by Kirsten Ervin
Thirty years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Mary Litman, a woman who had experienced the physical danger and emotional trauma of an illegal abortion in the 1950s. What could have been a safe medical procedure for Mary instead became a months-long nightmare of shame, secrets, and life-threatening internal bleeding—all with far-reaching consequences.
When I interviewed Mary for the now-defunct In Pittsburgh Newsweekly, I was fresh out of college. While her story greatly impacted me, I don’t know that I ever truly considered that we as a country would ever go back to such a dark place, where anyone with a uterus is denied the basic choices about their own body. As Mary states in the interview, “When you have control over your body, you have control over your life.”
Now, with Roe v. Wade threatened at its very core by a looming Supreme Court decision, Mary’s story takes on heightened significance. The raw truth of this single story gives us a glimpse into a world without access to safe, legal abortions. When reading Mary’s story again, I am struck by the sense that her world is closing in on her; she is ready to face death, jail, or a lack of any viable future. With Roe v. Wade struck down, abortions won’t go away—they will go underground. Anyone facing an unplanned pregnancy will have their own life choices severely constricted. Without control over our bodies, we lose access to social, vocational, and financial freedom.
Please excuse the fact that the language in this 30-year-old interview is not as gender inclusive as it could be. I know the loss of Roe v. Wade would affect not just women, but also many non-binary folks as well.
My hope is that those who read Mary’s story, as well as countless others, will be moved—beyond sharing and posting on the Internet—to action, to the streets, and to the ballot box. In Pennsylvania, we have an election primary coming up on May 17. Please vote and know your candidates’ stances on matters affecting reproductive freedom. Our lives depend on it.
Kirsten Ervin, 2022
The Bad Old Days: One Woman Remembers How It Was
Originally published by In Pittsburgh Newsweekly, 1992.
Political issues often remain abstract until they are personalized. Certainly this is true of reproductive choice. How many women too young to know the realities of illegal abortion feel the same visceral attachment to the issue as those who remember? How clearly can today’s women envision life without reproductive freedom, as it was before Roe v. Wade?
Mary Litman, pro-choice activist and education director of Women’s Health Services in downtown Pittsburgh, agreed to share her 1958 illegal abortion experience with In Pittsburgh. Litman first went public with her story at a NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) speak-out in July 1989, just prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Webster decision. She has been featured, along with the patients and staff of Women’s Health Services, in the HBO documentary Abortion: Desperate Choices.
Kirsten Ervin: Why did you decide to finally speak out?
Mary Litman: I just decided that it was time I shared my story with other people—specifically with other women to remind them of what it was like to not have any place to turn for counseling, or help, or treatment, or even a pregnancy test. I knew there were some restrictions coming down, and wanted to have some impact on people’s consciences.
KE: How hard was it for you to first speak out publicly, at the NARAL event in 1989?
Mary: I spent about three or four days pacing my living room—because I had repressed so many of the memories, I didn’t want to think about it—trying to get the words to come out. I would sit on the bus and let the words run through me, and I would walk around my house and let the words run through me.
KE: Are you glad you spoke out? What changed for you in the process?
Mary: It’s like walking around with weights on your shoulders, and then it felt like they were gone. It was being able to look at the world and think, “It’s out there now, I have nothing to hide from you.” It also made me feel more of a sisterhood with the women who had had legal abortions. The other thing it did was inspire other women to speak about their own experiences, and they felt exactly as I did. [We all] were isolated from each other because nobody ever wanted to stand up and say, “I had an illegal abortion.”
KE: Could you describe the circumstances surrounding your abortion? What was happening in your life at that time?
Mary: I came from a very large, Appalachian family—very loving, but not exactly upwardly mobile. I was the first in my family to formally graduate from high school and I had a job in one of the big corporations in Pittsburgh.
The person who I became pregnant with could not marry me, and I knew I couldn’t continue working at my job as an unwed pregnant woman. I didn’t want to go back home to my mother and be an extra burden on her. I just saw everything in my life I had strived for and worked for, and had attained, slipping away from me.
KE: How old were you?
Mary: Just a little past 20. I had never really heard about abortion. My sisters, when they got pregnant, they got married. My mother admitted to jumping off a couple of tables, and trying to fall down stairs, but she said, “If a pregnancy is good, it’s going to be good.” Abortion wasn’t anything I had ever heard about, except whispers about somebody dying or some awful thing happening to them. I trusted the person [I was involved with] because he was very sophisticated, very wise in the ways of the world. He told me he knew a good, safe place in Youngstown, Ohio.
KE: Did you consider abortion as an option only after he suggested it?
Mary: Exactly. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and there wasn’t any place like [Women’s Health Services] to come and talk about my options. So, trusting his judgment, and trusting his ability to know what the accepted norms were, I went to Youngstown with him and his friend, the contact person, to this classic scene of a house. I think it may have been the same house in the book Back Rooms, because there’s one story about a woman from Cleveland who goes to Youngstown for an abortion. When I read that, I kept thinking, “I would like to find this woman,” because I don’t remember all that happened to me, and I feel like if I could find her I could fill in the blanks.
