[Our Guest Writer, Linda Diebert, is a social activist who has spent a lifetime advocating for women, young children; as well as disabled and elderly, transit dependent populations. She holds a Master’s degree in Early Learning and founded a pre-school program at Assumption in 1983 that is still operating. She was the former Executive Director of Via Transit services in Boulder, Colorado; and in retirement, is a certified Death Doula volunteering for the past nine years at Whatcom Hospice. She is definitely not happy to once again, after 50 years, spend her time, talent and resources advocating for reproductive rights for all women and girls.]
I grew up in the 50s and 60s in a rural part of South King County. In 1970, I was 18 years old and began my first year of college at Western Washington University in Bellingham. I was a serious student who didn’t smoke, drink, or partake in illicit drugs (at that time anyway); neither, did I have any experience with sex. Just a year prior, while still in high school, I was horrified to hear a classmate tell our small group about having to quit school the previous year because at 16, she got pregnant.
Her parents sent her to a live-in, church-sponsored “home” for pregnant teens. These inmates continued their schooling and eventually had their babies. She described how incredibly scared she was for those months and how she was subjected to harassment and called names and told over and over that she was a sinner. When she gave birth, she was in labor for hours, screaming for her mother, and offered no relief for pain. Once she delivered, she was given a brief look at her daughter and then the baby was taken away. A week or so later, having never touched her baby, she was sent home and adoptive parents took the baby. Once home, her parents expected this 17-year-old to resume her life—as if the pregnancy and birth had never happened. A few months later, she had to move to another school district because she was shunned and vilified by many classmates for her “sin.” This became an indelible memory for me, never forgotten.
In the autumn of 1971 (still a “goodie-two-shoes”), I was hired as a resident aid in an upper campus women’s dormitory. We were given training on how to handle alcohol crises and drug overdoses—but not a single word on how to help women with birth control or unexpected pregnancy.
For years, I had been aware and read news articles about women and teens who had been maimed and/or died while securing “back-alley” abortions. Sadly, it wasn’t unusual for pregnant college students to seek these dangerous options when they were desperate for an abortion. I witnessed the anguish of one of our dorm residents who had to tell her parents she was pregnant. She immediately withdrew from school and we never heard from her again. A woman in another dorm did have an illegal abortion in town. She was in severe pain for a week after the abortion, then ended up hospitalized with a near fatal infection. To save her life, they performed a hysterectomy on a 19-year-old girl. Some students talked about a retired nurse who lived near campus and performed illegal abortions on her kitchen table. All this, during the “Age of Aquarius” and “Free Love!”
In November of 1971, another resident aid asked me if I would be part of an “under-ground railroad” of sorts, helping Western students get legal abortions across the border in Canada. I did not believe in the idea of abortion for myself, nor had I ever broken the law; but I was pro-choice. That my peers were missing educational opportunities, being maimed, or actually dying because they accidentally got pregnant was an affront to my sense of justice and blinded me with rage. Unmarried students who were pregnant, gave birth, and kept their babies were subject to ridicule and shame. Attitudes were much different in those days; unless there was help from her family, being a single mother in the early 70s was far more difficult than it is today and there were few, if any, daycare options.
I immediately said YES, and in that moment unwittingly became a life-long activist for women’s reproductive rights and their right to choose. I was asked if I understood I would be breaking the law, and although I probably wouldn’t be prosecuted, I would definitely be expelled from Western if a resident aid was caught supporting an international abortion. I had always been such a good girl! I set high standards for myself and generally achieved them. But girls my age were being forced to make the terrible decision of whether to rid themselves of an unwanted pregnancy with a knitting needle or a wire hanger. I was scared spit-less, but for me, there was no other way to go and no turning back.
A few weeks later, just before the Christmas break, l made my first trip to the Vancouver doctor’s office that accepted American women for abortions. The first trip was with a freshman girl who thought she was about two and a half months pregnant. She brought her roommate with her as her primary support, but her “support” was so frightened she was shaking. Although I don’t remember any personal details about this first patient, I will never forget her saying that if her parents ever found out, she’d be thrown out of her home and would have to give up her education and get a job to support herself and her child.
I was young, stupid, and terrified as I told the Canadian border agent the biggest lie I’d ever told: that we were Western students needing a ‘get-a-way day’ to Christmas shop and have lunch in Chinatown. Since the drinking age in Canada was 18, not 21, it wasn’t unusual for Western students to make such trips. The ride back to campus was somber, and this time I lied to the U.S border patrol. In general, the women I drove back from that clinic were physically uncomfortable, cramping and bleeding; some were emotionally upset; but mostly the ride was very quiet.
I made two more trips that spring, and three more during my junior year. Once, I took a student and her mother. On campus, we never spoke of these trips. For a long time, I had no idea there were more than a dozen other female student drivers making these same excursions. Thank goodness Western had great post-abortion counseling services for these students. They were also encouraged to secure birth control, and I made numerous trips with students to the local Planned Parenthood.
I did’t know until years later, that there was actually a well-organized effort of local activists who routinely ran women over the border for safe, legal medical abortions. Mount Baker Planned Parenthood (the name later changed) was established in 1969 by a professor and his wife; however, Planned Parenthood did not begin to provide abortion services in Bellingham until 1999. There were however, safe medical abortions available with private doctors and more alternatives available in the Seattle area prior to 1999.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade devastated me because I acutely remember the way things were for women prior to the law. Nearly three generations have had a constitutional right to obtain safe, medical abortions for unwanted pregnancies. As I recall what it was like for teens and women before 1972, I fear we’re headed down that same bloody road. While the stigma for unmarried, pregnant women is considerably different than 50 years ago, I worry that girls and women living in states with no abortion access may not only be risking their lives with illegal abortions, they are likely to risk their very freedom if they choose to cross state or international borders. This will clearly impact women who live in poverty and women of color profoundly. In some states, legislators have and are rushing to enact legislation that would prosecute women seeking an out of state abortion. Whose business is it, to muck around with a women’s reproductive rights?
I will bet my last dollar that the states rushing to outlaw abortion choice, will not pay for the significant medical costs associated with prenatal, birthing, and post-natal care for the mother and baby; they will not pay for counseling or mental health care for the pregnant mothers; they will not pay for the on-going and skyrocketing costs of raising a child; they will not pay for daycare so this single mother can educate herself or earn a living. These are the same state legislators who will bitch and moan about too many women on welfare with their broods of children. Shame on them and their hubris.
As the current election season winds down, it is even more distressing to imagine a possible shift to a Republican Congress and the impact it will likely have on reproductive rights. The strides we’ve made over the past 50+ years will be totally eradicated. The nightmare of the past will repeat itself—strike that, is repeating itself right now in some states. If Congress shifts Republican in January, I fear the rabid, supposed pro-lifers may try to legislate a complete nation-wide ban on abortion without exception. This is not pro-life, this is political terrorism on female reproductive rights.
I throw up my hands in disgust; but know this: at age 71 I vow to never stop advocating for women and their right to make private, reproductive health care choices. I weep for my daughters and granddaughter. Please vote as if someone’s life depends on it. Because someone’s life does.