Abortion before Roe v. Wade


My older sister was doing well as a junior at the Bronx High School of Science in the late 1950s, when she discovered she was pregnant. Her boyfriend was a senior at the same school.

Needless to say, my parents were horrified. But they told her that if she wanted to, she could keep the child.

My sister insisted that, under no circumstances, would she bear a child. That the prospect revolted her. And that her decision to end the pregnancy was ironclad.

Although many years later, my mother told me that she was sure one of my father’s older sisters — who lived in Brooklyn — had had abortions, apparently neither my mother nor my father asked her about recommending someone who performed them. Instead, they took my sister to the office of a family doctor who was married to another one of my father’s older sisters.

My uncle suggested only that my sister try jumping up and down vigorously, and as many times as she could, in the hope of inducing a miscarriage. Not surprisingly, my sister simply scoffed at that suggestion.

My mother then approached a neighbor — a good friend — who had worked for many years as a secretary for various doctors at Montefiore Hospital, a block from where we lived. My mother — an extremely private person — felt sure she could rely on the discretion of this neighbor. The next day, the neighbor gave my mother information about someone who performed abortions in Havana, Cuba.

At that time, the U.S.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, ruled Cuba, and travel between that country and the United States had no restrictions. The abortion, the neighbor told my mother, would cost $500.

My father, who had a civil service job, earned about $1,000 a month, I think. And in addition to supporting his wife and two daughters — he forbade my mother from taking a job outside our home — he served as the sole support of his mother, who lived in Brooklyn, and who had totally alienated her three daughters, so that they neither visited her nor contributed to her upkeep. His only brother had died under mysterious, never-investigated circumstances at a boot camp in Mississippi early in World War II.

I mention that because my father had very little savings. My mother nearly emptied their savings account to buy roundtrip plane tickets to Havana, and get the money to pay the abortionist.

Neither my mother nor my sister had ever been on a plane, and both of them were terrified to the extent that my sister — whose relationship with my mother had long been fraught, and who never expressed affection toward her physically or in any other way — gripped one of my mother’s hands so fiercely during the flight, my mother’s hand ached for hours afterward.

In Havana, my mother got a taxi and gave the driver the address of the abortionist. She noticed that the neighborhoods through which they drove got significantly shabbier as they traveled.

The taxi stopped at what was literally an alley, a grubby pathway with dilapidated doors along it. The appearance of the man who answered my mother’s knock, and the scruffy look of the tiny waiting room, immediately alarmed her. But she felt she could not turn back.

She asked the abortionist if she could accompany my sister into the “operating” room,” but he refused to allow that. He practically dragged my sister into the room and closed the door.

Moments later, my mother began to hear nearly nonstop shrieks, which continued for what seemed to her forever. She felt sure my sister would not survive the procedure, and then she started to fear that, her own heart — which was beating at an alarming speed — would simply stop. She pictured the abortionist wrapping their bodies in blankets and disposing of them in the dark of night in a place where nobody would ever find them.

My mother told me that the time she spent in the waiting room of the Cuban abortionist was infinitely more horrible and nightmarish for her than the day of her father’s suicide, which she had witnessed when she was 13 in 1927.

Although my mother and sister did not return to the Bronx from Havana until well after I had gone to bed, I have no recollection of being alone with my father that night, and eating supper only with him — an extremely rare, if not unique, event. We rarely conversed, and I suspect I did not ask him about my mother’s and sister’s absence.

Much to my mother’s dismay, my father announced to her when she arrived back home that he did not want to hear a single word about what had happened. He died suddenly, in early 1961, without their ever having talked about it.

More than a decade passed before my mother confided to anyone — me — what she and my sister had experienced.

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Miriam Levine Helbok,