Jan Wilberg

Jan Wilberg
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA
April 18
I write about being a mother and grandmother, adoption and kids, getting older and the wonderment that brings. My husband says I'm 'sardonic' but then looked up the word and said 'not so much'. I leave it there.


Editor’s Pick
AUGUST 23, 2012 1:22PM

The Wire

Rate: 72 Flag

It wasn't a coat hanger. It was a wire.

The theory was that by inserting the wire through the cervix, moving it around a bit and then removing it, an infection would result and the pregnancy would be aborted. It worked. It was March 1967.

Afterward, after I watched the 'doctor' wash his hands with one of those little soaps wrapped in white paper, after he tilted the bedside lamp just so and after he said, "That should do it," I got dressed, left the motel with the flashing vacancy sign, made my way to the bus station in downtown Detroit, and rode in the dark in the eerie silence of a mostly empty Greyhound all the way back to Mt. Pleasant, the tiny Michigan town where I was a freshman in college. Curled up next to the window under my black pea coat, I wondered how long it would take, whether it would be on the bus or later. I worried that something a lot worse than being pregnant would happen to me because of what happened in the motel room, that I'd get sick or bleed to death. I wondered if I would ever feel right about what I had done and if there had been choices that I hadn't considered. I remember feeling like a mouse that had found the tiniest hole for escape while a giant tomcat loomed. I was distraught, empty, and alone on that bus. Back in my dorm room, Jane, my roommate, held both of my hands in hers and said, "It will be ok. You'll see. You'll have lots of children when the time is right." It was a gesture of kindness and compassion that even now brings tears to my eyes.

I was 19. I had slept with my boyfriend just a single time. When I missed my period, I ever so reluctantly made an appointment with the town gynecologist who confirmed the pregnancy and then quizzed me incessantly about whether I knew who the father was. Did I know who the father was? Of course. There had only been one person ever. Yes, I knew.

The doctor told me to tell my parents but I couldn't. My mother who had suffered for almost her entire adult life with severe depression was so deep in her terrible place, on the couch or in bed all day, sleeping or staring, that I almost cancelled my departure to college. The last child at home for many years, I had become her driver and caregiver when these episodes occurred. Leaving seemed like the worst kind of betrayal and yet the pull of the relief I knew I would feel being out from under her mental illness was irresistible. I really wanted to be in a place where people were happy. The thought of going home, sitting down on the couch, where I knew she would be, to tell her I'd gotten pregnant was unfathomable. Without question, I could not do that. My problem, then, was mine to solve.

My father, matter of fact as he was about everything, would line up a Justice of the Peace and get us married but my boyfriend had already nixed that plan. He had a friend who had a friend who knew about the 'wire' plan. We didn't have the $250 it would cost to pay a bonafide illegal abortionist so the only option was amateur hour. There was no real discussion. The wire became the path we would follow. I was cornered. I knew I was alone with the consequences whatever they would be. My boyfriend could walk away and no one would ever know. He was free. I was cornered.

I grieved and was wild for a full year after that. I broke up with my boyfriend, realizing right away that any man who would advocate the wire wasn't lifetime commitment material. I drank too much, bounced from guy to guy, and remember not much from that time except long times in the shower crying in grief and guilt. For years, I counted the days and months - how old the child would be if the pregnancy had not been terminated. The guilt was overwhelming. But as I matured, I recognized the decision for what it was - what I believed was right. I accepted responsibility and forgave myself. In the truest terms, I did what I had to do.

But what I had to do was a dreadful thing. The lack of safe, legal, and affordable abortion put me in a dingy motel in downtown Detroit to undergo a risky, unsanitary procedure that could easily have maimed or killed me. That I lived to tell the tale, to write about it on this page, is a small miracle of my life.

Six years later, abortion became legal in the United States. Of any accomplishment of the women's movement, this one was always at my core. It wasn't right for women to risk so much in order to be in control of their own reproductive lives. It wasn't right to punish women who have been cornered by circumstances - unplanned pregnancy, no job, no money, no options - by daring them to find the $250 illegal abortionist in their city or worse. It wasn't right that women should have to pay for a mistake with their fear, risk their future health and their very lives while men could walk away and be free. I was happy, so happy about Roe v. Wade. At last, I thought, this one thing for women - at last.

