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A call to action: Activists who fought for Roe v. Wade are back to fight for reproductive rights

“How can you sit back? The rapidity with which some of these laws have taken place is very frightening. It’s happening way too quickly,” one activist said.
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Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights at the Women's march in Washington on Jan. 21, 2017.Bill Tompkins / Getty Images file

Jane Fisher still remembers feeling terrified driving to New York City from her Connecticut college campus for a 3 a.m. appointment with an abortion doctor almost 50 years ago. She had heard countless horror stories of women getting sick and dying from unsafe abortions, so she decided to travel in the dead of night to a clandestine clinic in the neighboring state, which recently legalized abortion.

The procedure, which safely terminated her unwanted pregnancy, yielded a sigh of relief for Fisher, but the panic-ridden experience resonated for a long time, eventually sparking a passion in her for reproductive rights.

Jane Fisher
Jane Fisher in Concord, New Hampshire in 1979.

“Women deserved better,” she said. “I needed to do something about it.”

After college, she began protesting and working with well-known reproductive rights activist Bill Baird until abortion became legal in 1973 with the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.

Now at 70, the retired clinical social worker has once again felt the call for action after feeling like what she’d fought so hard for is facing a new threat.

“Abortion rights are under attack in such a deep way now," she said, referring to the wave of anti-abortion laws recently passed. “How can you sit back? The rapidity with which some of these laws have taken place is very frightening. It’s happening way too quickly.”

Fisher belongs to an abortion-rights group comprised of women who grew up in the pre-Roe v. Wade era called Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights. The group lobbies state legislatures, has an avid presence at women’s marches and hosts educational discussions on reproductive justice.

Like Fisher, many activists who spoke out in defense of a woman’s right to choose in the '60s and the '70s said they have felt the call to action again, and this time they feel a greater urgency to get involved because they remember what life was like when abortions were criminal.

Jane Fisher and Judy Kahrl
Jane Fisher and Judy KahrlCourtesy Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights

“We can’t go back to that,” said Karen Mulhauser, 76, who protested for reproductive justice in the '60s. “Young people sometimes don’t believe that Roe could be reversed because they’ve grown up seeing abortion always being available, but that’s why women need to tell stories of what it was like when it wasn’t.”

Mulhauser said she was forced to self-induce an abortion at 19 years old when she had no legal way to obtain one. She still remembers standing in a “pool of blood” struggling to get back to campus afterwards.

She went on to become the executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America, in the '70s and the '80s, after working as a pregnancy counselor and a volunteer for Planned Parenthood.

These days, she’s busier than ever doing voter engagement work and mentoring young women who are looking to further the abortion rights cause.

In the last year, anti-abortion advocates have made a concerted push to siphon access to the procedure by pressuring states to pass restrictive abortion laws aimed at triggering the Supreme Court to overturn more than 40 years of federal abortion protection under Roe v. Wade.

So far, nine states have passed such laws, including Alabama, whose law makes abortion at any stage of a pregnancy a felony punishable by 10 to 99 years or life in prison if it goes into effect.

Other states, such as Ohio and Louisiana, have introduced "heartbeat" bills which outlaw abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected, which usually occurs around six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant.

Heather Booth, 73, founded an underground network as a college student out of Chicago in 1965 called “Jane” that helped women obtain abortions until they became legal.

After Roe was decided, Booth began working on a host of other social change efforts including financial reform, marriage equality and immigration policy.

But in the wake of the recent challenges to abortion, Booth has lent her voice back to women’s reproductive rights by promoting strong organization and voter mobilization in the face of what she feels is a more powerful opposition than before.

“The opposition is now more virulent, partisan, well-funded and organized for political purposes in ways that it was not quite the same before Roe,” she said. The strict and very clear partisanship surrounding this issue wasn’t the same level back then, she said.

Several other activists from the pre-Roe era echo Booth’s sentiment.

“Watching the last year or two has been absolutely agonizing,” said Sheila Spear, 78, a '60s activist who recently joined Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights’ educational outreach branch. “In the ’60s, I don’t think many women were openly pursued by the law the way people are now. They weren’t threatened with going to jail for the rest of their lives.”

Sheila Spear
Sheila SpearCourtesy Sheila Spear

"It’s ridiculous that despite our past efforts, this next generation of women may still be denied their reproductive rights," she said. "It’s worse this time because we know better."

Spear feels the threat to abortion rights has reached peak level.

Abortions will not cease, even if it's outlawed, said Norma Dreyfus, 79, a retired doctor who worked the septic abortion ward in New York City as a medical student in the mid-1960’s. She still vividly remembers the horrors of seeing women who underwent illegal or self-induced abortions, who were infected, hemorrhaging and dying.

Women will go back to doing whatever it takes out of desperation, which will lead to unsafe and dangerous outcomes, she said. "We've already seen it happen."

In 1965, illegal abortions accounted for 17 percent of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a group that studies reproductive rights. Although the numbers of deaths was likely higher as the data only reflected reported deaths, the institute reported.

Dreyfus feels her unique perspective on the medical side of botched abortions will help spread the cause, which is why she's actively involved in advocacy and has even testified in front of the Maine Legislature regarding two bills on abortion rights.

Jeanne Galatzer-Levy, 68, a former member of “Jane,” had retired into a quiet life after working as a science writer in Chicago until she too felt the winds around abortion begin to shift.

Jean Galatzer Levy
Jean Galatzer-Levy in the 1960s.

“I’ve become much more active than I ever was before,” she said. “It’s important to tell our story because the story is still relevant. I wish it wasn’t, but it still is.”

She’s particularly worried about low-income women, who are almost always disproportionately affected by restrictive abortion access.

“Middle-class women are always going to be able to get abortions because there will always be places they can go that will give them safe abortions. It’ll just be harder for poor women to gain access to safe places,” she said.

According to a 1960’s study of low-income women in New York City, 77 percent said that they had attempted a self-induced procedure, the Guttmacher Institute reported.

But Galatzer-Levy is hopeful the new generation will take heed the stories of women who knew life before abortion was legal and will help move the cause forward.

“I’m really excited by what I see in the new women’s movement and the new activism,” she said. “They are moving it along,” she said.

Fisher has charged herself up for the next round of action with nothing short of the same passion she had as a young college student. She now has a new generation of women to fight for and to fight alongside, she said.

“It’s time we all get active and pay attention to reproductive justice because these rights are fundamental to all women, and we have to have each other’s backs,” she said. “We absolutely cannot go backwards.”