Another Form of Birth Control

After graduating from Iowa State University in Spring of 1971, Helen, age 21, moved East – into an apartment in Newark, New Jersey – and worked in the home sewing industry as a traveling educator based out of New York City. She moved far away from her family or anyone who knew her. She was looking for a fresh start. 

In the fall of 1971, just a few months after moving to the city, Helen began experiencing strange symptoms. Her body felt different, and she stopped menstruating. She didn’t know what was wrong with her. Worried she’d done something wrong, she visited her doctor. The doctor ran some tests and sent her home to await results. 

“The doctor's office called and said I was pregnant,” Helen said. “And for about fifteen seconds, I contemplated suicide. It was like I couldn’t think of a way out.”

This was two years before the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the right to have an abortion in their 1973 ruling in the case Roe v. Wade, but one year after the state of New York legalized abortion up to the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy; New York was the only state in the country at the time where a woman could legally have the procedure. Still, Helen did not have money saved for an abortion – which at the time cost 200 dollars. At first, abortion didn’t seem accessible to her. And having the baby was not an option. She would have lost her job, and she did not have any family or network of support in the city to help care for a child. And at the time, she had no desire to ever return home. On top of it all, she didn’t know the man who impregnated her. She had had a spontaneous one-night-stand several weeks before, and they did not use protection. He didn’t ask her about birth control until after the act. She had not heard from him since.

“I was at a low point in my life, and I was not thinking about taking care of myself,” Helen said. “[Getting pregnant] was embarrassing. It felt really shameful and really stupid.”

After she got the news, Helen confided in two people: her roommate, and one other friend who lived in the city. She did not admit to them that it had been a one night stand, and instead gave them the name of a man she’d been involved with off and on since college. She never told her parents, and only years later would she tell her brother. She never made any attempt to track down her one-night-stand – “it wouldn’t have changed anything,” she said. It was her friend who suggested Helen have an abortion. She gave her the name of a clinic to call, said she had the money for it and would lend it to Helen. A couple days later, she drove Helen about thirty minutes out of the city for her procedure (Helen did not have a car). As the two women made these plans, Helen’s roommate was quiet. 

“I remember going there and having it done and then going home and being home for a couple days before I went back to work,” Helen said. “I paid in cash. There was no problem getting in or out. People [at the clinic were either] neutral or helpful, and I was numb. I felt only shame. I felt it was all my fault, and to some extent it was, because I hadn’t taken any precautions. Neither did he. But naturally I was the one who suffered for that.”

Helen suspects they performed a Dilation and Curettage procedure to remove the tissue from her uterus, but does not know for sure. 

“They might have told me,” Helen shrugged. “I don’t know. It didn’t really matter.”

After the procedure, Helen felt only relief. When she got her next paycheck, she repaid her friend the money she borrowed. Her and her roommate spoke very little after that, and eventually fell completely out of touch. In the years since, Helen has thought very little about her abortion.

“It felt to me [that] abortion [was] just another form of birth control,” Helen said. “My older brother's wife was pregnant at the time, and I have thought if I had brought it to term the two babies would be the same age… but that’s not– I mean, I don’t think about it.”

At her next doctor’s appointment, her doctor suggested she start taking the birth control pill. It had never crossed her mind to use the pill before that. Helen had been sexually active since her sophomore year of college; when she lost her virginity, she knew very little about sex, let alone pregnancy prevention – her parents never talked to her about it, and she doesn’t remember any sex education at school. What little she knew she gathered from her limited conversations with friends on the topic. Her first partner taught her about condoms, and her junior year of college, when she entered into a long term relationship with a man, they used spermicide jelly. In light of what had happened, her doctor thought the pill was a good option for her, and she had no aversion to it, so she began taking the birth control pill at age 21.

Helen asked for a different job shortly after her abortion – she changed from an office position to a field work position, and spent the next three years travelling and giving presentations. She lived in Boston for six months and spent some time in D.C. before moving back to work in the office again. 

