Pain, Suffering, and Cruelty From Before Roe v. Wade Is Making a Comeback
You can’t see her full face, the dead woman who bled out, alone, in the anonymous hotel room. It’s hidden from us. She’s hunched over on her knees, her face smushed into the dirty carpet, her nudity colored by the blood that soaked the towels and smeared her lifeless body. Her name was Gerri Santoro, but in that image, she was every woman victimized by the deadly cruelty of illegal abortion.
Gerri Santoro died trying to terminate an unwanted and dangerous pregnancy, in the dark days before Roe v. Wade. The dark days that opponents of legal abortion in Illinois and across the nation are trying to bring back.
Gerri Santoro and her lonesome, terrible, death became a symbol for the nascent pro-choice movement in America, but she was more than a symbol. She was a woman, a person in full, with life and love, and fear and hope. She was forced into that hotel room by policies aimed at stripping her right to exercise control over her own body.
Those policies are making a comeback. In every state, and at the federal level, the right to choose is teetering on the brink. We have to protect it. Women’s reproductive rights are being threatened, and we know where that leads. The story of Gerri, and of women across the decade, provide a clear reminder of what happens when women are the victims of deliberate state misogyny.
Gerri Santoro and the Erasure of Women
In a terrible way, it made sense that Gerri’s face was hidden from us. Like so many women of her time, and of ours, Gerri was rendered virtually faceless, voiceless, and choiceless by the violence and indifference of misogynists.
Her difficulties began early. The youngest of 15 children born on a farm in Connecticut, Gerri was from the beginning a product of her times, when men were allowed to do whatever they wanted with women. She met her husband at a bus stop at only 18, and married him just a few weeks later.
Her husband was abusive, and regularly hit her. She would appear at work with bruises, but nothing was done about the domestic violence. Finally, she fled, returning to her parents’ farm. She met another man, named Dixon, but kept their life hidden, fearful of her husband’s vengeful temper. Given the laws in the country at the time, she wasn’t able to divorce him.
A pregnancy ensued. There were no good options. Gerri and Dixon attempted to self-induce at the hotel room, using second-hand surgical instruments and instructions from a text-book. Gerri started hemorrhaging and he fled the motel. She died alone on the floor of that room, a victim of the lack of choices available to her.
This is what happens when men are allowed to erase women from making choices in their lives. It happened in Gerri’s time…and it is happening now.
Anti-Choice Means Routine Cruelty To Women
Obviously, this wasn’t just an issue in Connecticut. This happened everywhere, including Illinois. In fact, Chicago police were excessive in their zeal to punish women for having abortions, and almost evil in their methods.
“Doctors and police [would] interrogate women in hospitals who come in from emergencies, interrogate them about who did the abortion, who was the source of the pregnancy and threaten them and ask them questions on their deathbed,” Reagan said. “Which was horrible.”
Chicago Police would try to catch women when they were “at the moment” of getting an abortion, Reagan said. They’d then take the abortion clinic’s medical records, operating tables, instruments and force women to testify, threatening to put their names out to the public through newspapers if they didn’t, Reagan said.
Women who needed abortions had to self-perform, like Gerri Santoro. Sometimes they’d be able to use the services of a brave and competent midwife. Sometimes they would go to these back-alley clinics, and if they were lucky, they had a doctor. If they weren’t, it was done by someone with limited training working for criminals looking to make a quick buck.
It was estimated that 350,000 women a year were injured or sickened by illegal abortions. Many ended up at septic abortion wards, where new doctors took turns trying to help them. Many died.
And this didn’t end with Roe v. Wade.
The Current Assault on Women’s Reproductive Rights
Women’s reproductive rights are being attacked on all fronts. From education to abortion to birth control, women’s choices and rights are being stripped away. Reactionary courts allow absurd state laws to shut down clinics, and with a Supreme Court dominated by a right-wing anti-choice supermajority, the assault will only become more intense and successful.
Women’s health clinics being closed means that women who can’t afford, can’t have, or don’t want to carry a pregnancy to term must either travel enormous distances to obtain an abortion.
In 2016, the CDC estimated that the mean miles a woman whose primary clinic closed had to travel was 85 miles. In some areas, it can be as many as 330 miles. That requires gas money, time off work, and hotels. That makes abortion impossible for many.
For many women, it forces an impossible choice between keeping an unwanted or unsafe pregnancy, or taking risky and illegal options. And, as with Gerri, there are no good choices.
If the right-wing politicians get their way, no woman will have a good choice. No woman will have a safe choice. No women will have a choice in their life, at all. We can’t let that happen. Not in Illinois, and not across America.
We have to fight for Gerri Santoro, and for every woman harassed by police and mangled by butchers and who died in hotel rooms or septic abortion wards in grim hospitals. We have to make sure our daughters and granddaughters are never denied their choices. With your help, we’ll once again defeat the forces of reaction and misogyny, and make sure that stories like Gerri’s remain in the distant past.