On Saturday, hundreds gathered in downtown Manhattan for the March for Reproductive Rights — one of the fifth annual Women’s Marches that took place across the country.
Speakers called attention to the threats to abortion rights unfolding across the country — particularly in Texas, where a law passed last month outlawing abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy, before most people know they’re pregnant.
In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) — the state’s first female governor — recently announced an agenda to affirm abortion rights in the state, which includes distributing information to patients on their rights to abortion care and directing the state’s Department of Health to develop and distribute provider guidance on the right to provide abortion care. (In New York, pregnant people can access abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy if “there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”)
Among those in the crowd were women who remember the days before Roe v. Wade was passed in 1973 to protect the right to abortion. Speaking to The Lily, they recalled memories of marching for abortion rights in the 1970s and shared how they feel fighting for the same rights five decades later.
For Peggy Crull, the passage of Texas’s abortion ban last month triggered memories of the difficulties she faced accessing her first abortion, which she said she had in Tennessee around 1966, when she was about 20 and abortion was illegal in the state. (Tennessee still has extensive restrictions on abortions and does not have a statewide law that would protect the right to abortion if the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research center that supports abortion rights.)
“I was young — I didn’t have a lot of money,” recalled Crull, who is retired and lives in New York City.
Still, after an hour-long car ride with her boyfriend, she was able to reach a doctor who performed abortions in Tennessee, she said. For that — and her second abortion, which she had years later in New York, where the procedure was legalized in 1970 — Crull counts herself lucky.
But Tennessee is about one-sixth the size of Texas — and Crull knows that if she “had to plan a long trip and was working and had children,” accessing an abortion would have been far more difficult, if not impossible.
“They have a much harder time, I’m sure,” she said of people seeking abortions in Texas under the current law. “It’s tragic.”
Even though Crull was able to access abortions without too many barriers, she still felt “really, really depressed” about having to end two unplanned pregnancies, she said. She channeled her despair into activism, organizing with the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse — an organization founded by Puerto Rican physician Helen Rodriguez-Trias — after moving to New York in 1968, she said.
When the Supreme Court decided on Roe in 1973, “everyone in CARASA was thrilled,” Crull added.
But threats to Roe began popping up soon after the Supreme Court issued its ruling. In response, abortion rights advocates continued insisting upon the right to legal abortions, in part by organizing a 1989 march that drew hundreds of thousands of people to D.C., according to the New York Times. Crull was there, she said.
“I believe abortion should be on-demand, and it’s always just been a cause that’s important to me — not just because of my personal experience,” she said. “I also have a young daughter, [who’s] 28, so I want her to have the same protections.”
That’s what led Crull to Saturday’s march. But she wasn’t happy to be fighting for the same rights that she and others fought for nearly 50 years ago: “I’m upset” that access to abortion is still up for debate, she said.
Saturday morning, before heading out to the march, Crull received a text from a friend: “How many more times are we going to have to do this?” it read.
Lois Murray and Michele Lesser were seniors at American University when the Supreme Court decided on Roe v. Wade in 1973.
“I was in the dorm and somebody had just heard it on the news and came into my room and said, ‘The Supreme Court is legalizing abortion,’” recalled Murray, a history and English teacher who lives in New Haven, Conn.
One of Murray’s friends broke out a bottle of champagne to toast to the news, she said.
It was Murray’s grandmother — a suffragist — who sparked her interest in women’s rights from a young age, she said, adding that the pair went door-to-door to campaign for John F. Kennedy in 1960.
“I think she kind of inspired me, as the second wave of feminism came along, to take part in it and expand our rights,” she said of her grandmother.
Murray and Lesser, who met during their first year of college, began marching against the Vietnam War and for women’s rights in the early 1970s, they said. Five decades later, they’re advocating for abortion rights again.
Doing so makes them feel “like everything’s going backwards,” said Lesser, who is retired and lives in Manhattan.
But the pair has noticed one mark of progress in the mainstream abortion rights movement since their college days: more of an intersectional approach that emphasizes the different challenges people face in obtaining abortions based on race, income and gender identity, among other factors.
In the 1970s, “we just thought [abortion] would be open to everyone,” Murray recalled.
Now, “race is at the forefront,” Lesser added, given the added barriers that Black, Latina, Indigenous and immigrant women face in accessing abortions in Texas in particular.
Cassandra Young was only 16 when the Supreme Court protected the right to abortion — too young to realize its full significance, she said.
But “the people around me were excited about it,” recalled Young, a case worker for the city of New York who lives in Brooklyn.
One of those people, Young said, was her mother, a nurse who “remembered the backroom abortions where people were dying.”
“As a nurse, her professional opinion was it made sense [to legalize abortion] so people didn’t have to die on the daily,” she added.
Five decades later, Young shares her mother’s opinion: “I think if we don’t make a stand today, there will not be a future for reproductive rights.”
Despite more antiabortion legislation being passed across the country, one thing Young is heartened by is the way the movement has expanded to include people who aren’t directly affected by limits on abortion, pointing to the “older sisters out here, the men out here.”
“They’re out here fighting for people to have a choice, for women to have a voice,” she said.
Although Young didn’t participate in activism around Roe v. Wade in 1973, having the right to an abortion if she had needed it “gave me choices, it gave me options, it gave me a voice,” she said.
On Saturday, she took to New York City’s streets wearing a button: “Women’s Reproductive Rights Are Human Rights!!!” it read.
“If we don’t fight for our rights, who will?” she asked.
On the January 1973 day that the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, Eileen Bahl’s mother told her that she had had an illegal abortion about seven years earlier, when Bahl was around 14 or 15 and growing up in Brooklyn, she said.
Her mother had four kids and was already middle-aged — and financially strapped — at the time of her pregnancy, said Bahl, a psychoanalyst who lives in New York: “We didn’t have a lot of money, and I don’t think she could handle another child.”
“I think she was so greatly relieved [when Roe was decided], and she said, ‘This decision is for you and your daughters,’ ” Bahl added.
Bahl knew the significance of the Supreme Court’s decision: She remembers, just a few years earlier, “wanting to have sex with my first boyfriend and just being too scared to,” she said.
“The threat of pregnancy and what could happen if you got pregnant was so great for so many young women around that time — it was just too scary,” she added.
At the time of Roe, Bahl was 22 — and “in those days, we marched for everything,” including the right to abortion, she said.
Now, “I can’t believe that we are going backwards,” she said. “It blows my mind that we had come so far, and now it’s even worse than it was … that a doctor could be prosecuted for something that is supposedly the law of the land — we didn’t have that happening [in the ’70s].”
When it comes to the future, Bahl is “fearful.” But she also believes the abortion rights movement “seems to be picking up again as it’s starting to affect more women,” she said.
She hopes “that there will be so many women who come out across the country that it will have to push people” to protect abortion access, she said.