human rights Robert Lipsyte Supreme Court

No More Bystanders in the Post-Roe Era

Men must stand with women to secure abortion rights.

By Robert Lipsyte / TomDispatch

For 50 years now, people have told desperate, heart-breaking stories about what it was like to search for an abortion in the days before Roe v. Wade. These were invariably narratives of women in crisis. They sometimes involved brief discussions about economic inequality, police-state intrigue, and unwanted children, but for the most part men were invisible in them, missing in action. Where were they? And where are they now that a wall of fundamental rights seems to be crumbling away not just for women, but for all of us? This is another example of what I used to call the Bystander Boys.

As a sportswriter, my work over these decades often brought me into a universe of male entitlement and the sort of posturing I thought of as faux masculinity. Even in that chest-beating environment, I was struck by the absence in abortion stories of what in another time would have been called manliness. What happened to that mostly storybook ideal of the brave, modest, responsible, big-hearted protector? I figured out early on not to waste time searching for him among football quarterbacks or baseball coaches, or even cops and Army officers. Much, much later, I found more people with the right stuff — that “manly” ideal — among single mothers and feminist lawyers.

As it happened, there weren’t a lot of male heroes during the women’s movement of the 1970s or even the more recent #MeToo upsurge. Most men, except for the power boys who treated everyone else as girls, were too fearful or starstruck to intervene. The most grotesque models were, of course, the athletes who stood by silently while their teammates raped stoned or drunken women.

In the pre-pill early 1960s, when unwanted pregnancy was a constant chilling specter for my pre-Boomer “silent” generation, men usually talked about abortion only if their girlfriends had missed a period — when they were trying to track down that coal-country Pennsylvania doctor who performed illegal abortions with relative impunity. They might even share their fears of what an unwanted kid would do to their careers, but rarely did they bring up the typical back-alley butchery of abortion in those years that came from the hijacking of the most fundamental of rights.

Where are those guys even today, much less their sons and grandsons, presumably still active partners in the reproductive process? Forget about moral responsibility — what about the jeopardy our lives are in as the possibility of a Trumpian-style authoritarian future closes in around us? Sixty years ago, it already seemed remarkably clear to me how crucial it was that men stop leaving women to face this nightmare essentially alone — and it still does.

The Dismissal

With that in mind, let me tell you my own ancient abortion story, though it always felt somewhat pallid compared to others — what my kids would have sneered at as a “first-world story” if I had told them. Still, I think it does capture the fear and helplessness of a time which, sadly enough, just might be coming around again.

The year was 1961, 12 years before Roe v. Wade. I had already been married to my first wife for two years and she was justifiably convinced that we were still too shaky, emotionally and professionally, to have children. We were both 23. She was an undergraduate, working on the side in a doctor’s office. I was an ambitious New York Times reporter, covering sports for that paper and cops for its Sunday magazine. When she discovered that she was pregnant, we briefly argued about what to do. I liked the idea of fatherhood and was convinced that it wouldn’t hamper my career. (No wonder, since in the spirit of the time, I assumed she’d be doing all the work.) But I did at least understand that, in the end, it was her choice, not mine.

Through her medical connections, she found a Fifth Avenue doctor who would perform the then-illegal operation for $500, which we could just barely scrape together. We called that upcoming operation “the dismissal” in what we both understood to be a pathetically smart-assed way of avoiding a confrontation with the actual fears and mixed emotions generated by our choice. At that time, it was, of course, criminal, dangerous, and (in what passed for proper society) largely despised.

I was scared for Maria’s well-being and the possible consequences of acting illegally. I was particularly fearful that the Times might find out and, in some fashion, hold it against me. In a confused and twisted way, I was also disturbed about acting against the moral conventions of my society and time. It made me feel like a bad person and, believe me, those were wrenching feelings that began to bubble back into my memory recently as the most humane of judicial amendments came under assault by truly evil forces.

I was also — however contradictory this might sound — righteously angry on that crisp, clear fall afternoon as Maria and I walked to the doctor’s ground-floor office across from New York’s Central Park. I knew even then that religious bigots and the mercenary politicians backing them stood in the way of our health and freedom. Admittedly, I could never have imagined that, more than half a century later, the same combination of forces would be using abortion as part of an authoritarian plot to seize control of all aspects of our lives. Back then, I probably would have smirked at such seeming paranoia, had I seen it in some sci-fi film.

