Byllye Avery

Ms. Byllye Avery, a lifelong activist, is founder of the National Black Women’s Health Project. Prior to Roe v. Wade, Ms. Avery was a leader in the underground abortion referral network, where she lived in Jacksonville, Florida.

The experiences of women who lived on lower incomes were vastly different from women who were middle class or women of means. There were big differences between the lives of black women and white women. I can remember how devastating it was for a woman who discovered that she was pregnant because there were no options. You had the baby—you embarrassed your family—or you had the baby and gave it away to some adoption home, or you took the chance to have some back-alley abortion. And of those choices, probably the most devastating for the women were the many who tried to have the back-alley abortions or the really desperate ones who tried to self induce.

The women who tried to self induce used knitting needles. Women used coat hangers. I can remember there’d be a certain woman who could give you something to take. Quite often they were big black pills that were supposed to make you have a period, and often times these pills didn’t work. They would end up with these horrible infections and show up in the hospitals. And that’s how doctors became aware of how prevalent this issue was.

It was very frightening for women to go to a back-alley abortionist. They would stew over it for days and days. You didn’t know where you were, you were cared for by people you didn’t know and you were treated badly once you were there. Many women talk about being up on kitchen tables having abortions, and you didn’t know who the person was who was doing it, and it was just a way to make money. They didn’t know what they were doing either, and didn’t really care.

If a woman elected to have a baby, and she was a low-income woman and it was decided that she’d had too many children or if she got pregnant and went to the doctor and asked for an abortion her option was the same: “I’ll give you an abortion but you have to have a hysterectomy.” The same thing was done with the woman who had a baby, and they’d determined that she’d had enough children. She would be given what was called a “Mississippi Appendectomy.” And that was a hysterectomy, or her tubes were tied while she was under anesthesia. So she woke up with a baby but she also woke up with an inability to reproduce, without her permission.

It’s still hard for women of color today, right now. While abortion is available in some areas, there are many, many areas where it’s not available. And with all of the restrictions that are being put on it; there are very few places that fund abortions for poor women.

We need to really look at the importance of women and men being in control of their reproductive health. That is one basic right that needs to be maintained. Reproductive health decisions are very complex ones. And when you get them layered by economic inopportunities, when you get them layered by power relationships, all of these things play into a woman’s decision. When you have a child, you are making a lifetime commitment that is not a commitment for four or five or six years, or 12 years, or just when they’re little babies—it is a lifetime. It is the most important decision that you will make in your whole life, and it is a decision that lives with you until you die. Because mothering and fathering goes on throughout your entire life. Of all of the decisions we make, it’s the most important one. And it should not be made willy-nilly, on a whim, for all of the wrong reasons.

It’s very important that people have options, because we are human, and there is always room for error, and part of making errors is being able to learn from it, and to move on with your life. We must understand that abortion should be made available in terms of training for providers, that that needs to be a part of their curriculum. That it should not be determined by religion, that it is a basic human right. And we need to understand how important the quality of human life is. Everybody deserves to have the best that there is in life. We deserve to have it just by debt of being here, and given the way we live in our wonderful society with all of its goods and all of its bads and all of its everything, at the end of the day you have to be able to earn a living. And we do not need to carry shame and guilt with us about decisions we make around improving our lives, or specifically about decisions we make about whether to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. That is our decision, and we do not need to feel ashamed, and we do not need to feel guilty about it.

—Edited transcript from Voices of Choice