Twenty-five years after my abortion, busloads of anti-abortion protesters came to my town. Each morning they would pick a different abortion clinic and turn out by the hundreds to harass women coming for their abortion appointments. The crowds could be enormous with people waving signs with what they claimed to be pictures of aborted fetuses, and singing "My God is an Awesome God" verse after verse, hour after hour. Right away, I signed up to be a clinic defender and each morning I'd get up at 5, pick up a friend, and go lock arms with hundreds of like-minded folks to 'protect' that day's abortion clinic and the women who needed its services. We'd stand there silently while the protesters yelled at us and sang their hymns. They'd call us baby killers and murderers.

Sometimes it would be nose to nose, shoulder to shoulder. The protesters would bring their children, too, and they would be singing "Jesus Loves Me" between choruses of "Awesome God." We'd all be standing in a giant scrum while morning traffic zoomed by, horns honking in support of both sides. Special protectors in orange vests would shepherd each woman into the clinic for her appointment while protesters surged to scream at her. I couldn't believe how evil and cruel it was to be screaming at a woman when she was in such a terrible situation, when she was cornered.  I wanted to yell at them, "HASN'T ANYTHING BAD EVER HAPPENED TO YOU?

Where is your loving kindness?

And here we are again. Demonizing women. Limiting birth control. Shrinking access to legal and safe abortion. Daring women to go find the wire. All while men can walk away and be free.

It makes my 64-year old soul angrier than almost anything. The extreme hatred for women voiced by politicians, the talk of legitimate rape, the unbelievability of the idea of an ultrasound probe, the intent to demean me/us - it all puts me back on the bus in the dark, by myself, cornered and alone.

It's so wrong to treat women this way. So wrong.  We just can't go back.

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I wish everyone could or would, read this. I'm left speechless.
Wire-less is more forgiving to both zygote or fetus and mother; and it doesn't require a "doctor".
Thank you for both the courage to tell your story and your courage in defending women's rights. Last month I was told of a young woman and her husband that went to a clinic for an abortion procedure after it was discovered that the fetus was not viable. That poor woman had to wait for the required three days before the dead tissue could be removed thanks to our ridiculous law makers. Her husband was so upset for her. What other medical procedure requires that? I understand the desire to bring abortion rates down as far as possible, but it has always been there and will always be there, so we owe it to women to make it safe.
Highly rated.
My father was a doctor and in his early years he had resented those of his profession who would perform abortions. He would get self-righteous and think himself superior to them.

Then he grew up.

After you have practiced medicine for a while, you come to understand that everything isn't all black or all white. He'd seen what happens when girls barely more than children are sexually abused, seen women with serious health issues and a house full of children who won't live through another pregnancy, he'd seen the rape victim. And he's seen what happens after the wire.

So, when a high school classmate's father, a coal miner, came to him explaining that this girl who wasn't old enough to drive a car was pregnant, Dad wasn't self-righteous. He looked at me, his 13 year old daughter and thought, "There by the grace of G-d go I" and made some phone calls. She went on to be the first in her family to finish high school and graduate college.

These men who call for the end of legal abortion don't understand that they won't stop abortions, they will merely stop safe abortions. Oh, the wealthy will send their daughters to Europe like they used to , to a private school or on vacation, but the rest of the population will lose daughters, sisters, mothers, aunts and girl-friends.

Women will die because men want control. The irony is, they may very well kill their own loved ones.
Brava, Jan! If they only knew what the hell they were talking about...
A childhood friend of mine died from "the wire." Her family, so concerned about the shame her pregnancy would bring, took her to a place exactly like the one you described. I don't want to go back there, either.

