In summer 1966, 17-year-old Leta Dally and her mother were driven by a stranger to an undisclosed location on Chicago’s South Side, where the recent high school graduate had an illegal abortion.
She never knew the name of the doctor who terminated her 8-week pregnancy that night, or the exact address where the procedure took place. The driver parked the car and then walked with the teen and her mom through an alleyway to the backdoor of an indistinctive office building, which served as an underground abortion clinic operating in the years before the landmark case Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure nationwide.
“I remember what it was like before,” said 73-year-old Dally of Chicago’s Northwest Side. “Before abortion was even legal in this state or legal most places … there was a lot of shame involved. You didn’t tell people you had an abortion.”
Now Dally fears much of the nation is reverting to the laws and culture of her childhood, when she had her clandestine abortion about six decades ago.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday overturned Roe v. Wade, an extraordinary reversal of nearly a half century of federal abortion rights. The case at hand, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, upheld the constitutionality of a 2018 Mississippi law that prohibits abortion past 15 weeks’ gestation, a measure designed to challenge Roe v. Wade.
While a leaked draft opinion had revealed the high court’s position in early May, the implications of the official ruling still reverberated across the Chicago area and Midwest, evoking strong emotions among those closest to the reproductive rights debate.
The Tribune in recent weeks interviewed eight women whose lives and work have been profoundly shaped by abortion. With the official court decision imminent, they shared their reactions to the end of federal abortion rights protections and their predictions for access to the procedure in a post-Roe future.
Some recounted their own abortion experiences and the formative impact the procedure had on their lives. Some are physicians, analyzing the complexities and nuance of abortion law from a medical perspective. Others have spent years helping women navigate the many legal, logistical and financial barriers to ending a pregnancy.
“It makes me very sad,” said Dally, who first told her story to the Tribune in 2019, amid a wave of new abortion restrictions in southern states. “For a long time I had a feeling that for feminism and for women’s rights, that we had won the battle, but we are losing the war.”
Her abortion was a relatively good experience, given the time period, Dally recalled.
“It wasn’t a coat hanger,” she had told the Tribune several years ago. “It was with a physician who wasn’t a hack. … Most damaging to me, psychologically, was that I felt as though I was damaged goods.”
Her boyfriend’s mother had asked if she would have an abortion and offered to pay for the $600 procedure, the equivalent to several thousand dollars today, based on the rate of inflation.
Dally immediately said yes, with no hesitation, and never wavered from that decision. She studied English at Northwestern University and joined a sorority, experiences she said she never could have had if she’d carried the pregnancy to term.
Then in January 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-2 in favor of plaintiff “Jane Roe,” establishing the right to end a pregnancy and striking down laws against abortion.
Dally recalled the moment and feeling grateful that other women “wouldn’t have to go through what I did.”
With the fall of Roe v. Wade, the matter of abortion rights will now be decided by individual states. Roughly half of all states in the nation are expected to prohibit or nearly ban abortion. This includes nearly every other state in the Midwest except Illinois, which has strong reproductive rights protections and has long been considered a haven for those seeking an abortion.
“The hammer has come down, shattering a woman’s right to control her own body,” she said Friday, after the Supreme Court decision came out. “A flood of memories washed over me and triggered in detail the fear and sadness I felt having my abortion. … I don’t believe I will live to see women’s equality and that makes me very sad.”
Brittany Mostiller has known for years that the end of Roe v. Wade was looming.
Yet news of the Supreme Court decision was still “heartbreaking” for the former executive director of the Chicago Abortion Fund, who has had multiple abortions and discusses them openly to help destigmatize the procedure.
“I immediately felt a lot of deep grief and sorrow,” she said. “We know that the folks that are impacted by anti-abortion legislation are the most marginalized folks: People from poor communities, Black folks, Indigenous people, queer and (transgender) folks. I thought about people being forced to carry pregnancies to term.”
About 15 years ago, the Chicago Abortion Fund covered part of the cost of her abortion, back when the single mother of three faced an unplanned pregnancy and couldn’t afford to pay for the entire procedure. Mostiller said she was surprised when the nonprofit continued to offer her support afterward, including help with her résumé and offering career and development opportunities.
“They saw my full humanity,” she said. “They knew my life didn’t start and end in that moment. I know what it feels like to be on the other end of the phone and need support.”
Mostiller now works for the National Network of Abortion Funds, where she and other reproductive rights advocates have already been preparing for the decimation of Roe v. Wade. Abortion funds around the country for years have been helping patients pay for and access the procedure, which has become more challenging as many states increasingly passed tighter gestational limits, mandatory waiting periods and more regulations on clinics and providers.
