The United States Supreme Court is one appointment away from overturning Roe v. Wade. And if that happens, as many as 30 state legislatures stand ready to criminalize abortion. In short, the United States of America is very close to turning back the clock on women’s rights to the days of the 1940s and ’50s.
What were those days like? I can tell you. I was there. They were the dark ages for women — a time when most women choosing abortion were required to do so furtively, in the shadows, lacking even the most basic medical safeguards.
Anyone who doubts this need only see director Mike Leigh’s movie “Vera Drake,” which tells the story of what it was like in 1950s England when access to safe and legal abortion was not available to most women. Its message takes on a special significance now that this could once again be the case in our own country.
“Vera Drake” is especially poignant for me, because in a way I lived it. In the 1950s I was working as a waitress in London and became pregnant. I had escaped an engagement to a very nice man, knowing that marriage would be a big mistake for both of us. I was hoping that the fellowship I had received for study in India would be my passport to a different life, but as I waited to receive my visa that would allow me to leave England, I was desperately worried about my pregnancy.
After what seemed like an eternity of confusion and fear, I finally found a doctor who was willing to help me and do what was required — sign a statement that to continue with my pregnancy would be dangerous to my health. “You must promise me only two things,” he said. “You must never tell anyone my name. And you must do what you wish with your life.” I’m sure he is long dead by now, yet I am grateful to him still.
Right now laws are being proposed that would take us back even further than the ’50s.
For example, the Human Life Amendment would declare the fertilized egg to be a legal person, thus effectively nationalizing women’s bodies throughout our childbearing years. Indeed, laws already in existence deprive poor women, young women, even women in the U.S. military, of the reproductive rights available to other women. Many of them are already the victims of illegal and unsafe abortions.
Back in the 1950s, the fact that I could be “helped” at all was significant — I could not have had a safe abortion in the U.S. at that time, where the laws were causing far more deaths from illegal abortions. Even so, I had to pay, as thousands of women could not. “Vera Drake” makes this situation clear, too, by telling the story of a kind and generous cleaning lady whose life and family are destroyed because she has been “helping girls,” as she feels honor-bound to do.
We must all consider what a return to these dark days would mean for us. Are we truly ready, as a nation, to return our daughters to the time of “Vera Drake”? This is a question I hoped I would never have to ask. Now, the question is being asked of all of us, and how we answer it will say much about America as a nation.
Steinem is the founder of Ms. Magazine and a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus and the Women’s Action Alliance.