I Helped My Classmates Get Illegal Abortions Before Roe. We Can’t Go Back.
Before Roe v. Wade, women set up referral networks to help each other access abortions. One referral coordinator was Carol Giardina, who connected her college classmates to safe abortion providers even though it was illegal. The time for such bravery has come again.
- Interview by
- Piper Winkler
The recent leak of a Supreme Court opinion draft suggests that Roe v. Wade will soon be overturned — and that for millions of people across the country, abortions will become illegal.
For those who came of age before Roe was decided in 1973, the stakes of this rollback are clear. They’ve already lived through a time when getting an abortion meant breaking the law, seeking medical care in secrecy, and risking your life to maintain control over your body and your future. Those who were active in the movements for abortion rights and women’s liberation know the fundamental threats to personal freedom and safety that the pre-Roe era posed — and why we can’t go back.
One such activist is Carol Giardina, cofounder of Gainesville Women’s Liberation and advocate for abortion rights. As a college student in the early 1960s, she created and ran a referral network to help fellow students and community members obtain safe illegal abortions. Jacobin sat down with Giardina to discuss the state of reproductive health care before Roe: how she built the referral network, what options were available to abortion patients, and what a new generation of organizers needs to know as abortion bans take hold across the country.
Prior to Roe v. Wade, when people experienced unwanted pregnancies, what were their options, and what was the likely outcome for them?
Whenever you went out with your girlfriends — went out shopping, or for a walk, or to lunch — you wouldn’t get more than fifteen minutes into whatever you were talking about before somebody would say, “Oh my God, Jane’s period is late,” or “Oh my God, my period is three days late.” It might be one of them, or their roommate, or somebody we all knew, but it was always there in the conversation. It was that pervasive.
You would worry, and then you would get the word that her period came, and everybody would be like, “Oh, thank God.” But in the meantime, we would try to prepare for whose period might not come. It was just a part of life, like washing your hair. It was that much around you. You always had at least one or two friends who feared that their periods were late; it was there at all times.
You had basically two choices in 1963 and in the whole period before Roe v. Wade. One option was to have the child, which means you were not going to finish college. You would go home. Your parents would be mortified. You would be the talk of the neighborhood. You would bring shame upon your family. And you would either give the kid up for adoption or raise it. Your whole life would be changed in an irrevocable way.
The other alternative was to get an illegal abortion, which meant risking your life. Women died from illegal abortions; they got torn up from them; they got blood poisoning.
These were your two choices. Have this child, get thrown out of school, shame your family, and change your life. You either give it up or you keep it, but you’re in bad trouble. The other choice is to risk your life to get an illegal abortion. This choice hung over the head of sexually active women before Roe.
You saw women disappearing from the freshman class, and you knew they had gone home to have a baby. And they don’t come back, either. This did not happen to the guys in the freshman class, or anywhere along the line. It took a toll on women getting a college education.
How did you become connected to the referral network, and what did it look like when you started?
My roommate, Linda, was pregnant. She was my first roommate. I grew up in Queens, in New York City. I was something between a beatnik and a hippie. It was 1963. I knew people in New York who had gotten abortions. I was living in the girls’ dorm at the University of Florida in Gainesville. My parents sent me away to get me out of the city, because they were afraid I was becoming a beatnik and a protester, which, of course, I was. The civil rights movement was rolling in.
Linda was a good Southern girl, with a deep accent and blonde hair. She said to me, “My mother will commit suicide if she finds out that I’m pregnant.” I said, “Well, Linda, I might know somebody; maybe I could help you.”
This is how it started. I didn’t choose to become the dorm abortion referral counselor. If you had sat in a room of ten of us and asked somebody to volunteer, I wouldn’t have done it. But there it was: my roommate was pregnant. She was desperate to have an abortion, and she probably would have done harmful things to herself.
We raised money quite publicly: the guy who became my boyfriend brought me his whole scholarship check. We robbed the washers and dryers in the laundry room. We took bottles to the recycling. We got money from donations, from friends. We raised money in a very public way.
