'My Back-Alley Abortion'

In the 1950's the shame of unwed pregnancy led women to turn to coat hangers and unsavory types like Barney.

The man was older, influential, and married. I was single and naive, recently out of college. It was the mid-1950's. I had a full and exciting life, a promising future in my chosen field, and every intention of settling down to the wife-and-mother role then the accepted and universal American-girl dream. For these and a long list of other reasons, there was no way in the world I felt I could have a baby.

What could I do? Abortion was illegal. I drank paregoric, hurled myself against walls, and did all the other terrible things rumored to end a pregnancy. Including the coat hanger. Those coat-hanger ads can't have the true impact of their intent unless you have tried to end a pregnancy with one. Finally thoroughly terrified, I decided that I could not do it myself.

I turned first to my trusted physician. He (I had seldom laid eyes on a woman physician at the time) suggested first that I find a way to marry. If not the father, he said, then someone else. Barring that possibility, he said he could direct me to a discreet, out-of-state place where I could go have the baby and put it up for adoption. It would only be six months out of my life, he argued. Losing half a year of my life, having to live a lie for the rest of time, and never mind the shame and grief that would still befall my respectable, church-going family--no, these outcomes held no attraction to my 22-year-old mind.


I told the baby's father. A fairly wealthy man of considerable stature in the community, he seemed hardly bothered. He told me to talk to a woman who worked in his office building (in hindsight, I wondered how many times he had played out this scene), that she could tell me what to do.

I had casually known this woman. She was sophisticated and worldly-wise in a way I suspected I would never be (I was right in that, at least). I told her I had a friend who needed an abortion. She wrote down a number on a slip of paper, told me to call and ask for Barney, said not to worry. It'll cost $100, she said. My salary was $190 a month and my savings account totaled about $37. I went back to the baby's father, who said he'd have the $100 for me the next day--that afternoon, if I needed. I went to a pay phone and dialed the number.

A woman answered the phone. Sure, she said, he's right here. Barney came on the line and asked me who knew. Nobody, I said. OK, he said, can you get $100? I have it, I said. Barney said to be in front of the Loew's Grand Theater on such-and-such a street at noon the next day, a Saturday. Come alone, he said.

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Marie Johnstone
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