On June 26, 2014, the Supreme Court of the U.S. overturned a Massachusetts law that required anti-abortion protesters to stand back 35 feet from the entrance to any abortion clinic, a law passed in response to widespread harassment and violence directed toward clinic patients and staff. The petitioners averred that they only wanted to have "quiet conversations" with women attempting to enter abortion clinics in order to advise them of alternatives to abortion. They successfully made this claim despite the "pro-life" movement's abundant history of attempted public shaming in the form of obstructing, pushing, shoving, finger-wagging, sign-waving, even shooting visited upon law-abiding women seeking legal medical treatment and the law-abiding practitioners who care for them.
Justice Scalia wrote in his decision that, "Protecting people from speech they do not want to hear is not a function that the First Amendment allows the government to undertake in the public streets and sidewalks." The Court ruled unanimously that other laws against harassment, intimidation and obstruction could be used by the states to control crowds at the doors of abortion clinics without the 35-foot rule. Curiously, the Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. enforces a buffer zone of approximately 250 feet from its front doors in order to maintain "suitable order and decorum."
During the more than 40 years of legal abortion in the U.S. made possible by the court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, and the achievement of safe, affordable and conveniently-located providers that have allowed women unprecedented control of their reproductive health and family planning, the hate-filled vehemence of the anti-abortion forces has continued without cease and, if anything, grown in vehemence: The radical wing of the movement has been found responsible for some 153 cases of assault and battery, 17 attempted murders and six actual murders. The harassment of providers by radical groups now also includes the online publication of names and addresses of doctors who provide abortions. The website 100abortionphotos.com, for instance, currently lists the addresses of abortion facilities by state under the heading "American Death Camps." Assuming that their readers are not seeking abortions for themselves, there can be no other reason for such listings other than to make it easier for activists to locate and harass abortion providers.
There is, in fact, no evidence that the anti-abortion activists have rescued anyone. The rate of both live births and abortions has decreased substantially since 1973. At the same time, state legislators have passed laws in approximately one-third of states to make it difficult to impossible for stand-alone abortion clinics to operate. I wish I could have a "quiet conversation" with these anti-abortion activists and legislators to impress upon them the serious dangers of returning American women to the days of illegal abortion, a subject on which I am expert.
I am the author of The Search for an Abortionist, published by the University of Chicago Press in 1969. It was an academic book, a revision of my Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard, focused on the sociology of the informal networks of communication people use to reach various goals when there no formal channels are available. Abortion made a great case study for this purpose, because it was entirely illegal then except for a few narrowly-defined medical conditions which seemed to afflict only the most wealthy, educated and otherwise privileged women.
Every year, pre-Roe, a huge number of normally law-abiding Americans had only a short time (basically, 4-12 weeks) in which to make a major decision, identify and contact a provider doing everything possible to remain invisible, raise the often substantial amounts of money needed and carry it out. It was estimated in the 1960s that about a million women a year were having abortions, an enormous amount of illegal activity. Yet abortion was carried out almost invisibly in American society as a whole. For this reason, it was not at all obvious in 1973 that Roe v. Wade would have the far-reaching effects it generated in the next decade and beyond.
My study was based on 114 volunteers, American women between 17 and 52, who found themselves pregnant when they didn't want to be. These women -- married, divorced and single, rich and poor, sophisticated and naïve -- willingly told me their stories of how they became pregnant, how they felt about it, who they turned to for help, sympathy and understanding, how they found their abortionist, how far they traveled for the procedure, how much they paid in total, how they recovered and the long-term effects on body and soul, relationships and attitudes. Many of these women kept or were still keeping the pregnancy a secret from at least some people, such as parents, children, sometimes the man involved in the pregnancy. Most, however, had the help and support of that man, whether he was her husband, fiancé, boyfriend or more casual acquaintance, as well as from close friends and relatives.
Their stories were wrenching. Women spoke of panic, denial, depression and despair they suffered when they realized their condition. Some told of dangerous and painful attempts to terminate the pregnancy themselves with hot baths, questionable medicines or catheters. When they managed to find the address of an abortionist, women often travelled hundreds of miles across state lines and international borders, flew to Europe or Japan, New York to California and vice-versa. Many had to borrow substantial sums of money to pay for travel and the often high fees charged by practitioners whose qualifications were generally unknown. A minority reported dirty, dangerous, agonizing, nerve-wracking experiences, and a few suffered painful procedures followed by massive infections requiring hospitalization. Most, however, were treated competently and kindly by a physician, and most reported that their overwhelming reaction to the experience was relief, not the lifetime of guilt and nightmares promised to this day by anti-abortion activists.
The book was a modest success, remained in print for a long time, and has just been re-issued in e-format. I know this: When Roe v. Wade was announced in 1973, my book went from being primarily of interest to sociologists and adopted as a secret guide by women seeking to terminate a pregnancy, to an account of a deep and disturbing hidden history. We must not allow it to become a guidebook again.