The passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973 didn’t just secure women’s constitutional rights to privacy and autonomy in their reproductive health decisions, it also drastically reduced the number of women who die due to complications from illegal abortions. The estimated number of abortions performed in the US has not changed much since the passage of Roe v. Wade. Prior to Roe, it was estimated that approximately 1 million women terminated their pregnancies. In 2008, that number was 1.21 million. In 2011, that number dropped to 1.06 million. These numbers tell us the importance of keeping abortion legal – regardless of legislation, women who find themselves facing an unwanted pregnancy may still attempt to terminate their pregnancies. If abortion isn’t legal, some women will seek out illegal means to end their pregnancies. 

Illegal abortions are generally not safe abortions. First trimester abortions, when performed legally and safely, have very minimal risk involved (less than .05%), making abortion one of the safest medical procedures. It is difficult to estimate how many women (pre-Roe) lost their lives as a result of illegal abortion. Some studies put the estimate at up to 5,000 a year. One studies notes that in 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women – that’s one-fifth of the recorded maternal deaths for that year. The instruments of their deaths were varied and gruesome, from tissue-burning corrosive agents to knitting needles and umbrella spokes. Many of the women who lost their lives to these illegal procedures were already mothers. Similar to women today, women who sought abortions pre-legalization already had other children they were mothering. Unsafe and illegal abortions mean that women lose their lives and children lose their mothers. 

Last year, our affiliate partners in Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA) re-launched the film Motherless: A Legacy of Loss from Illegal Abortions to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. ACLU-PA’s reproductive freedom project, called the Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project, wanted to bring this film back into the public’s eye as a reminder of how far US women have come since abortion became safe & legal. In the film, four people share stories about losing their mothers because of illegal abortions. The project, named after the founder Linn Duvall’s mother, was originally founded in 1979. It was formally the Clara Bell Duvall Education Foundation. Since merging with the ACLU-PA in 2000, the Duvall Project has defended and advanced reproductive rights and liberties in Pennsylvania through research, education, and litigation. 

Tonight, the ACLU of Maine and our Choice Coalition partners will be hosting a screening of the film Motherless. In the film, Linn Duvall, founder of the Duvall Project, shares the horror and the grief she experienced after losing her mother. Duvall spoke about her loss at the 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington DC. You can read the text of that speech here. Please join us for our film screening tonight, 6pm in USM’s University Events Room (Glickman Library). There will be a discussion after the film screening.