My heart aches for that 19 year old girl. My soul screams to think about going back...
Thank you for writing this. ~r
I just nominated this courageous piece for a Readers' Picks Award. If you agree Jan deserves this recognition, please go here and second the nomination.
What a powerful story, and what a powerful piece of writing. Rated.
What an important message. Thank you for sharing your story, I'm speechless.
You have so much courage to tell this story. It needs to be read by everyone!/r
This is the perfect antidote to the blathering man speech on the right. Well done.
Oh my goodness. We've got some harrowing, well-written testimonials this week, and this is among them. I'm in awe of your fierce courage, and bravura -- yes, bravura -- in writing about such a devastating decision in your life. I don't want to go back, either. Rated.
I've never heard of the "wire method." Yours is a harrowing story and should be read by everyone.
This post made me weep for the horror of it, and for your courage in retelling it. I was only 16 in 1973, but I've heard the stories from unlikely places. RRRRR
Yes. What the first commentator said. R.
Thank you for sharing such a painful memory. And so necessary for so many to "know".
Thank you for sharing. Women who have never lived without legal abortion have no idea.
Thank you for this.
I had received the kind of retarded, no-details education you normally got in a Midwestern high school. I hadn't even seen a woman's genitals, which were usually airbrushed out in the magazines.

My sister went out one night, and explained - only to me - that she was taking a rather screwloose, sexually loose secretary from her office to an abortionist. When she came back, my normally happy sister was ashen-faced. "The bastard cut her up," was all she was willing to say.

That was in those dark days. It looks like those dark days are returning. Perhaps Romney thinks that back-alley coathanger-wire abortionists are the kind of innovative entrepreneur types that America needs. It doesn't matter what they produce - mangled and sometimes dead women - as long as the businessman makes money!

I like women, although women hate me and think I'm pond scum, and I won't let them be hurt if I can help it. And since they will never appreciate anything I do for them, you know this is a selfless gesture. Romney has to be stopped.
Bravest piece I've read in years. Thanks for your courage in writing it.
a well-told story, jan. i am sorry you have it to tell, and glad you shared it.

i am reminded of this sentence from a postcard i used to leave everywhere:

if men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.
I was 16 when I had mine in the early 80s. How grateful I was (am) that it was legal.

Every woman who makes the painful decision has their own story. Thank you for sharing yours.

Left, right, it doesn't matter. Stay out of my uterus.
This post needed to be written. Thank you for having the openness to do so. Rated, with enormous admiration for your honesty, eloquence, conviction, and strength.
Thank you for sharing your story so honestly. I agree, it is so wrong to treat women this way. People are sexual beings, and men and women both need the knowledge of how to handle that in a healthy way that respects others. People need to know how to manage their fertility in a healthy, thoughtful way, too.
An amazing piece of writing. And Roe v Wade notwithstanding, many of the nation's women are already back in 1967. I bet it's pretty hard to find a safe place for a legal, safe abortion in many states right now. My own state of TX included, most likely.
I don't usually look at the cover but I did today because I have a flippant post that got enough hits to get on the list of most commented in the last couple of hours or whatever the hell. This was excellent. Great content, great title.

My great-grandmother went through these in between having eight children.
The biggest reason I've stayed on Open Salon for several years is because every once in a while, I read an essay that just takes my breath away. This was one of them.
Heart wrenching and brave. What have we learned? To fight back. for one thing, through words like these. Thanks for your courage.
I wish that more women could share their experiences so honestly and clearly. (I understand why many women can't or won't, though, because it could open them up to tremendous shaming and possibly real danger.)

But if the statistics are true, and that nearly one in three women wil have an abortion during her life, it isn't other women who are having abortions. It is women you know, women you trust, women you admire. And this needs to be out there in plain sight.

Thank you for taking the risk and helping people to understand.
Thank you for your bravery and honesty.
I had to walk a friend in once and held off the ones with the signs until she could get inside. What a horrible way to treat any human being but most especially a woman already in mourning for the road she has to take. Yes your story should be read by all...

In 1971, the birth control that my boyfriend and I were using failed and I got pregnant. At the same time, I got a bleeding ulcer and a cyst on one of my ovaries that went from the size of a lime to the size of a lemon in one week. The gastrologist wanted to use a medication that would harm the fetus and the ob/gyn wanted me to terminate the pregnancy, but could not legally do so.