[When I went to the house], this doctor was an old man, and there was gambling going on in the front room. There were the three of us, and they left me; I don’t know where they went. I went into this room, which I don’t remember a whole lot about. There was a table. There was a calendar on the wall with the year of my birth, 20 years ago. When I saw the calendar I was sure I was going to die. It was like some prophecy. I was so very frightened, I’m not sure where reality left off, because I don’t remember anything. I don’t remember that man touching me.
KE: Were you anesthetized?
Mary: I don’t think so, but I don’t know. I remember him telling me, “You’re going to experience a lot of pain. Don’t worry about it, just take some aspirin and stay quiet.” Don’t tell anybody was the message I got.
We drove back to Pittsburgh and I had a roommate. She really stayed with me through this whole thing, through the pain and the hemorrhaging. I remember Leigh coming into my room and saying, “You’ve got to let me call your mother. You’ve got to let me call the doctor. You’ve got to let me take you to the emergency room.” And I remember saying, “I can’t, Leigh. They’ll put me in jail. I’ll be all right.”
So rather than go to jail and admit I had broken the law, I was ready to die. I was convinced I was going to. But good girls don’t go to jail; good girls don’t get pregnant; good girls certainly don’t go to Youngstown, Ohio and have illegal abortions. So I toughed it out.
Finally the hemorrhaging stopped and I managed to go back to work for a while. Then I had this terrible infection and I smelled so bad. So I thought, “Well, I can go to a doctor because there’s an infection.” I still wouldn’t tell him I had had an illegal abortion. He tested me for venereal disease and said, “You don’t have venereal disease, but we need to put you in the hospital. You’re very anemic. If you lose any more blood, you’re going to have to be admitted immediately. We’re going to have to give you transfusions.”
[But] I went back to work, and I started to hemorrhage again. [This time] I was admitted to the hospital and had several blood transfusions, had my D&C*, and then I remember my doctor bending over my bed and saying, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I started to cry and said, “I thought you’d lock me in jail.” And he said, “I would have taken care of you. You should have told me.”
KE: You had no way of knowing who was going to be hostile and who wasn’t?
Mary: No, absolutely not. I thought, you break the law, you go to jail, period. So I went on with my life, sort of pushing it back. I never told anyone except my roommate. I got married in 1961 and I tried for a number of years to get pregnant and I never could. But in 1968 I adopted my daughter Tracy, and I don’t feel any lack of having children because I’ve got Tracy.
KE: How long after your abortion did it take you to get you back on your feet, physically and emotionally?
Mary: This whole procedure, from getting pregnant to being in the hospital and the D&C, was a four- or five-month period. Then, like everybody else, I thought, “Oh, I’m never having sex with anybody ever again.” I truly did repress it, the whole idea that it happened to me. I just put it out of my mind.
In 1972 or ’73, I picked up a copy of Ms. Magazine; a number of celebrities who had had illegal abortions were listed. I can still remember crying and reading. It was very important to me that I had tapped into a whole group of people who had had the same experience I did.
KE: The man you were involved with, was he a support for you?
Mary: No. If he had been, and not been worried about himself, he would have picked me up in his arms and carried me to the emergency room. But he didn’t do that. He came [to my apartment] and looked at me and looked at Leigh and said, “Is she gonna be all right?” and left.
Women are such strong creatures, though. Lots of other women did exactly what I did. We all managed to live through it and we all managed to go back to work, back to school, or whatever. It’s unbelievable how brave women are.
When people ask me whether the anti-choice people in front of our clinic make any women change their minds, I say, “Absolutely not. Women used to risk their lives to terminate an unplanned pregnancy.” Anybody who is going to change her mind about having an abortion will do it here in the privacy of the counseling session. And that often happens.
KE: Do you at all regret your decision to have an abortion?
Mary: The decision at that time was entirely appropriate. I wasn’t ready to be a parent and I couldn’t have handled it financially or emotionally. It was a good decision; I just wish it could have been done in the safety of a clinic with proper counseling, and proper care.
KE: How do you think your life would be now if you hadn’t made that decision?
Mary: I know that in 1958, having an illegitimate child was not accepted the way it is now. But how my life would have turned out, I really don’t know. It’s just one of those mysteries. I’m satisfied with the way my life turned out.
KE: Does your experience as a young woman have a lot to do with your working at Women’s Health Services?
Mary: Absolutely. Walking through that recovery room and seeing somebody have their blood pressure taken, seeing the counseling rooms filled up during counseling sessions, somebody else getting a pat on the cheek—I couldn’t get that kind of care, but other women are getting it now. That makes it all right.
KE: What message would you send to young women about this issue?
Mary: I think young women have got to realize what the broader agenda of the anti-choice movement is. They want to eliminate certain kinds of birth control, like the pill—low-dosage birth control pills act as an abortifacient and they also want to get rid of abortion.
Women have made greater strides since 1973 than in any time in their history. It’s no mistake that the anti-choice forces want to take away reproductive freedom for women, because if you don’t have reproductive freedom, you can’t really think about becoming a lawyer, becoming a doctor. When you have control over your body, you have control over your life. That’s what young women need to understand. It’s not about abortion. It’s about power over women’s lives.
* D&C: A dilation and curettage procedure, also called a D&C, is a surgical procedure in which the cervix (lower, narrow part of the uterus) is dilated (expanded) so that the uterine lining (endometrium) can be scraped with a curette (spoon-shaped instrument) to remove abnormal tissues.