When Barbara Schwartz looks back on her younger days working as a Broadway stagehand, she remembers the electricity of it: the harassed dancers slipping in their costumes backstage, the prop people jostling past with flashlights between their teeth.
She was able to launch into that high-pressure career, she said, because of a decision she made in 1976. She had an abortion at a clinic she found in the Yellow Pages. It was three years after the Roe v. Wade established the constitutional right to abortion; For Ms. Schwartz, the world seemed full of new career opportunities for women. She got a credit card in her own name, became one of the first women to join the local stagehands union, and joined the crowd backstage at shows like “Cats” and “Miss Saigon.”
Ms. Schwartz, 69, is now retired. She is spending her retirement years escorting women to the gates of an abortion clinic on the Virginia-Tennessee border. She was drawn to this volunteer work, she said, because for her, the promise of her 20 years has dimmed, as a result of laws that have undermined access to abortion, with a draft Supreme Court ruling leaked last week. which reveals that Roe is likely to be dumped.
“This is my big advance payment,” Ms. Schwartz said.
So also Ginny Jelatis, 67, thinks so. She was a senior in high school the year Roe v. wade; She began serving as a clinic chaperone after retiring from her job as a history teacher in 2016.
“I feel like my life is perfectly framed by this problem,” said Ms. Jelatis. “I became an adult at 18, and here I am, 60 years old, still fighting this fight.”
For women like Ms. Jelatis, who entered adulthood in the early 1970s, the world of work and opportunity was changing rapidly. Women’s participation in the labor force went from about 43 percent in 1970 to 57.4 percent in 2019. Many different factors drove women to enter the labor force in greater numbers in those years, but academics they argue that access to abortion was important.
“There is no question that legal abortion makes it possible for women of all classes and races to have some control over their economic lives and their ability to work outside the home,” said Rosalind Petchesky, a retired professor of political science at Hunter College, whose research was cited in the 1992 Supreme Court ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, who reassured Roe.
Those women who entered the workplace just after Roe are now reaching retirement age. Some of them, like Carolyn McLarty, a retired veterinarian, are more committed than ever to advocating for her against abortion. Some, like Ms. Schwartz, look back and feel their careers owe a debt to the 1973 Supreme Court decision and the reproductive options it opened up for women. So they spend their retirement years working as escorts for abortion clinics.
The experience of companions from major clinics, shared in interviews over the past few months, shows what Roe meant to a specific cohort: Women who fought in support of abortion access when they were on the cusp of adulthood, and whose their working lives were shaped by the opportunities they believe Roe provided them.
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“My God, everything has been returned,” said Debra Knox Deiermann, 67, an escort at a clinic in the St. Louis area. “I just can’t believe that young women couldn’t access what we had.”
Many women who were starting their families or careers as Roe decided have also fought hard against legal abortion, had their adult lives ended by a decision they found appalling at the time, and are heartened to see that it is on its way to being overturned. According to Gallup, in 1975, 18 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 29 believed that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances; last year, in that same cohort of women, now ages 63 to 75, the figure was 23 percent.
A 2021 Pew Research poll found that 59 percent of Americans said they believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 39 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases. most cases. Recent data from Pew indicates that women are slightly more likely than men to say that abortion should be legal in all cases, and younger people, between the ages of 18 and 29, are much more likely than men. older adults to say that abortion should be legal in some or some cases. all cases.
Bound4Life, a grassroots anti-abortion group, estimates that a fifth of its volunteers are retirees. Eagle Forum, an anti-abortion group that reaches people of all ages, estimates that most of its volunteers are 55 and older.
“They are almost the only age group that responds to our emails and takes action when we send out alerts to call their elected officials,” said Tabitha Walter, political director of the Eagle Forum, in an email to The Times.
Some are motivated by tectonic cultural and legal shifts on abortion that they have witnessed and, in some cases, driven throughout their careers.
“I’ve seen the pendulum swing from very conservative to out of control in rejecting God,” said Ms. McLarty, 71, who volunteers as an Eagle Forum board secretary and has been involved in the Republican Party. from Oklahoma. “The younger generation is seeing how they have been cheated on many things.”
Ms. McLarty said she knows that changes in the abortion law throughout her life have coincided with increased participation of women in the workforce. But for her part, she wishes she had spent less time on her career and more on parenting.
“Looking back, I probably would have spent more time at home,” said Mrs. McLarty, who worked part-time when her children were young. “There are different times in your life for different chapters.”
The last half century has brought a series of cultural changes that have made it easier for women to enter the workforce. New technologies created new managerial roles, many of which went to women; high school graduation rates increased; The stigma associated with married women in the workplace decreased. But sociologists and economists argue that legal abortion is a singularly important factor, giving many women the option of delaying family formation and saving money in early adulthood.
Understanding the state of Roe v. Wade
What is Roe vs. Wade? Roe v. Wade is a landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States. The 7-2 ruling was announced on January 22, 1973. Justice Harry A. Blackmun, a modest Midwestern Republican and abortion rights advocate, wrote the majority opinion.
Recent research has attempted to understand the role that abortion access plays in women’s employment. The most notable is the Turnaway Study, conducted at the University of California, San Francisco. The researchers followed two groups of women, one group who wanted and got abortions, and one who wanted abortions and couldn’t get them, for five years and found that those who couldn’t have abortions had worse financial outcomes. Nearly two-thirds of those who did not have the abortion they had sought were living in poverty six months later, compared to 45 percent of those who had the procedure.
Roe’s overturning would mean that women across the country would face a patchwork of state laws on abortion access, with 13 states poised to ban abortion immediately or very quickly after the court’s ruling. There is likely a correlation between regions of the country where abortions are more difficult and those with fewer child care and parental leave options, according to an analysis of research results from financial site WalletHub.
For older women who felt they could achieve financial stability because of the abortion decision, there is resonance in sharing their stories with the younger women they meet in clinics today.
“The older people I work with can remember that fear of ‘My God, what if it happens to me?’” said Ms. Deiermann, who spent most of her career working in reproductive health advocacy.
Many clinic volunteers, like Ms. Deiermann, remember when their classmates and friends had illegal abortions. Telling those stories feels more urgent than ever.
Karen Kelley, 67, a retired labor and delivery nurse in Idaho who volunteers at an abortion clinic there, spent her childhood aligned with the anti-abortion views of her Roman Catholic family. She then found herself pregnant at age 20, with no income to support a baby. Realizing that motherhood could “derail all her hopes,” she decided to terminate that pregnancy, some six years after Roe.
That’s a memory Mrs. Kelley passes on to the women she escorts up the clinic stairs. “If they ask me, I am always honest and I understand how they feel because I had an abortion and they have every right to make the decision,” she said.
And some older women said the position they are in now, retired, with savings and stability, dates back to Roe.
“It gave us the opportunity to decide to get married and have a family later,” said Eileen Ehlers, 74, a retired high school English teacher and mother.
What Roe gave her, she said, is something she can now invest in volunteering: “We have time.”