The doctor’s door opened before I rang the buzzer and the arm of an older woman — the doctor’s wife I later discovered — shot out, grabbed Maria’s sleeve and began pulling her inside. We kissed quickly. I noted how terrified Maria’s eyes were. And then she was gone.

I had been instructed to leave the area and call in two hours (from a pay phone on the street, of course, since no one then had a mobile phone). After wandering in the park for a while, I found myself drifting back toward the doctor’s office. Reporters always have that urge to stay near the action. As dusk was settling, I noticed nondescript black and gray sedans beginning to double-park illegally along Fifth Avenue and in the side streets flanking that office. They disgorged athletic-looking women in non-chic clothes. In that fashionable neighborhood, they were distinctly not local residents.

The Raid

As they clustered on the sidewalk, I remember thinking that they looked like a women’s semi-pro softball team I had once covered, as well as the women cops I had met recently doing a Times magazine piece about a squad of Manhattan detectives.

I realized then that I was watching a raid. I felt ice water in my veins as I hurried to a telephone booth from which I could observe the cops closing in on the doctor’s office. What should I do? Warn the doctor? Less than an hour had passed since Maria had gone inside. If they aborted the abortion now, would that spare them criminal charges? What if she was numbing into the anesthesia? I imagined the doctor, scalpel in hand, panicking and injuring my wife. I couldn’t bring myself to take that chance. So, made powerless by my decision, I simply waited and watched.

Soon enough, the cops swarmed the office door and went inside. I moved closer. Several of them were standing guard there and others were stationed along the block. They briskly collected a middle-aged couple heading toward the office and stuffed them into a parked sedan.

It seemed like a long time before the office door opened and the cops came out with the doctor’s wife, a white-bearded man in a white coat, a teenage girl wrapped in a blanket, and Maria, pale and shaking after the operation. I couldn’t be a bystander for one more second. Nobody stopped me as I ran to her, yelling, “That’s my wife!”

The cops were matter of fact, almost kindly. They assured us that if Maria agreed to accompany them to Bellevue Hospital and submit to an examination to ascertain whether she had an abortion, there would be no charges against her. I felt helpless. I didn’t know what to do or who to call.

Gripped by a certain desperation, I asked whether the medical exam would be the end of it? No, I was told, she would need to appear before a grand jury trying the doctor. I insisted on going to Bellevue with her. The cops conferred. Okay, they said, and took me along.

I sat in the chilly hallway of that hospital for a long, long time. Passing cops chatted with me in a relatively friendly way. Several of them all but apologized. Abortions were against the law, they pointed out, shrugging, as if to say, what can we do? Finally, I took Maria home. She slept for a day. There were visits from a nurse at the doctor’s office where she worked.

Sometime later, she did indeed testify before a grand jury. The doctor’s name eventually appeared in a splashy New York Post story. He was running an abortion “factory,” so the claim went, and the raid on his office was considered a big bust.

The Choice

And that was pretty much the end of it for us, not to speak of our marriage a year later. The only related event: a call from the Police Department’s public information chief, a deputy commissioner, demanding an apology and a retraction of things I had written in my recent magazine article about the squad of women detectives. He said he knew just why I had written so negatively about them and assured me that if I didn’t send him that apology, he would inform key people at the Times about my recent “unlawful activity.” He let that phrase hang in the air.

I felt chills. My career, I feared, was over. At that moment, I remember thinking about how my dad had talked me into getting a junior-high-school English-teaching license as a back-up to my risky journalism career.

Still, I felt I had no choice and told that deputy commissioner to go to hell. He snickered and hung up. I never heard from him again. Sometime later, a magazine editor from the Times discreetly indicated to me that he’d brushed off some complaint from a police flack and told me not to worry.

End of story, although I thought about it again when Roe v. Wade became the law of the land in 1973 and, with Maria’s permission, I wrote about what happened to us as part of a boomlet of pre-Roe horror stories published then. The bloody wire coat hanger that women so notoriously used to try to induce abortions at home, which once seemed all too real to me, was becoming a quaint symbol of another age. We could breathe easy on this, as it was obviously settled law for all time.