Fortunately, a co-worker knew of a licensed ob/gyn in another town who performed safe abortions in a clean safe clinic. I rode the bus 200 miles the night before thinking that I could spend the rest of the night in the bus station. The bus station was a closed grocery store. I was going to sit in front of the store until 8 the next morning but the bus driver would not hear of it. Two young ladies on the bus who lived in the next town down the road told me that I could spend the rest of the night at their house and that they would drive me back the next morning.

At the doctor's appointment, I found out that they had changed the price since I had made the appointment and I did not have quite enough money. They did not like to do the procedure the same day, but when I explained my circumstances they agreed to perform it later that same day. They allowed me to send them the rest of the money after my next payday. Everyone at the clinic made sure that this was truly what I wanted and that I was not being pressured by family or the father of the babies - it was twins. I was Rh + and the father was Rh - so there would have probably been health problems for at least one if not both of the babies.

I got back on the bus alone and went the 200 miles back home. I knew that I had made the best decision with the information I had at the moment, but it still was not easy.

Every day I was thankful that this wonderful doctor was willing to perform this much needed service in a safe and clean environment. All of the locals on the bus, and the driver knew why I was going to this community. I was so lucky, no one judged me. They were all so kind. The nice employees in the drug store were just as kind. Everyone keep this doctor's secret. How lucky I felt then and still feel 41 years later. I do not want anyone to go through that journey of fear and loneliness. We must not let them drive us back to those horrible days.

I am so tired of being called pro-abortion. I am not pro-abortion, I am pro-choice. I think that every woman has a right to make the choice that is right for her body, her soul and her emotional well-being. I am more than willing to allow them to believe anything they want to as long as they do not try to cram it down everyone else's throat.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I am so glad you wrote this.
I don't think it would have been gratuitous for you to explain how long it took after the wire insertion, if it was painful, if you bled a lot, and if you were ultimately able to have children. I appreciate you telling your story, and it is powerful, however, I feel the omission of these details makes the article incomplete.
Great article. This article really moved me like I haven't felt in a very long time. The way you mentioned how you felt alone, afraid, cornered without options really affected me. It is my hope that your story reaches a mass audience. People need to feel what it's like to be in a woman's situation like this. It's one thing to read about statistics and numbers, arguments, but when one reads of a moving personal account like yours, it all comes home. Your writing was excellent in all aspects. Hopefully people will see that we cannot go back to the days before Roe versus Wade.
A very well-written piece--powerful.
Amazing, timely, and well-written. Thank you for stepping forward to share your story. We need to lock arms and protect all women, with words, and respect, honesty, and courage. This was a fine beginning. Passing it on...
So honest and brave and beautifully told. I have such a vivid picture of your 19 year old self, that flashing motel sign and your lying there in the black pea coat. How alone you must have felt. What a voice you have, Jan. I am very happy to have found you here.
Texas Gal has a point. No one is pro-abortion, which is something the right to life movement doesn't seem to get. It's tragic by nature and those of us who are pro-choice get that.
What a brave, beautiful piece of writing. Thank you for sharing your story.
When I posted The Wire, I resolved not to read any comments. It was like I had enough gumption to post it but not to handle the reactions. But, of course, I couldn't stop myself from looking and I have to say to all those who commented - Thank you for reading my piece and for understanding what it meant for me to write it and post it. I've been surprised by the attention the piece received but glad that the message got out there - safe, legal abortion is fundamental health care.
This is an excellent telling of how it was and will be again if these soulless conservative women haters get their way, making religion the amateur hour of haters, women haters. We have a lot to understand in this country and it starts with the idea that women are equal to men and should never have to submit any thing that happens in their personal life to examination and regulation by those so ignorant and hateful.
Wow, this is really needed, Jan. So many just think that this is a social-political problem, where it's so easy to say you are for or against. The crys of ignorance are deafening. And really so misguided. I have to say that many are not aware of how this decision- making is part of one's rights, the possession of one's conscience is of paramount importance. There are young girls freaking out when they become pregnant and can not deal with this -- yet they are supposed to raise a child when that's what they are, too ...
One young girl,here, had become hysterical and threw the recently born baby out the bath room window. And we have these creeps in our Congress telling us what rape is -- and is NOT? Where is our understanding of human rights? Thank for a solid post. R>>>>>
Several months ago my daughter's unborn baby died during the fifth month of pregnancy. The news was devastating to all of us who awaited that child's birth. But adding to the difficulty and pain of that ordeal was this: the doctor who was caring for her at the hospital (unbeknownst to us at the time) was so pro-life that he refused to do a D&C to remove the baby's body from my daughter's uterus. Instead he ordered higher and higher doses of medication to stimulate labor so she would pass the fetus and umbilical tissue "naturally." After more than twelve hours of this, a nurse slipped into the room and explained to my daughter that her doctor was not ever going to do the D&C, because of his pro-life beliefs. Even though the baby was already dead! The nurse advised my daughter to seek a second opinion, which she did immediately, and the D&C was done within two hours. What troubles me most about the whole ordeal is that, had the nurse not secreted that information to my daughter, she would have continued to suffer, perhaps even at risk to her own life and health and possibly her future reproductive health because the doctor who was caring for her, who had vowed to “first, do no harm” and who should not have allowed his personal beliefs to enter into his decisions about my daughter's treatment, did not do the medically advisable thing and help my daughter abort her already deceased child.
Thank you for this amazing post and for speaking out for all women's reproductive choice. My greatest hope is that we never have to go back to "the wire," but in today's political climate, we just don’t know anymore, do we? This heart wrenching essay should be on the front page of every paper in the nation.
I just read this article and it both intrigued and bothered me. When I found out I was pregnant at one week before I turned eighteen, I faced that same choice. Abortion, adoption, or keep it. I was on the opposite side of the spectrum though. My family and my boyfriend wanted me to keep the baby. Pressured me to keep the baby. So I did. My sister said she would have never forgiven me if I got an abortion. My mother said it would have been the worst mistake I ever made (and now that my daughter is here and I know her, I agree) and others said much the same thing, how wrong it would have been to abort the pregnancy and things like that. I was seventeen and scared. I considered abortion, I really did. But I kept the pregnancy.

