Untitled, by Jessica Mitford

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

To change your password click here.

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.

You are twenty-one—exactly the same age I was when I had my one and only abortion, in London in 1938. This was way before anyone talked about the “right” to an abortion, and I want to tell you my story to convey how precious a right it is. Abortions then were totally illegal; the very subject was taboo among the well-brought-up English of those days. I wouldn’t have dreamed of consulting anybody in my family, from whom I was estranged and who anyway wouldn’t have been likely to have useful ideas on the subject.

I sought advice from a delightful friend a few years older than I, a thoroughgoing Bohemian who, I was sure, would know the ropes. She did not disappoint. She came around, full of sympathy for the ordeal ahead, and gave me an address. “There’s no telephone,” she said. “Just go there, and take five pounds in cash” (in those days, more than a week’s wages for a white-collar worker).

The abortionist’s dwelling, deep in the East End slums, was a good hour-and-a-half journey on various tubes and buses from where I lived. I rang her doorbell, explained that I had an introduction from my friend Sheila, and quickly proffered five one-pound notes. After looking anxiously up and down the street—fearing, perhaps, that I was a police informer—she admitted me to her flat.

She wasn’t quite what I had expected—a hard-bitten, Dickensian crone. No, just an ordinary middle-aged Englishwoman plying her trade. We went into the room where the deed would be done, and at her direction I undressed and lay on a bed. I was a bit surprised that there was no sign of sterilization of the instruments, which she fished out of her underclothes drawer. Never mind, I thought, she knows what she’s doing; and she went to work.

Her method: injection of soap into the uterus, which would in about five hours induce labor. The procedure was horribly painful, hardly ameliorated when the abortionist cautioned just as I was leaving, “If you get sick, don’t call in a doctor, because if you should die, I’ll swing.” (The death penalty—death by hanging—was in full force at the time.) I did get sick, I did call a doctor—and I survived; years later, I read in a women’s magazine that abortion by soap injection was by far the most dangerous of all methods, resulting in huge numbers of deaths.

Thanks to years of effort by the pro-choice movement, you won’t have to endure these horrors. But, as we have seen, the right to a legal abortion is by no means secure. So get your safe, legal abortion and don’t feel guilty about it. But don’t forget that there are those who want to turn the clock back to the barbaric days of illegal abortions.


More from