In retrospect, I realize that I was surprised by how blithely a new generation took for granted legal access to safe abortions. As a feminist married to a feminist journalist in the 1970s, my nascent thoughts about those Bystander Boys of the pre-Roe era transformed into far better images of “liberated males” I knew, mostly writers and academics, who supported the women’s movement, even if the mainstream media wrote them off as softies. 

Everything started coming back to me, though, with Politico‘s scoop on Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion that threatens to end Roe v. Wade (and potentially so much more). In that “opinion,” you can see one of the many bullies of this era at work. When it came out, the Republican congressional crew were, of course, already well launched on the tactics they had undoubtedly learned so long ago in some schoolyard, intimidating any onlookers who wanted to stop them from terrorizing the girls.

Meanwhile, the everyday dudes, starting with President Biden, were generally cutting and running from both the reproductive nightmare Alito’s opinion had set loose in our world and its larger social implications, including the Trumpist campaign to control us all.

It’s time, though, for the boys to become men, to step out on the streets, organize, demonstrate, march (maybe wearing knitted penis caps), guard clinics, escort patients, make noise. Older men like me who can evoke the terrible pre-Roe days should tell their stories, at least to their grandsons, especially the ones who claim that their impractical progressive ideals prohibit them from voting in lesser-of-two-evils elections (too common these days, it seems.)

Just hold your nose, sonny, if it means doing the right thing.

And perhaps it’s most important to keep reminding ourselves and everyone we know that abortion isn’t the whole abortion story, that the bullies are preparing to go after the entire schoolyard, not just the girls, and (as has become so common these days) they’re going to stomp into the school-board meeting as well. Sooner or later, they’ll try to take over the school itself and, eventually, the mind and soul of this country thanks to the holes they’re about to tear in the Constitution. There are more of us than them and, if we stand together and fight, we can still win. No place for bystanders now.

Robert Lipsyte

Robert Lipsyte is a TomDispatch regular and a former sports and city columnist for the New York Times. He is the author, among other works, of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.

18 comments

  1. A powerful story about the injustice and misogyny of the pre Roe v Wade world.

    But I can’t get behind the “Just hold your nose” vote for the lesser of two evils solution. Why didn’t the Democrats codify the right to abortion on the multiple occasions (post Roe v Wade) when they controlled the presidency, the house, and the senate?

    The Democrats are every bit as evil as the Republicans, as beholden to their wealthy donors, and as uninterested in protecting the rights of ordinary Americans. More active, more radical, political action is required than just “holding your nose” and voting for more of the same.

    1. Watch How to Start a Revolution DVD documentary and read From Dictatorship to Democracy, the book by Dr Gene Sharp. This is what we can do to change things.

  2. I agree with much here, but there is a glaring hole in your logic when you are obviously suggesting we have to vote blue no matter who. Voting Democrat hasn’t made things better for Americans in general, and Democrats have had chances to make Roe federal law, but didn’t. And the reality is, Democrats don’t care to do it now. It’s better for them to dangle it as a fundraiser, just as the Republicans did with the anti-abortion crowd. Remember, it wasn’t lawmakers who created Roe, it was the Supreme Court.

  3. Whew. Bizarre.

    “And perhaps it’s most important to keep reminding ourselves and everyone we know that abortion isn’t the whole abortion story, that the bullies are preparing to go after the entire schoolyard, not just the girls, and (as has become so common these days) they’re going to stomp into the school-board meeting as well. Sooner or later, they’ll try to take over the school itself and, eventually, the mind and soul of this country thanks to the holes they’re about to tear in the Constitution. There are more of us than them and, if we stand together and fight, we can still win. No place for bystanders now.”

    I am not sure what world Lipsyte lives in, or how he navigates the reality of how much this country has already hobbled its citizens, colonized the young folks minds, torn apart any true rights, has bombed the world with napalm, both physical and spiritual. I don’t get it. This is the sort of writing that is, well, very East Coast kinda memoiric style, but, god damn, the stuff he says at the end, as if we were a lovely country when he was first a sports reporter in 1962, well, I just don’t get these guys and gals, working their silos and throwing out systems thinking when it comes to how this country, tis of thee, is the world’s terroist organization, within and without!

