Editor’s note: Start with Part 1 of “A Wee Abortion in the Sixties” here.
The person Michael S. suggested to perform my sister’s abortion was a gynecologist on the upper West Side. I never learned his name. He was a German Jew, like my parents, and over the phone he told my mother the cost would be $500, which might not seem like a lot today, but back in 1963 was the equivalent of roughly $4000. I don’t know how my mother broached the subject — probably some guarded German phrase indicating her daughter was in trouble. Nor do I know how he conveyed to her the things she would need to do to get Vivi ready beforehand. This was a time, remember, when abortion was strictly forbidden; doctors could lose their license and go to jail, and so could parents, like mine, who sought them out.
With $500 in cash stuffed in her handbag, my mother escorted my sister to a doctor’s office somewhere in the west eighties. The first thing she realized was that the office opened to a hotel lobby. The second was that the doctor had no nurse to assist him. There would be no anesthesia. Vivian would not be allowed to make any noise, and afterwards she would have to walk out of there as if nothing had happened.
So my mother, who in real life was a painter, had to act as the doctor’s assistant. Her job was to keep Vivi quiet. Not a squeak could come out of her, and to this end they placed a bulky piece of gauze between her teeth for her to bite down on whenever she felt pain. She’d also been given valium and perhaps a painkiller, but from what I heard there was very little to protect her from the agony that occurs when a spectrum is inserted into the cervix, slowly cranking it wider and wider open to gain access to the uterus and the tiny cluster of cells embedded in one of its walls.
At most Vivi was six weeks pregnant. She started screaming a little way’s into the procedure and the doctor yelled at my mother in German to for god’s sake shut her up. My mother thrust a hand over Vivi’s mouth. Meanwhile the doctor sweated profusely as he scraped out Vivi’s uterus. The whole thing didn’t take that long, but for the three of them it must have seemed like hours, Vivi moaning and groaning, trying to hold back screams, while the doctor prodded and scraped, and my mother, always good in a crisis, wiped away tears and told Vivi to squeeze her hand as tight as she could. For every minute of that ordeal, they each must have been aware of the hotel lobby on the other side of the door to the doctor’s office.
Vivi was in a lot of pain. My mother made her walk as normally as possible across the lobby to the street where a car was waiting for them. A few days later, my father sat us both down and said, “Look, from now on you girls have to be careful. I cannot — and will not — go through this again.” Well, for several years that put the fear of god in me every time I made out with a boy, or came close to having sex. What if we were playing around and a little bit of sperm somehow got into my vagina? That may sound like a crazy fear, but this was the early sixties and falling pregnant seemed as easy as catching a cold. A lot of my time was spent worrying that what had happened to Vivi would happen to me. It certainly happened to enough of my friends. In the end, I never got caught like that. In 1973, the same year that Roe v. Wade was passed in the Supreme Court, I had my first child, a daughter. And Vivi, who lived large in all matters, went on to have five children. As for abortion… I have a mystical belief that the tiny souls attached to those scraped out fetuses find their way back to the same or other wombs, that a pregnancy that wasn’t meant to be because the mom was too young or too poor or had a condition that would put her life in danger, should not be forced to continue. And that all women should have the choice. Always.
Editor’s note: This entry concludes the “A Wee Abortion in the Sixties” story by Nicole Jeffords. Come back soon for a bit of a ghost story!
Thank you for this story, Nicky. As one with access to safe abortion, this account is a reminder of the value of the Roe v Wade decision, as well as the spectre of losing those basic rights under the new Supreme Court justice, Amey Coney Barrett and her cronies.