I thought that pregnancy and consequently having my baby would have made me pro-life. I was very pro-life in earlier years. However it had the opposite effect. And even now, over two years after seeing that positive pregnancy test, I still feel the same way.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughter. I have no regrets over keeping her. I don’t. However, it wasn’t fair of anyone to press their beliefs on me, especially over such a life-changing choice. If a woman feels that she cannot take care of her future child for any reason…money, ability, living situation, addiction, whatever…then it should be her right to end the pregnancy. As in the article, we do what we have to do. I considered abortion because I was 17 with a terrible job, no college prospects, and a shitty boyfriend who I was afraid wouldn’t make a good father.

Luckily enough for me, things worked out. After a desperate struggle and a lot of personal growth, we are married and our daughter is a beautiful, healthy toddler. But that is just it. I was lucky things worked out for me. And keeping my daughter, in reality, was my choice. I turned 18 just a few days after I found out I was pregnant. I could have gotten an abortion. And that would have been my choice too.

The choice needs to be there. The RIGHT needs to be there. Legal, safe, sterile abortions need to be available. If a woman wants to end her pregnancy, really really wants to, she will find a way to do so. And that particular way, as in the article, will be very risky and maybe even fatal. I know it’s a sensitive topic. I know it is a hard thing to swallow. But it needs to be available. Women need this choice. Men can walk away and have no mark or tell-tale sign that they got a woman pregnant. They can walk out. They can completely avoid it, as my daughter’s father did at the time. They have a choice. (I hated my then-boyfriend for that. I hated him for being able to go out and escape it.) Women need to have that option too.