To Mostiller, the work of abortion funds will only become more critical in the absence of Roe v. Wade.
“We’ll still be making sure people can have their abortions,” she said. “Will it be more difficult? For sure. We know our ancestors were doing this prior to Roe. This work will continue.”
After 40 years of anti-abortion activism, Monica Migliorino Miller never assumed or took it for granted that Roe v. Wade would be overturned in her lifetime.
When she learned of the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion, she was “afraid to be happy” and kept wondering if the news was true.
“The injustice of Roe v. Wade is staggering,” she said. “America is responsible for the slaughter of a people-group. We have to face it.”
Decades ago, Miller was among a small group of activists would head out at night and recover fetal remains from the garbage behind a now-defunct Chicago abortion clinic. They made multiple trips over the course of about two months in 1987, finding and salvaging hundreds of fetuses.
Miller, a native of south suburban Chicago Heights who now lives in Michigan, recounted that period in her book, “Abandoned: The Untold Story of the Abortion Wars.”
“I kept boxes of aborted children, draped with a rosary, in my closet,” she wrote. “My mind became forever etched with the memory of hundreds of dismembered, broken bodies — their blood, intestines and torn skin.”
They displayed some of the fetuses on Michigan Avenue in May 1987 as part of an abortion protest, according to a Tribune story at the time. The fetal remains were later buried following a funeral service at a local cemetery.
While she and other abortion opponents might rejoice that Roe v. Wade is no longer the law of the nation, she cautioned that much more work still needs to be done.
“We need to convert hearts and minds to create a culture that is truly inclusive of all human beings — and that means honoring the lives of the unborn — to broaden out the boundaries of social justice,” she said.
Heather Booth was “horrified” but “not surprised” by the Supreme Court’s ruling.
The longtime activist founded the Chicago-based underground abortion service Jane in the years before Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure. Now often known as the Jane Collective, it started in 1965, when Booth was a student at the University of Chicago and arranged an abortion for the sister of a friend.
Soon other women took over, Booth said, first referring patients to a medical provider and ultimately performing abortions themselves.
“The thousands of women who came through Jane were so grateful for that procedure,” she said. “They were grateful that we created a caring community. They were grateful that after the procedure they were no longer pregnant. But they were concerned because it wasn’t legal. And so I was relieved for them when Roe became the law of the land.”
The high court’s reversal “will mean there will be hardship, pain and even death for women,” said Booth, who now lives in Washington D.C.
“It means the dismantling of an established freedom in this country and it means an attack on this most intimate decision of a person’s life, about when or whether or with whom we have a child,” she said.
But Booth pointed out that the reproductive rights landscape is very different from it was more than five decades ago: She said a majority of the public supports Roe v. Wade and “doesn’t believe politicians should come between a woman and her doctor on this intimate decision.”
“The second change is that people who want to defend this freedom are bolder, more conscious,” she said. “We need to stay engaged. We need to be organized. We need to vote.”
Dr. Colleen McNicholas has been performing abortions for about 15 years and most of her work has been in Missouri, one of about a dozen states with a so-called “trigger ban” that would prohibit the procedure in almost all cases.
“The vast majority of my abortion care career has been providing care where access has been difficult,” said McNicholas, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. “Where our ability to have an abortion really depends on your ZIP code, where you live and how much money you make.”
Yet she said the ruling was still a “shock to the system,” adding that it will spur a public health crisis in large swaths of the nation.
Her Planned Parenthood affiliate in 2019 opened a new clinic just over the Mississippi River in Fairview Heights, Illinois, in anticipation of a massive influx of patients traveling for the procedure once federal abortion rights were overturned.
Her work straddling two states shows just how disparate abortion rights can be, even under the protections of Roe v. Wade: While Missouri mandates a waiting period and only has one abortion clinic in the entire state — a Planned Parenthood in St. Louis — Illinois in 2019 passed the Reproductive Health Act, sweeping legislation that ensconced the right to terminate a pregnancy in state law.
While the fall of Roe v. Wade was a blow to reproductive rights, McNicholas added that “Roe was never enough.”
She believes that one day, reproductive freedoms will be restored — and even strengthened — in the wake of Roe v. Wade.
“I’d like to think that I’m young enough where I will see a time when not just Missouri but the rest of the country will have rebuilt a system that is equitable and offers access to everybody, no matter where they live,” she said. “We’re going to continue to fight to bring access back to Missouri. We will be on the ground still fighting to rebuild that system.”