So Linda went to New York and got an illegal but safe abortion. When she came back, women started coming to our dorm room: they’re afraid they’re pregnant, and can I help them? So I tried. And it began that I was making referrals for illegal abortions. I got a bird’s-eye view of the girls in the dorm and the freshman class. If you got pregnant, you got thrown out of school, period. They came to me dreading that they were pregnant.
[After her abortion,] Linda was okay. Two of my other friends were not. One got some pills from somebody who told them, “Take all these pills. You’re going to miscarry.” Nobody knew what these things were; you just took them. She was on my dorm room floor, and she said, “I’m going to go in the shower. Don’t come in there with me. I’m going to stuff a washcloth in my mouth so that I don’t scream.” And then she had been instructed to pick up everything that came out, put it in a plastic bag, and take it somewhere, so they could make sure that everything had worked.
She was lying on the shower floor in a pool of blood, with this washcloth in her mouth, with the water falling down on her to wash things away. This was a very close friend. She didn’t die. She made it. But what a nightmare.
Another friend was not so lucky. She went somewhere because she knew somebody who knew somebody; she was blindfolded and taken out into the countryside. When they took the blindfold off, she was in a very poor person’s country shack. This was the South in 1963. If you were poor, you didn’t have a sanitary place to do this, but you needed the money.
I don’t know what they stuck into Mary, but the fetus didn’t come out, and she got blood poisoning. She came back to Gainesville, and the police found her. By this time, she had a fever and blood poisoning, and she was basically collapsing. The police took her to jail instead of to the hospital. They wanted to know: Who set this up for you? Where did you go? Who did this?
She didn’t even know. She knew one person who told her where to go, and somebody else picked her up. She didn’t give them any information. She was half dead. They took her to the hospital. She had a doctor who didn’t believe that women should get abortions; they were trying to save the life of the fetus and not her life.
She did survive, and she managed to miscarry. These are two women who survived; not only did they survive but they didn’t tear up their insides. According to Howard Zinn’s The Twentieth Century: A People’s History, one-third of the women having illegal abortions had to be hospitalized for complications.
A lot of people think, “Well, a lot of women didn’t get abortions. They didn’t have to worry about it.” But it wasn’t remote. It was right there in your face. It was a part of your everyday life, and it went with you. One choice was to risk death, and your other choice was to drop out of school, go home, and have a kid. These were wretched choices.
What kinds of abortion patients did you work with? What did you learn about them and their experiences?
They were just everyday people. They were everyday students. They were just like my roommate: they had unprotected sex, which I believe most people at one time or another have probably done. I don’t think there was any pattern to what kind of people they were.
And I’ll tell you another thing: nobody regretted it. Nobody. I can tell you that much. That is true of all of them. Nobody regretted it. They felt relief. That was the major mental health outcome.
I’ve lost track of most of them. I still see my friend Carrie. She raised a kid; she went that route, and he grew up to be a nice kid. But she went on welfare. She quit school, she went on welfare, and, many years later, she managed to return to school, but she became a welfare mom for a while.
The only common characteristic among those women [who had abortions] is that they felt relief afterward.
How would you make a referral for a patient, and what steps would she take to get the abortion?
By the time they came to our dorm room, they already knew that they wanted an abortion. They knew they had put some money in a pot for Linda, and they knew that she had come back, that she was alive. And they knew that’s what they wanted to do, because they didn’t want to leave school and have kids. I didn’t have to do a counseling session. That was what they wanted to do.
I was keeping a card file by this time. We just looked at their schedule. When were they going to have exams? How much money would it cost? How could they get the money? They would fish around and figure out how they could get the money. And then we would make arrangements with the contacts, the network of people who were going to help them get there. It was a nurse in Miami, a doctor in New York. I didn’t have any back-alley people in my contacts.
You recall being nearly thrown out of school for your referral work. How did pro-choice politics fit into the political terrain of your campus?
Can you imagine going back to your apartment to find three women standing there, and they look like they’re scared to death and they want you to help them, and it’s illegal? I nearly got thrown out of school. The dean kind of knew what was going on, but she didn’t want a scandal. Back then, universities acted in loco parentis, in place of your parents, and they basically advertised that your child would be safe here. They really didn’t want it to get out that this was happening and that women were getting pregnant, so they didn’t throw me out. And my mother stuck up for me.
