom of the steps and said, ‘Come with us.’ "

The young woman was hauled to the police station, where an officer loudly announced his suspicions to anyone within earshot: “I think this woman just had an abortion.”

“She didn’t get arrested, which she could have,” said Nencioli, who suspected that the doctor had, for reasons they never understood, tipped off police.

Afterward, they remained fearful that they’d be found out by their college.

“We never talked about it again,” she said.

Amanda Kaufman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her @StephanieEbbert.