March 8, 2019

We can’t go back

Matthew Reichbach

When I was 30, a mother of two daughters and the proud bearer of a long-worked-for college degree, I underwent a tubal ligation. My husband and I had the family we had planned and could afford. Less than two months later, I learned that I had become a statistic, the one woman in a thousand for whom a tubal ligation fails.

The year was 1980. I had an abortion, relieved and enormously grateful that I could access and afford the medical care I needed. I remember thinking about young women in high school who had died or been maimed after illegal abortions; young women who had been forced to carry their pregnancies to term and give up their newborns; young women who had disappeared – in school one day and gone the next.

The Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v Wade had turned abortion from a dangerous, illicit activity into a safe, medically regulated procedure. But Roe is now under attack and we face the reality that abortion may again become illegal in America.

New Mexicans are particularly at risk because we have an antiquated law from 1969 that criminalizes abortion. Without Roe, providing an abortion could become a felony in our state. House Bill 51, which has passed the House and is moving through the Senate, will repeal major sections of this old law, ensuring that abortion remains safe and legal in New Mexico and health care providers won’t face jail time.

Women who had unintended pregnancies and abortions before 1973 have begun to tell their stories as a cautionary tale. They know what will happen when Roe is gone. Women will continue to have unintended pregnancies and abortion will go underground. Women with money will travel to places where abortion remains safe and legal. Poor women, young women, and women of color will be at risk of injury and death.

Five women, members of Santa Fe National Organization for Women, met recently to talk about life before Roe.

They were between 15 and 22 when they became pregnant. They were living in California, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Illinois and Massachusetts. Their pregnancies were unplanned; most were using birth control. They couldn’t tell their families, didn’t know where to turn, and relied on friends to raise money. One woman traveled to El Paso, another to North Carolina. The fifteen-year-old lived in a state where a teenager had recently bled to death after using a coat hanger to try to end her pregnancy. She was too terrified to even try to get an abortion. When her family found out she was pregnant, they sent her away to have her baby; her newborn was given up for adoption.

How did they feel after their experiences? Relief, shame, gratitude. Remembered fear. A shared determination that no woman should have to live in a world where abortion is illegal and only the privileged and moneyed get to have control over their bodies.

“We can’t go back to the time before Roe,” one woman said. ‘We have to make sure that abortion is not just legal, but safe.”

Most New Mexicans agree. A survey conducted by Latino Decisions revealed that seventy-seven percent of New Mexicans from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds agree that they can hold their own personal opinions about abortion while believing that women should still be able to make the decision to have an abortion for themselves.House Bill 51 will ensure that New Mexico does not return to the dark days when abortion was illegal. If House Bill 51 does not pass and Roe v. Wade is overturned, health care providers would be considered criminals for providing abortion care. Women seeking an abortion could face investigations, injury or death from unsafe alternatives, and jail time. New Mexico cannot go back to those days.

Janet Gotkin is a member of the Santa Fe chapter of the National Organization for Women which is part of the Respect New Mexico Women coalition