It was over the Thanksgiving holiday, catching up with old high school friends, that Frances Beal heard that Cordelia had died. Like the now 82-year-old Black feminist and activist, her friend had left home to go to college, but she didn’t make it through her first year because, like anybody who wanted to terminate a pregnancy in America in 1958, she had been forced to undergo a backstreet abortion.
“She was dead because she’d had an illegal abortion. And it had gone bad. And if you take a look at the statistics, the number of woman that died from illegal abortions was tremendous,” Beal, who later joined the movement to legalise abortion, told the Observer.
Now, more than 60 years after Cordelia’s death and nearly half a century since Roe v Wade legalised abortion, she fears many more women could die after a leaked draft document revealed that the supreme court looks like it is preparing to overturn the landmark ruling.
“The overthrow of Roe v Wade equals the murder and assassination of women and that’s something that I feel in my heart will happen again,” said the author of the pioneering 1969 pamphlet Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female.
What happened last week should send an urgent warning signal not only to Americans but the world, she said, calling on people to take to the streets in their millions worldwide as they did following the police murder of George Floyd.
“Unfortunately, America often acts as a precursor of things to happen in other countries. And if they can attack and destroy a woman’s right to choose an abortion in the United States it won’t be too far before the right will be destroyed in other countries around the world.”
She said women around the world needed to return to the attitude of women in the 60s to protect the lives of thousands whose lives would be put under threat. It’s a basic human right for a woman to control her own body,” she said.
The death of her friend enabled Beal to immediately take a strong stance on the issue of abortion access and she told her story to mass meetings in New York.
To be facing the same struggle again is both depressing and angering, but she hopes it is an opportunity for women to organise and unite as they did in the 1960s and 70s.
“The question of access to abortion, even as it was legal, was somewhat limited because of class and racial differences. We don’t forget that,” she said.
“But we can put aside those class and racial differences, as well as generational differences, and stand together and say: ‘No, this is not something that we are going to accept. We didn’t accept it back in the 1970s and we’re not going to accept it today.’”
Merle Hoffman, 76, has been on the frontlines of the movement for more than 50 years since giving up her plan to become a concert pianist. She founded Choices Women’s Medical Center in Queens, New York, one of the first abortion clinics in the US.
In 1989, she declared a “state of emergency” in women’s’ rights in front of St Patrick’s Cathedral with a huge coat hanger. Today she continues to use the coat hanger at protests and speeches, and she keeps it in her office.
While the latest development is “a tremendous disaster” and “an egregious take back of a fundamental human and civil and constitutional right” she said it has been a very long time coming.
“They’ve been persistent, consistent and this has been their goal, and with the three new conservative judges on the court, they’ve managed to be in the position where they can actually do this.”
Hoffman, who recently helped to found a new organisation, Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights, said it is a “generational struggle” that she doesn’t see coming to an end any time soon. “It’s strange, it’s Kafkaesque. In a sense I’m reliving my youth.”
After Roe v Wade, she said, many people “metaphorically put their political feet up on their desks and said ‘we’ve got it covered’.”
She added: “Well, you never have it covered. We have to fight issues in the civil rights struggle again, voting rights, all sorts of things, it’s never covered because there’s always opposition. It’s a dynamic force.”
Dr Nori Rost, a minister and clergy leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, was still at high school in Kansas when she attended her first pro-choice event in 1978.
“It was five years after Roe v Wade, so it was a strange mixture of jubilation and still maybe PTSD at where we had been because it was still so raw and recent in people’s memories,” said Rost, now 59.
She added: “It’s just shocking to think that we’re back to where we were in 1972 – 50 years later, here we are in the same panic, in the same uncertainty about what’s going to happen with people who need to access safe legal abortion.”
She also fears the unravelling of abortion rights could also lead to the rollback of marriage equality.
“It’s a very helpless feeling that five people can have the right to choose how millions of women in this country can access healthcare to have agency over their own bodies,” she said. “It’s very demoralising.”