Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who had an illegal abortion when she was 22 years old, dedicated her most recent book to the doctor who performed that procedure for her.
Steinem’s book My Life on the Road, which recounts her lifetime of travel and activism, opens with a dedication to Dr. John Sharpe, the doctor who helped Steinem end a pregnancy in London in 1957. At the time, elective abortion was still criminalized In England, but Steinem was desperate to avoid going through with the pregnancy and ultimately tying herself to a man who wasn’t right for her.
In the book’s dedication, Steinem writes that Dr. Sharpe referred her for an abortion at “considerable risk” to himself, and asked her to promise something in return:
Knowing that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, “You must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.”
Dear Dr. Sharpe, I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life.
This book is for you.
In a recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Steinem said she also attempted some of the “foolish things” that women of her generation did to terminate an unwanted pregnancy in the absence of legal abortion rights, including throwing herself down the stairs.
“I just knew that if I went home and married, which I would’ve had to do, it would be to the wrong person; it would be to a life that wasn’t mine, that wasn’t mine at all,” Steinem said in that interview. “It seems to me that every child has the right to be born loved and wanted, and every person has the right to control — male and female — to control their own bodies from the skin in.”
Research has confirmed that many women in the United States choose to end pregnancies for similar reasons. According to a qualitative study from the Guttmacher Institute, most women who have abortions say that they could not afford a baby, they did not want to be a single mother, or they did not want to have a child amid serious relationship problems with their partner.
There’s also evidence that reproductive health options are critical for allowing women to pursue their goals over the course of their lifetime. Women say that the ability to plan and space their pregnancies gives them the freedom to work toward becoming financially independent or getting a college degree.
Steinem wasn’t open about her decision to have an abortion until years later, when she was in her mid-30s and working as a reporter for New York magazine. She told Gross that, as she was covering an abortion speak-out and listening to other women talking about their own decisions to have illegal procedures, she suddenly realized that she wasn’t alone.