Her-Story, Just 40¢

1,018 Days of the “New York” Abortion

By D. Silverman

“OUR BODIES OUR SELVES” ©1971 Boston Women’s Health Course Collective.

While walking down Bank Street on a warm June evening (in a biblically “end-of-days” orange-tinged smoke-filled haze), I espied a ragged stack of books left out on the curb for recycling. Old publications always catch my interest, and in this case one particularly jogged the memories—a yellowing early newsprint copy of Our Bodies Our Selves.

Birthed in the late-1960s women’s empowerment movement, this book has sold millions of copies.

In 1969, a group of women came together in Boston for a seminar to learn more about their bodies, especially reproductive health and sexuality. Frustrated by what they felt was a lack of readily available information from the then-male dominated medical establishment—and a perception that doctors were often making decisions from their own perspective without the patient being fully informed—these women set out to create a course-like structure whereby women, individually or in groups, could better educate themselves on female-specific health and wellness issues unfiltered through a male provider.

(By way of example, a friend mentioned to me the humiliation of going to a health clinic—in the 1980s—and having the male doctor refuse to provide contraception options because she was unmarried. Thereby, ironically, increasing the likelihood of an unplanned out-of-wedlock pregnancy.)

Some of the seminar participants formed a group, Boston Women’s Health Collective, to write and compile the resulting materials as “Women and Their Bodies, a course.” Published by New England Free Press, 5,000 copies quickly sold out through word of mouth. Under the new title of Our Bodies Our Selves, a quarter million more sold over the next few years. (The content of those first printings remained the same and is collectively considered the first “edition.”)

When a small-press publication sells 250,000 copies without advertising, the establishment takes note.

In 1973, Simon & Schuster published an expanded and revised second edition as Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book By and For Women. Now a classic, the book has gone through nine editions (and nearly as many title variations) up until 2011. Perhaps in a testament to the changes it inspired in the women’s-health landscape over 40 years, there are currently no plans to print a new edition. The material has moved online: ourbodiesourselves.org

This first edition, like all subsequent, included a chapter on abortion. And, originally, a sub-section called The New York Abortion.

I shared a photo of the vintage book and contents with my friend who, disregarding her doctor’s opprobrium, had persisted in getting the contraception she desired and later, once married, had the children she’d always intended. She responded that she’d been given Our Bodies as a young woman and decades later gave a copy to her daughter who was then heading off to college. My friend also recalled poignantly, “I remember looking at the book and the abortion costs when I was a scared college student, worrying needlessly about how much money I’d have to have on hand if necessary.”


Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, who lived on Sullivan Street around that time, wrote an essay (published 1966, in The Bold New Women and later reprinted in Notes of a Nude Model) titled “Hello, Baby,” which describes her experiences in the early 1960s traveling out of NY to receive illegal abortions.

The first, occurring in Cuba, though clandestine, was performed by a courteous doctor in his office and was, apparently, medically sound and minimally traumatic.

The second was every bit as horrifying as one might anticipate: four women blindly hustled into an empty apartment in a suburb of our nation’s capital, Washington DC. Performed hurriedly, for cash, without anesthesia, literally on a kitchen table. A short rest and then packed off to Union Station for a long train ride home.

An older woman I know, who was an office worker in the city back then, said that periodically an envelope would be passed around without much discussion. Generally the women colleagues would put in some cash (less regularly the men would contribute) and it would be given to a coworker who might then take a few days off work for health reasons. Conceivably, there are states were this custom is practiced still.

(There was a pragmatic aspect to excluding men from the discussion, particularly if “the man” was known about the office—lest he quash the plans, often on religious objections, regardless of his interest to raise or support potential offspring.)

In 1963, while Harriet was writing about prior abortions, she was pregnant again—this time about to become the proud married mother of a newborn son, now the musician Milo Z. (Hello, Baby!)


Everything changed on April 11, 1970, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed a new law decriminalizing abortion in most cases and, notably, without requiring residency. Overnight, New York became the best-available option for safe, legal procedures for many American women. (It’s a bit jarring to note, this was a Republican endeavor. The Governorship, State Assembly and Senate all being controlled by that party—not to be confused with the current iteration.)

On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, effectively decriminalizing the procedure across the United States.

For the 1,018 days between those dates, the “New York” abortion was one of the few safe, regulated options generally available, and, predictably, the number of legal procedures performed increased significantly during that period. In part through dissemination of information, like that in Our Bodies Our Selves, many women no longer needed to huddle in an empty apartment for kitchen-table surgery. Unsurprisingly, the number of patients from out-of-state outnumbered NY locals by two to one.


There are ancient traditions of mysticism in Judaism that seek to discern hidden connections into the eternal and unknowable beyond the mortal limitations of our perceptions, Kabbalah being one example. But in more-recent times there’s also been some casual cultural appropriation of numerology in the form of the Hebrew word חי (“chai”), literally meaning “alive” or “living,” but the letters also having an ascribed numeric value of 18. Hence, many Jews associate 18, חי , with an assertion of life-ness. (Not as opposed to being dead, but as in being spiritually alive—aware—a concept not dissimilar to the “self-empowerment” of the 1960s women’s movement seeking agency.)

In noting the 1,018 day span when New York was the metaphorical promised-land for hundreds of thousands of women who traveled from across the country, one can’t help but think of all the myriad lives saved, suffering avoided and ensuing well-loved children born under circumstances their mothers’ desired.

(One might also shed a bitter tear that this article, 50 years later, is not consigned to historical irrelevance.)