Catherine Starr was 17 years old when she attended her first rally to promote abortion rights outside City Hall in St. Louis. It was May 24, 1973. Just a few months earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled in the Roe v. Wade case.
Women have won the constitutional right to abortion, but the United States will continue to contest this right for another 50 years. Last week’s Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe has once again plunged the country into a spiral of chaos that all feel all too familiar to those living here for the first time. Three women on the front lines of the abortion rights movement before Roe was law and in the early years after the ruling told their stories to The New York Times.
When Miss Starr protested that day in St. Louis, she was joined by her mother and grandmother. Three generations of women have gathered to protest Mayor John Poelker’s ban on city hospitals from performing abortions.
In the early days after Roe, legal access to abortion was still difficult or unavailable in many states. Only a year before that, in 1972, were unmarried men and women granted access to birth control.
Roe’s decision came too late for Miss Starr. A year earlier, at the age of 16, she became pregnant. If there was no safe, legal abortion option, she said, she would have given birth to a baby boy and then put him up for adoption.
Miss Starr came to the protest because she “wanted to be able to make sure that the next pregnant little girl would have a choice,” she said.
Mrs Starr, now 66, said: ‘Give up a child, like losing a child but it’s worse because you don’t know anything about the child. “I’ve got a little boy, and years will go by and I’ll sit back and wonder if he’s still alive, is he happy, is he healthy?”
From comments: The End of Roe v. Wade
Comments by Times Opinion writers and journalists on the Supreme Court’s decision to end the constitutional right to abortion.
About 10 years ago, her son Starr found her and they reconnected. The conversation was awkward at first, but eventually therapeutic, she said. Her son told her he was grateful for her decision and that he had a pretty good life. She also told her he supported abortion rights, she said, a pleasant surprise to her.
“Most kids probably wouldn’t want to know that their mother was thinking about having an abortion,” she said. “But I did. I was 15 when I was pregnant, 16 when I had him, and I was very young.”
“He asked me, ‘You could have had an abortion, why didn’t you do it?’ And I said, “Actually, I couldn’t have it, it wasn’t legal at the time,” she continued. “I was told I didn’t want an illegal abortion and once I started to feel him in it, I just couldn’t do it.”
Susan Bilyeu was consulting a patient at an abortion clinic when she heard screams. When she opened the door, she saw the fire, and a nursing assistant on the floor, holding her eyes.
Ms. Bilyeu, then 25 years old, was caught up in the escalating violence surrounding abortion clinics in the late 1970s. Legal challenges to prevent abortions continued to fail. People would chain up near the doors of clinics and shout at women and staff as they entered the facility. “It’s actually quite upsetting,” said Karissa Haugeberg, assistant professor of history at Tulane University.
At Bilyeu’s clinic, a man posing as a delivery man threw gasoline in the assistant’s face and set the building on fire. Ms. Bilyeu helped carry the injured worker out of the burning building. There is also a 16-year-old man who is having an abortion. They called an ambulance and took her to a women’s hospital two blocks away.
“No one changed their mind about having an abortion that day,” she said.
Bilyeu said she felt a fundamental connection to the abortion rights movement because of the stories her mother, born in 1917, told her, including that her aunt nearly died from an abortion.
“I joined because I know people who are struggling,” she said. “I am not a pro-abortionist, I am an advocate of choice. No one is forced to have a baby, and I certainly don’t want someone to die from it.”
Loretta J. Ross grew up in a conservative family in the 1960s. She became pregnant at age 14 after her cousin raped her. She said her only options at the time were to raise the child herself or put it up for adoption. She gave birth to a son in 1969 and kept him.
She says the experience shaped Ms. Ross, now a professor at Smith College, as an activist and a black feminist.
“I went from being a scared teenager to being an active teen mom,” she says, “it had a clear impact on my consciousness and it set me apart from the rest of the kids in school.”
She enrolled at Howard University in 1970. Washington, DC, was plunged into turmoil following the assassination of Father Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ms. Ross was in tears when she attended her first protest at the age of 16. She also became pregnant again. . Her sister forged their mother’s signature on the application, but because Washington legalized abortion in 1971, she was able to get a permit.
However, for Ms. Ross and her classmates, other issues come first, such as the racist regime and discrimination. There was no sense of urgency about the right to abortion for Miss Ross, she said, until The Hyde Amendment was passed in 1976prohibits federal funding of abortion, which disproportionately affects low-income women.
For Ms. Ross, her abortion activism minimized and at times complicated her political period as a Black woman.
“When I was with the people of the Black Nationalist movement, I really felt more feminist than not,” she said. “I call myself a black Marxist feminist. But then when I’m with white women, I just say, ‘I’m not a feminist like you, so I don’t want to use the word.’
Concern that black women lacked presence in the women’s movement was what prompted Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, the non-electing House of Representatives delegate for the District of Columbia, to co-found. National Black Feminist Organization. Although the group was founded in 1973, in Roe’s context, abortion didn’t come up much in their conversations, she said.
Black women receive about a third of all abortions in the United States, according to recent data from the Guttmacher Viện Institute, a reproductive health research group that advocates for abortion rights. But Ms. Ross, who is trying to help the National Organization for Women plan a march for women’s rights, said it was difficult to get Black women’s organizations involved because few wanted to. participate in the abortion debate.
Because a second march in April 1989Attracting more than 600,000 participants, Ms. Ross made a banner for women of color to gather around so they could see.
Over the years, she has remained steadfast in her principles. “I will definitely stand up for women’s rights,” she said.