By Larry Levine –
It was 61 years ago, yet I remember her name as if it were yesterday. Shelly. I’ll skip the last name in deference to her privacy and that of any surviving family.
I was a young sports editor at a daily newspaper in Burbank CA. It was a small paper and everyone had to pitch in everywhere. So, that weekend I was on call for police emergencies.
The call woke me Sunday morning, before dawn. A young woman was found dead in a bathtub in an apartment house in the foothills of the city. Cause of death was not yet known.
I drove to the scene and was greeted by a police detective I had met for the first time a few days earlier. “What’s up?” I asked.
“Not sure yet,” he said. “It looks like a botched abortion but we’re not sure.”
No one ever found out who performed the abortion. Was it some incompetent butcher who charged for the service and left her to bleed to death? Was it a friend who became frightened and fled? It was determined later that it was not self-performed.
It was abortion the old-fashioned way in America – a coat hanger and a bathtub. Did it really matter who did it? She had no choice and she was dead. Roe v. Wade wouldn’t come along until 14 years later.
That coat hanger abortion could become the way of the future if Donald Trump is re-elected this November.
Even before that morning in Burbank, I understood there were many things wrong with the ban on abortions in the U.S. Women with enough money could leave the country and have perfectly legal, perfectly safe abortions. But women without the resources were at the mercy of back alley butchers.
In high school in the 1950s it was not unusual to speculate about some pregnancies and wonder what the girl and her boyfriend would do. A lot of it was rumor and juvenile tittering. When the pregnancy never produced a baby there was speculation about whether there had been an abortion or the pregnancy might never have been anything other than a rumor.
It was that morning in Burbank and in the days following as I wrote about Shelly that I became an unwavering advocate of a woman’s right to choose, though the term was not yet in the common vernacular. And it was the day I lost all tolerance for those who want to impose their own religious beliefs on others through the political and legal systems. It’s a simple fact: abortions will happen; they happened before Roe v. Wade and they have happened since. The real question is whether they will be safe.
Now, anti-abortion zealots are steering us on the road back to those days. Anti-abortion judges are populating the courts in increasing numbers as demagogic politicians win state and federal elections. In three states Republican governors have cynically seized upon the coronavirus crisis to declare abortions to be elective procedures, thus banning them for the duration, and courts have upheld those actions.
The Supreme Court already has heard arguments on one indirect challenge to abortion rights in the form of a law requiring practitioners to have “admitting rights” at a hospital in order to perform an abortion. Sooner or later, probably sooner than later, other restrictive state and local laws will make their way up the legal ladder as self-proclaimed “pro-lifers” seek de facto bans until the time when there is a direct challenge to the right of women to make decisions regarding their own reproductive issues.
Until now, those who support the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion have played a different game than their opponents. They have relied on supportive office holders and the courts to defend Roe v. Wade and all the associated rights that flowed from that decision. The time when that strategy could be effective may be running out.
The direction of the Supreme Court on the issue of abortion and choice could be determined by who wins the presidential election this year. There could be at least one and maybe two vacancies on the Supreme Court during the next Presidential term. If Donald Trump is re-elected and gets to make those appointments, the calendar on this issue will flip back to that morning in Burbank in 1959. In a major way, this election is about Shelly v. Trump. If Trump wins it is likely that more Shellys will die in bathtubs.