There wasn’t a pro-choice presence in the whole town until we organized Gainesville Women’s Liberation in the summer of ’68. Right away, a woman had been arrested. Her name was Shirley Wheeler, and she was a townsperson. We were part of a defense for her in 1971. Then there was a pro-choice presence there, and it was us; it was kids with Women’s Liberation.
We talked about abortions and who had had them. We did consciousness-raising. I don’t remember how we got involved in Shirley Wheeler’s case, but she had been arrested, and they were trying to get information out of her, which was the typical thing that happened.
After your abortion referral work in college, how did you get involved in the national women’s liberation movement?
We started Gainesville Women’s Liberation, which is the mother group of National Women’s Liberation and the first women’s liberation group in the South. We met up with the women who would form Redstockings at the first Women’s Liberation conference, and then we all went to protest the Miss America beauty pageant in 1968.
We all shared our experiences, because we were doing consciousness-raising; this was our organizing method. It wasn’t to have catharsis or to be close to your sisters. It was to see that things in your personal life were caused by external conditions, that they were political things. You weren’t just a slut who screwed around with too many guys. You were banned from using science and medicine to not have to become a parent every time you had sex. The science was there, and we couldn’t use it. We’re about to have that happen all over again.
Redstockings decided that instead of just doing consciousness-raising, they were going to have a speak-out. This came after they went to an abortion reform hearing with a bunch of legislators — all men and one nun. They said, “Women are the experts on this. We should be part of making these decisions.” Well, they wouldn’t let the women talk.
They were on the news, and they decided that they would give their own testimony to the world. By this time, Women’s Liberation Movement was producing a newspaper, Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement. So the event was written up in the Village Voice and in the Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
It always aggravated me when people would say, “The Supreme Court gave us Roe v. Wade.” Like, thank you! [As if] these guys just saw the light, woke up one day, and said, “Let’s pass a law.” And it didn’t happen that way at all. Here were Redstockings breaking the law, getting up one after another, and telling stories like the stories of Linda and Mary. One of them had had a baby and had to put it up for adoption.
An article about the event was written for Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It went across the country, through different local women’s liberation groups, which by early 1969 had sprouted up all over the place. In towns all over the country, women’s liberation groups are having speak-outs, because they had learned about the one in New York. And it seemed to be a powerful way of organizing.
Sarah Weddington was one of the two women attorneys who brought the [Roe v. Wade] case to court. And she was really the one that carried it all the way. She had an abortion in law school at the University of Texas at Austin. But she didn’t want to get up and testify about it, so she sat quietly and thought, “What can I do?” And she thought, “I’m going to change the law.”
She graduated; she began to do research about the law. Everybody was doing underground abortion referrals. Jane, the big network in Chicago, did maybe ten thousand referrals. But all over the country, people like me, people like the women in Austin Women’s Liberation, were trying to help women get abortions. Not because we were charitable souls, but because it was happening to people that we knew.
And if you didn’t have beatnik friends in a big city, there was the Clergy Consultation Service. They were rabbis and Methodists. And they were religious leaders who thought you should get help, instead of half killing yourself by trying to do it yourself.
Sarah found Norma McCorvey, or Jane Roe, and they brought the case forward. She pushed it for a couple of years. Finally, it got to the Supreme Court, where the women’s liberation movement gave the court the opportunity to learn about it and to do the right thing. I don’t think they would have just woken up and gotten the right idea.
Sarah Weddington herself, the attorney that brought the case to the court, was at the Austin Women’s Liberation Speakout, a child of the New York Speakout, the first one in the country. She knew she had had an abortion herself. She didn’t want to come forward and talk about it. And she got it into her head that she could change the law.
This story illustrates that the Supreme Court is not something in an ivory tower. It changes things after social conditions have changed, and after a movement has arisen to make something happen. The Supreme Court codifies reality in some way. The story of Roe gives you a different understanding of how and why the powers that be do what they do. It’s a lesson for us now, and for the strategies that we might use now.
Do you remember finding out that Roe had been decided? What was your response to that news?
