Tonight: Filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman Holds Screening to Recall the Days of Back-Alley Abortions in America
It was 1961 when Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman, then a student at Stanford University in Northern California, nearly died from complications after undergoing an illegal, back-alley abortion in Reno, Nev. “At that time, birth control was illegal except for married women. I wasn’t married … so we just took our chances,” recalls Fadiman. “And many of us got pregnant. I begged my gynecologist to help me, but he wouldn’t.”
She was blindfolded during the procedure, which was common during the era of illegal abortions. She nearly died the next day. “I was hemorrhaging and I went to a 105 fever.” She wound up in an emergency room. “Because I was a Stanford student, they brought in the best care from around the country to save my life. But at that time, ‘61, ‘62, in state and county hospitals around the country, poor women, young women and often women of color would just die.”
Fadiman stayed silent about her experience for the next 30 years. But as she watched legislators’ attempts to restrict access to safe, legal abortion—apparently trying to bring us back to those back-alley days—she realized there is an entire generation who has no clue what it was like for women before the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case Roe vs. Wade guaranteed a women’s right to abortion. “There’s a whole generation of young women and men who have no idea what the back-alley days were like, what the dangers and casualties were, and how important it is for it to be safe and legal today,” says Fadiman. “We decided to go back to the back alley and tell our stories, because most people have no idea.”
Tonight, a national touring project called Choice at Risk! kicks off tonight in Philadelphia at the First Unitarian Church on Chestnut Street. Presented by Pennsylvanians for Choice and the Unitarian Universalist Association, the evening will begin with a screening of Fadiman’s award-winning trilogy, From the Back-Alleys to the Supreme Court & Beyond. The films feature archival footage of pivotal court cases as well as interviews with back-alley victims, doctor activists and a group you don’t hear about too often: pro-choice clergy.
“One of the pieces … that we’re going to share is the founding of Catholics for Choice,” Fadiman says. “Many people don’t know that most Catholics do support choice, and more than 80 percent don’t agree with the Vatican’s position on abortion. Another piece … highlights the number of clergy from different faiths that worked together during the back-alley days to counsel women and provide access to safe, illegal abortions.”
The Rev. Beverly Dale, aka “Rev Bev,” the Pennsylvania progressive pro-sex, pro-choice minister who helped organize tonight’s event, says, “There’s wide support among a lot of the religious leadership in the city and also the country. There was significant religious leadership in the first movement in the late 60s.”
Other participating groups include: the Philadelphia Women’s Center, Women’s Way, PA Clergy for Choice, the Pennsylvania Religious Coalition for Reproductive Justice, Mishkan, National Council of Jewish Women-Pennsylvania, Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania, Women’s Medical Fund, Faith Aloud, and Medical Students for Choice.
For tomorrow night’s screening at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, Fadiman has re-edited her vast vault of material to present an entirely different angle. The Germantown event, at 6511 Lincoln Drive, will focus on the role of elections and reproductive rights.
7-9pm. Free. The First Unitarian Church, 2125 Chestnut St. choiceatrisk.org