“I [got a new job] to fix how I was emotionally feeling,” Helen said. “It was interesting. I got to see something new, I got to meet other people, I got to travel around. I was busy in a different way.”

When Helen was 24 and living back in New Jersey – taking long bus rides into the city every day to work and back – she got a call from a woman who owned a fabric store in her hometown. The women had known Helen for her whole life, and knew Helen was passionate about sewing and fabrics. So when she was thinking of selling her store and retiring, she called Helen and asked if she wanted to come home. 

“I swore I’d never come back,” Helen said. “But I was just kind of floating around. I think I floated for a long time.”

In 1974, Helen moved home to a rural mining town with a population of around 16,000 people. She took over the fabric store and she met her first husband – a man to whom she would be married for 28 years. She didn’t quite feel she was ready for a relationship for him, and didn’t feel he was the right person for her, but they were sleeping together, which attracted some negative attention from members of the community. 

“Birth control for a single woman in a rural community was really weird,” Helen said. “I went for a physical, and it was time to renew my [birth control] prescription. And the doctor said to me, ‘What’s wrong with him that he’ll sleep with you but he won’t marry you.’ This is why I got married. I went home and called him and I said I think it’s time we got married. There was a lot of shame involved with that. We got married quickly after that.”

Shortly after getting married, Helen started using a diaphragm instead of hormonal birth control. Neither she nor her husband wanted kids – their marriage wasn’t going well, they both struggled with alcoholism and overeating. Helen always worried about an accident. The two of them discussed a vasectomy – her husband was willing to get one, said he would get one, but he didn’t rush to make an appointment. He put it off. When a friend of theirs, who had already had three kids, had her tubes tied, Helen decided not to wait for her husband to take responsibility. 

“I don’t remember anyone saying to me, ‘you’re only 28 years old, why are you doing this?’” Helene said. “I was very determined. I knew I didn’t want kids. As I recall I made an appointment and went in for surgery. I don’t remember any sort of process of people doing an emotional test. I remember my mom telling me she thought it was a good idea. I was kind of resentful later on that she had said that but I think that was a response to her own life. [She] was as supportive as she knew how to be.”

Helen believes that if her mother had been given a choice, she might have chosen not to have kids. 

 “She was of the era that you got married and you had kids,” Helen said. “I always had a sense that she had children because she didn’t have a choice. She always wanted to work. She had the beginning of a career before she and my dad got married, and my dad would never allow her to work. He thought that was a diminishment to him – if she had a job, it would mean that he couldn’t support the family.” 

After she had the surgery, Helen felt relieved to not have to worry about birth control anymore. But by the end of her thirties, Helen found herself wishing for an immaculate conception. Despite everything, though, she has few regrets about her life. Eventually she divorced her first husband and moved away to a small city, where she founded a nonprofit to help female entrepreneurs in her city – her dream job. She met her soulmate almost ten years ago, and remarried in 2015. Helen still keeps in touch with her friend from New York – the one who lent her the money – but her roommate from those days hasn’t spoken to her since the abortion. Helen has sent her letters and received no response. She suspects the abortion may have something to do with their losing touch, but she doesn’t know. 

“I’ve had a wonderful life,” Helen said. “I’ve done some exciting things. I’ve had great work experiences. I’ve accomplished good things. I regret having put myself in the position of having to have an abortion. But I don’t regret having done it, and I don't wish that it had been different. I wouldn’t have wanted to get pregnant in that way with someone I didn’t know. That wouldn’t have been the life that I wanted to have.”

Helen feels lucky to have been living in New York at that point in her life – which was the only state in the country where a woman could have a legal abortion in 1971. Helen can’t believe she’s living to see the Roe v. Wade decision overturned. 

“I think about the things that I’ve gone through as a woman that [the next] generation doesn't have to face,” Helen said. “Looking back at my mother’s generation, and what she had to deal with that I never had to deal with… some of that is coming back around. [The next] generation is going to have to face some things that we thought we took care of. I feel angry. I’m really angry.”

Interview conducted September 13, 2022 in person.