I Asked My Mom About Using Emergency Contraception in the 70s, and Was Shocked by How Different Our Experiences Were

At the time my mother needed Plan B, many of her friends had taken it and freely spoken about it; it was apparently easily accessible at their university’s clinic; and it was completely free of cost.
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Rachael Lyle
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At the time my mother needed Plan B, many of her friends had taken it and freely spoken about it; it was apparently easily accessible at their university’s clinic; and it was completely free of cost.

It’s a cold morning in 1976 and my mother is lying in her dorm room bed. She’s alone, and she’s suffering from what she earnestly believes to be a heart attack. She calls the campus doctor (students normally go to the clinic, but she can’t move). 

Decades later, she describes it to me like this: “You know how people sometimes say, ‘it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest’? Well, it was worse than that.”

As it turns out, she was having a minor heart attack. It was a massive blood clot that, had it not broken up on its own, would have stopped her heart completely. When she tells me, “You easily could not exist right now,” I sense how scared she must have felt.

Last week, as per the urging of Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner in their new feminist newsletter “Lenny Letter,” I asked my Southern belle of a mother about life before Roe v. Wade. My mother was born in 1951 –– she’ll be 64 on Tuesday –– so she couldn’t tell me much about life before Roe. But she generously shared with me what life was like for her college girlfriends and her in the 1970s. 

She was emphatic that she didn’t have an abortion, but I’m not entirely convinced she would feel comfortable telling me if she had. She grew up in an environment suffused with shame. Though her own mother -- my grandmother -- was both married and of a then-typical age for reproducing, she apparently refused to leave her home in Tennessee during both of her pregnancies; as she explained to my mother decades later, she “didn’t want to advertise” that she had had sex.

Fortunately, my mother rejected most of this nonsense. When she, like me, entered college at the age of seventeen, the environment at the University of Georgia couldn’t have seemed more different from the dogma of my grandmother’s era. My mother was independent and unafraid. In her early twenties, she moved to Italy for a year, studying to become a concert pianist. She traveled alone through Communist China and Malaysia. She didn’t marry or have children until her late thirties, and only then because she “felt pressure to…” 

During college, she and her girlfriends weren’t reading Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan, but they were having premarital sex and they were doing it with a distinct absence of the guilt that was a hallmark of my grandmother’s generation.

While my mother quickly denied ever having an abortion, she did tell me that she was surprised by her luck. I assumed this meant that she had engaged in plenty of (or at least occasional) unprotected sex. This prompted me to ask about her experience, if any, with the Plan B pill –– also known as emergency contraception, or “the morning-after pill.”* She had never heard of it. When I explained how it worked, she simply said, “Oh, you mean the abortion pill.”

Apparently, after a brief dalliance at her university, she realized that she would need "the abortion pill" (not to be confused with mifepristone, the drug that induces a medical abortion at up to 49 days gestation, and which was not approved for use in the US until 2000). When I criticized her word choice, declaring that it was mostly old, conservative men who chose to term it "the abortion pill" in order to encourage fear-mongering and lack of access for women, she listened to me; but she replied firmly that, nonetheless, this was how it was known around campus. 

From the ease with which she spoke, for her and her peers there didn’t seem to be any negative connotation to or drama surrounding the "abortion" name whatsoever. In other words, the pill’s purpose was purely utilitarian, and its name was merely accurate.

This really intrigued me. While my mother patiently told me her story of the pill, I was struck by how different our experiences were. So far, I’ve needed Plan B twice. The first time, I was a seventeen-year-old freshman at Pace University, and I wasn’t allowed to purchase the pill because I was a minor. In a demeaning and overly paternalistic exchange, I had to ask the boy I had slept with (whose condom had broken the night before) to meet me at Duane Reade and sign off on the purchase. If my memory serves me, it was around thirty-five dollars. He paid for it.

The second time I needed the pill was last year when I was back home in New York for the summer while living in Louisiana. I was twenty-five years old and living on the LES, where I again purchased the pill at Duane Reade for around forty-five dollars. I distinctly remember that it was more than forty dollars because I remember how I felt when I pulled out two twenty-dollar bills and realized this wasn’t enough. I felt disappointed in myself that I had to spend that much money to not become pregnant when I should have just insisted that the man I had slept with use a condom. And I felt sad that I was there “dealing with it” alone while he was enjoying a boozy brunch with his friends. I never told him.

One of the more remarkable differences I observed between my mother’s experience with this pill and my own two experiences was not only how much safer it’s gotten –– those near-fatal blood clots have become much rarer (as the drug itself has changed) and are now replaced by mild nausea and cramping –– but also how prohibitively expensive it’s become. At the time my mother needed the emergency pill, many of her friends had taken it and freely spoken about it; it was apparently easily accessible at their university’s clinic; and it was completely free of cost. No age of majority needed to be reached. No parental consent needed to be obtained.

I was born in 1989: the year of Taylor Swift and the falling of the Berlin Wall. As I write this, I’m traveling alone through Eastern Europe, trying to live up to my mother’s model of courage. 

Pre-trip, as I combed Rite Aid’s aisles for travel-sized toiletries to avoid checking a bag, I noticed that PlanB is now a whopping fifty-five dollars. 

As an attorney practicing in the United States, I’m financially privileged enough for this price to theoretically be an afterthought; but freedom is feeble if offered only to a few. Not all women feel the financial burden of reproductive healthcare proportionately. Research tells us that poor women of color are the most encumbered when seeking this basic care; that abortion rates rise as reproductive healthcare is denied and during economic recessions; and that abortion rates will rise sharply if our representatives succeed in defunding Planned Parenthood

It’s easy for us to make fun of Congress’ childish antics until they affect us personally. The ability to empathize with our fellow citizens being denied family planning options is insufficient. Reproductive healthcare is a universal right –– a right that, after the strides our parents made during the ‘60s and ‘70s, is once again vulnerable.

My travels have brought me to Warsaw this evening, and it’s what my mother would call “an Edgar Allen Poe night.” It’s rainy and grim, and the remnants of oppression are palpable at every turn in this post-WWII, post-Communist landscape. I’m writing from the warmth of a café where I Google “abortion in Poland” out of curiosity. I find to my chagrin (but not surprise) that abortion is entirely banned in the country except in cases of rape or serious endangerment to the woman or fetus. 

I don’t live here, of course. But I don’t live in Scandinavia either, where it’s taken for granted that reproductive healthcare is a universal right. I don’t know which direction the United States is heading in, but I know where I’d like to be living if I ever need an abortion.

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* In my mother's era, this would have been a different drug than the levonorgestrel found in over-the-counter Plan B pills today -- it was likely an off-label use of diethylstilbestrol.

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