Dr. Karen Deighan, an obstetrician of more than 30 years, is amazed by how much medicine and technology have advanced over the course of her career, often confirming what she’s long believed: That life begins at conception and the unborn must be protected.
She noted that these improvements have been tremendous in the five decades since Roe v. Wade was decided.
“You can see very early the heart, all the organs, the head, the eyes, the movement,” said Deighan, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Loyola University Medical Center. “You can see the baby inside. And I don’t think earlier ultrasounds could show us all that.”
Deighan — a featured speaker at March for Life Chicago in 2020 — called Roe v. Wade’s demise a “step in the right direction … for the protection of unborn children.”
As an obstetrician, she says she’s always caring for two patients: The one who is pregnant and the fetus.
“I struggle sometimes, because some of my colleagues will work so hard to protect and save a 22-week periviable pregnancy and pull out all the medical advances to do that,” she said. “And then don’t see a problem with someone choosing to end that pregnancy.”
Roe v. Wade had offered federal abortion protections up until fetal viability, the point at which survival is probable outside the womb. But Deighan pointed out that viability is a “shifting paradigm,” with newborns surviving at shorter gestation periods than they were decades ago.
She knows abortion won’t end with the fall of Roe v. Wade, that many women will travel to states like Illinois where the procedure is still legal, but she believes abortions will decrease.
“I am saddened at the prospect of our state being a destination for women in the Midwest choosing to end their pregnancies,” she said. “I would much rather we be a state known for our low maternal morbidity and mortality, in which we have a ways to go. I would hope that women considering abortions would know that there is help and support for them to have their children.”
For a nearly a decade, minors in Illinois had to notify a parent or close relative — grandparent, stepparent who lives in the home or a legal guardian — before having an abortion.
But those under 18 could go before a judge and ask that the notice requirement be waived, a process called judicial bypass, where the minors were known only as Jane Doe and the transcript and court records were sealed.
Attorney Ameri Klafeta has represented young people during this process, as part of her work as director of the Women’s and Reproductive Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
The Illinois parental notice requirement was repealed last year and officially ended June 1.
But Klafeta worries about minors in other states now that federal abortion protections have been overturned.
“They all have different reasons for seeking an abortion and I think about what that will mean for those young people who live in the state where they can’t access that care,” she said. “They may be in unsafe family situations where if their family finds out they are pregnant they may be at risk of physical harm. They may get kicked out of their family’s house. They may be forced to carry a pregnancy to term when they don’t want to. They have hopes and goals and dreams for their future that they wouldn’t be able to realize.”
Whenever there are increasing restrictions on abortions, the most vulnerable and marginalized groups bear the brunt of the burden — and that includes young people, Klafeta said.
“I became a lawyer to help people and to try and use my skills and abilities to try and make the world a better place for people,” she said. “To see a decision like this from the Supreme Court that’s going to make life so hard for so many people in this country, as a human being and a compassionate person who listens to stories all the time of people struggling to get abortion care, I worry so much about what is going to happen.”
After the Supreme Court draft opinion leaked, Kawanna Shannon started getting calls from scared and confused patients who erroneously thought abortion had become illegal or that their scheduled procedure had to be canceled.
Shannon is the director of patient access at the Regional Logistics Center, a call center established earlier this year by two southern Illinois abortion providers to handle the expected influx of patients coming to Illinois for the procedure after the fall of Roe v. Wade.
The center, which is based inside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Fairview Heights, assists traveling patients with booking lodging, transportation, child care and accessing existing funds to help pay for the procedure. Since its January opening, the center has helped more than 1,000 patients, according to the Planned Parenthood affiliate.
“We’ve been preparing for a post-Roe world for a while now,” said Shannon, whom the Tribune had profiled in May. “So I wasn’t shocked. I was more so hurt that this is where we are now. That was a little disturbing for me.”
States that ban or significantly curtail abortion won’t stop people from terminating pregnancies, she said.
“What they are blocking is safe, legal abortion,” she said. “If you ban abortion in all 50 states, abortions will still happen. That is what we are trying to protect — the right to have a safe, legal abortion if you so choose.”
She doesn’t believe legislatures and courts will stop with rescinding abortion rights, and worries that other freedoms — the right to take birth control, women’s rights in general — are in danger.
“I’m always worried about reproductive health as a whole,” she said. “We’re always in place to be able to fight … that always has to stay at the forefront of our minds. This is a huge blow. But it’s not the end. We will expand access where we can expand it while fighting the decision.”
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