I’m not a feminist. I am not anything or anyone, except a woman who went through a very difficult choice while feeling like she didn’t even have a choice at all. I don’t know if I can appropriately communicate how terrifying that is.
I had to register just to thank you for telling this story. I deeply hope it informs so many of what it is we simply cannot go back to. Your honest, unbiased account is incredibly inspiring.
Thank you for sharing your story. The pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword.
A powerful defense of a right that should be inalienable. Like you, I'm stunned that the miscreant anti-choicers have a political voice again. Some of my friends had coat-hanger abortions, and I am convinced that anti-choice legislation comes from a dark and godless mindset.
It is time that this issue was taken out of the politial arena and placed in the field in which it belongs. This is not a political issue,
it is a health issue.
It is unfortunate that the politics that seem to run behind this idea,
continue to walk around with this rose colored glasses on saying
"well if we are able to control the abortion issue, the the girls and boys will stop having sex and then we won't have to worry about this anymore." Hogwash!!!

Thank you for your courage in the telling of your story.
I went to Job Corps when I was 16 years old. While there I met a young woman who became a very good friend of mine. We talked about everything: boys we liked, subjects we hated, tv stars we would marry... everything. On this particular day, the topic was boys and sex and the children we may or may not have one day and my friend confided something to me: She'd had an abortion. I'd never met anyone my age who'd even been pregnant much less gotten rid of it but one thing I'll always be proud of is that my parents instilled in me an open mind and a tolerant nature. We talked about the hows and whys, what lead to the decision to terminate her pregnancy. What stuck with me the most was what she told me about the procedure. She said she couldn't remember anything about them coming in and performing the operation but what she did remember was the nurse who looked at her when everything was done and said, "Oh, what a beautiful baby boy." She said that, more than any other part of the entire situation, is what scarred her the most.

I am now and always will be pro-choice, not just for this story or my friend's but for the millions of other girls out there who have or will go through the same things. Everything is a choice. Everything. And if you take away the right to choose even one detail of my life today then what other aspect will you try to take away my decisions on tomorrow? Thank you for this. Thank you for the courage to tell your story. I just hope it gets to the places where it can do the most good.
Powerful and cautionary. Thank you.
A brave account. Thank you In the summer of 1965 I helped escort a friend's pregnant girlfriend from San Francisco to an abortionist across the border in Tijuana. She wanted that but was tormented by guilt at the same time. I was only on the sidelines yet the atmosphere of shame, secrecy, worry about medical competency and consequences made it a clandestine, illicit mission fraught with danger, fear of medical complicaitons, and fear of discovery. It shouldn't have been that way.
Amen. Thank you for your testimony. I have to mention that my 12-year-old daughter and I were listening to the news on NPR on the drive to school this week, and they mentioned the plank of the Republican platform that would deny abortion rights to women even in the case of rape or incest. My daughter couldn't believe what she was hearing. "What???!!!" As a women past her child bearing years, the issue had been more cerebral to me until I saw her reaction. My sweet little 12-year-old with her whole life of love and pleasure in front of her, and here she will have to fight -- we will have to fight -- this battle all over again that I thought we had already won. She decided then and there that she is a Democrat.
@Sabine Lavine - it says in Jan's bio that's she's a "mother and grandmother". Take from that what you will.

If she is not willing to reveal the details of what happened physically after the procedure, it's frankly none of your business, nor anyone's right to satisfy their prurient interest.

You could do some research to find other stories of abortions, where people discuss the physical effects. But not every abortion in those days was a horror show - it's just that the likelihood of it being so was -much- higher.
I applaud your honesty. This story is so common, in one way or another, with women in our society. When a woman is face with the choice to have an abortion it is never a happy day. No one is pro-abortion...it is never fun, I am sure. But being pro-choice, and supporting that agenda, is so important to protect young women and girls from back alley procedures. I know that the religious right does not see it as protecting our women but it does. Women need to know that they are important to this country and the people that live in it.
Thank you for reminding us what we cannot forget on this matter....the dangers to women are enormous when they are left with no choice. I admire and respect your honesty.
Thank you for speaking with the voice of painful experience. And you are so right... we cannot go back.
This article was interesting. The author experienced a great deal of guilt after she killed her baby, until she rationalized it as "I did what I had to do." Go to any high-security jail and ask an admitted murderer why he did it: I'm sure he'll give the same answer. It just goes to show that murder is murder, regardless of who is doing it and why.