Back Rooms, a stark reminder of the days before legal abortion

Ellen Messer and Joanne Michaels.

Ellen Messer and Joanne Michaels.

By this time, 43 years after the passage of Roe v. Wade, I always believed our society would have evolved so that the majority of citizens would understand how critical it is for a woman to have control over her body and therefore, control over her life…The generations following mine need to educate themselves about the horrific consequences of returning to the days before abortion was legalized.
–from publisher Joanne Michaels’ preface to the 2016 edition of Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era

A coat-hanger operation left a woman with a life-threatening infection she was afraid to get treated for fear of being arrested. An abortion doctor charged an exorbitant fee and then tried to fondle his patient during the procedure. After witnessing the tragic fates of young women and their unwanted children, a doctor decided to break the law and terminate pregnancies illegally when requested.

The first-person stories in Back Rooms — infuriating, moving, and riveting — report on the years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973. Writer Ellen Messer interviewed women in the late 1980s, a decade and a half after the historic Supreme Court decision. “We needed the distance of time,” said Messer, a Kingston resident. “Earlier than ‘88, it would have been too close. But there was still a specter of the possibility of reversing Roe v. Wade.”


Today that specter still looms large, as legislators suggest that women who have been raped or have been victims of incest should carry the pregnancy to term. “There’s an entirely new generation or two who have no idea what it was like in the days of the wire hangers and back-alley abortions,” said Michaels, the Woodstocker who decided to republish Back Rooms. “They have no idea this right they take for granted could be banished if certain people get into office. It’s being chipped away at.”

Challenges to Roe v. Wade have made it to the Supreme Court in recent years, and if a Republican president fills court vacancies with conservative justices, the ruling could be overturned. Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota have enacted anti-abortion laws that would take effect if Roe v. Wade goes down. Other states did not repeal pre-1973 statutes that criminalized abortion, and some of those statutes could again be in force if Roe were reversed.

Back Rooms eloquently reveals what may well be the result, based on past experience, if anti-abortion activists and politicians get their way. “A book like this should be part of every women’s studies program,” said Michaels. “The voices of these people need to be heard. To me, it’s one of the most basic rights of women all over the world, to control their bodies.”

Michaels never had an illegal abortion, but she had two legal ones, the result of pregnancies while using birth control. Later, she gave birth to a son and met Messer, also a young mother, at another child’s birthday party when their kids were two years old. At the time, Messer was working on the book, which was published by St. Martins Press and praised by the New York Times for its “powerful stories of desperation and courage.” Later Back Rooms was reissued twice by other major publishers, but all three let the book go out of print. Michaels was determined to get the text back into women’s hands before this year’s election. This fall, Messer will be reading from the book at area bookstores, as well as at a benefit for Planned Parenthood to be held at the shop, Jean Turmo in Woodstock at 7 p.m. Friday, October 28

Messer recalled what it was like to be a “liberated woman” in the late 60s: “We were encouraged to explore and enjoy our bodies like men did, but there was no provision or safety net for women who did get pregnant. Doctors didn’t just hand out birth control. Unless you went with a wedding ring, pretending to be married, it was difficult to get the Pill.”

If a woman did not want to marry the baby’s father or was aiming at a career, having a child was not an option. Single motherhood was almost unheard of, and giving a baby up for adoption meant interrupting life to disappear to a home for unwed mothers for several months. “Women took a tremendous risk with their health and safety and their lives just to terminate a pregnancy,” said Messer, “and then they were criminals.”

The people Messer interviewed included women who had illegal abortions, doctors who performed abortions, and activists who worked to change the law. Among the horror stories are touching examples of kindness and integrity, as desperate women found people compassionate enough to help them. Far from depressing, the book is hard to put down.

“I will never forget that it was so inexpensive, legal, and safe to have this procedure done,” said Michaels. “Every child should be a wanted child. The world would be a better place.”++

Ellen Messer will speak and read from Back Rooms: Voices from the Illegal Abortion Era, at venues in the Hudson Valley in October and November. On Saturday, October 22, she’ll be at Merritt Bookstore in Millbrook, 12:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m. On Friday, October 28, Jean Turmo, a boutique at 11 Tinker Street, Woodstock, will host a publication party at 7 p.m., with all proceeds from sale of the book going to Planned Parenthood. Messer will be at Inquiring Mind Bookstore in New Paltz on Sunday, October 30, at 4 p.m. After October 28, books will be available at the Golden Notebook Bookstore in Woodstock.