I was really disappointed. We wanted to go all the way. We thought Roe was a big compromise. The state had a voice in the second trimester. Cindy Cisler, who was in Women’s Liberation in New York, referred people and had an abortion herself and did a lot of writing about it. She said, “Here I am, I feel like Cassandra, but this law is no good. It’s got its own seeds of destruction; it’s based on privacy. And it doesn’t give women the power to really make the decision.” And she was right.
Roe was a relief, but it was not what we had hoped would happen. Cindy used to hold up a blank piece of paper: we were for repeal, which meant no law. It should be like going to the dentist. She would say, “This is what we want: no law.” It was a blank piece of paper, leaving things completely in women’s hands. We viewed Roe as a minor relief.
You cofounded the first women’s liberation organization in the South. What unique challenges and demands do Southerners face in women’s liberation and pro-choice organizing?
They face a more virulent opposition. We used to do clinic defense. Two friends of mine, in the year after Roe, opened the first abortion clinic in town. I think it was the second one in the state.
The born-again folk would come outside that clinic. Two abortion doctors in Florida were killed. We bought earplugs for the patients. We bought a bulletproof vest for our doctor. He used to go in on the floor of the car. We would drive him in, covered by a blanket, in a bulletproof vest. The clinic was threatened with bombings on a constant basis, and you could not get the police to do anything, even though there were threats against it all the time. These were not idle threats, like, “God might hurt you one day,” or something. It was like, “We’re going to come and firebomb your clinic.”
The police wouldn’t come. Well, we had a very active Veterans for Peace chapter — Vietnam veterans against the war. They were up for anything. So they said, “We’ll come and guard the clinic,” after we couldn’t get the police month after month and more places were being bombed. An ex-boyfriend of mine was head of this Vets for Peace chapter. They’d go into the parking lot, armed to the teeth with all the guns they were allowed to bring back from Vietnam.
They would fan out around the parking lot. Some of them would go inside the clinic. We’d bring them food, and they would call the local police and say, “Hi, we’re Vietnam veterans. And we are guarding our local clinic here. Why don’t you come down here and do your job?”
They did that for quite a few weeks and months, off and on, and guard the clinic. The police were really afraid of them. They were Vietnam vets, and they really would guard you. I’m quite sure that one of the main reasons we didn’t get firebombed was that people knew they were there, because we certainly were threatened.
What advice would you give to a new generation fighting the reinstatement of abortion bans? What about that era should we be prepared to fight back against?
I feel very strongly that we need to go for free legal abortions — vacuum-aspiration abortions, D&C [dilation and curettage] abortions. We need to go for the moon, and we need to disrupt the hell out of the status quo. Honestly, that’s the way to do it.
I’m all for electing good candidates who promise to do the right thing. I’m not against that; I vote. But you have to make it more uncomfortable for the system, so that it’s not worth it [to ban abortions]. Whatever is on the other side, you have to tilt that balance.
The law changed in New York because the demand for repeal became so popular that it went all around the country. The New York law was the model for Roe, which came three years later. In 1970, abortion became legal in New York; half the country came to New York to get abortions, but they didn’t want to pass the law. Governor Nelson Rockefeller said to the state legislature, “If we don’t compromise here, we’re going to end up with repeal.” They bought off enough people with this compromise.
Whatever hangs in the balance now, we have to make it the lesser of the two evils by making a tumult. We believe in what we call the inside-outside strategy, which means you do everything. You bring lawsuits. We need a class-action lawsuit right now for all the women in states that have already passed these laws, saying, “We can’t get an abortion. You’re ruining our lives.”
We need to lobby and elect some good people. Then we need to disrupt the hell out of everything. We need fifty thousand people chaining themselves to the Supreme Court. You march; you do civil disobedience; you bring a lawsuit; you lobby and try to elect good people; you raise consciousness; you build a movement. You do all of it.
I think we need to do everything. If you do everything, there’s a place for everybody. If somebody just wants to contribute to somebody’s campaign, that’s fine. They can do that. If somebody else wants to sign a defiance pledge saying, “I’m aiding and abetting women to get an abortion,” they can take that further step. If somebody wants to march over the Brooklyn Bridge, they can do that. Everybody can enter at their own comfort level. It makes a place for everybody in the movement.