  4. Abortions remain available for those who can afford them. A question that remained unanswered for the past 26 years: Where were liberals when Democrats ended basic poverty relief?

  5. Great article. So sorry about what you went through. Don’t sell yourself short on “first world” pain. That was a nightmare, and you were in an impossible situation. Thank you for telling the story.
    Additionally, I feel very sorry for the physician.
    What you described about the raid—that is how physicians are imprisoned for prescribing legal controlled substances.
    Databases track every controlled substance and are accessible by law enforcement & DEA without need of subpoena or warrant. The top prescribers, regardless of whether they are hospice providers, are raided by DEA swat teams with guns drawn, and patients intimidated into turning on the physicians. The trial by media that follows makes the physicians look like drug dealers. The DEA strips them of assets prior to trial so they can’t mount a defense. The entire weight of each prescribed tablet that contains mostly acetaminophen (Tylenol) and some opioid is counted as if the whole thing is heroin when they are sentenced. Most prescribed opioids aren’t nearly as strong as heroin, despite the ravings of psychiatrists who are not trained in pain medicine but are serving as highly paid “expert” witnesses for prosecution, directors of profitable rehab institutions, and pushing opioid substitutes (that are actually also opioids). Yes, opioids can be addictive and ruin or end lives, but unless you want to experience an amputation with nothing for pain post op (happened to a family member, with 2 MDs in family; so many other horrors I’ve witnessed), I’d suggest calling your legislators before you find yourself in a similar position.

  6. What a story….When abortion was still illegal, a particular doctor who provided that service, did abortions without anesthesia. In case the police raided his patient had to be wide awake to get off the operating table….Abortion without anesthesia was horrendously painful….A number of years later, one of his patients during the procedure had a medical emergency….Not being in a hospital he had no access to emergency equpiment and she died on the table….He panicked and cut her body into pieces and hid the parts….I am told he was arrested.

    1. what?
      abortions were performed w/o anesthesia after it was legalized

    2. Your story should have been censored by the moderator, you are obviously a crank with the nonsense story and you do a disservice to this topic. Most all abortions are done with local anesthesia only.

      1. From your previous Right-Wing Anti-Women comments it is easy to see where you are coming from…You hate women and wish them to be punished….I bet you would be delighted if abortions were all done without anesthesia.

      2. It is a damnation of the male gender, and many of the followers, female, who have pushed this barbarity of controlling anything about a woman’s agency, body and mind included.

        We have toxic masculinity and a rape culture. Now, these same perversions end up as CEOs, DA’s, cops, judges, etc. Interesting studies here,

        Quoting:

        The agnotology of abortion: a history of ignorance about women’s knowledge of fertility control

        Investigating the history of abortion is rife with shifting assumptions about what constitutes abortion, and even who determines pregnancy, as well as the contingencies of time and place and the ideological limits of recorded histories. Emerging from traditional herbal and dietary remedies to constituting illnesses like green sickness and hysteria, women’s knowledge and agency in controlling of their fertility through the use of abortifacients is notoriously underdeveloped. This article reports on some of the constraints of researching historical abortion practices, and also proposes that women’s knowledge of fertility control may have contributed to these constraints through a manufactured culture of ignorance: an agnotology of abortion.

        Researching abortion in an historical context

        Researching the history of abortion means attending to different terms of reference than those meanings of abortion commonly understood today. For us, an abortion is any procedure which terminates a pregnancy from the first day a blastocyst implants itself in the uterus until late in the second trimester of pregnancy. Historically, however, abortion was understood in a much more limited sense: as a termination occurring only in the later stages of pregnancy when a fully developed foetus had quickened, what we would now consider a late-term abortion. It is highly likely that historically women preferred to terminate their pregnancies as early as possible, as women generally do today. Many historical and anthropological studies of the practice of ‘abortion’ have not been very useful because what they investigate is usually this (historically) atypical form of abortion.

        One of the birth control methods women have traditionally relied upon most is menstrual regulation (Browner 1985; Jochle 1974; Low and Newman 1985; Riddle 1997; McLaren 1984; Newman 1985; Ngin 1985). This is the stimulation of one’s period before confirmation of pregnancy to ensure a non-pregnant state. Stephania Siedlecky quoting Norman Himes writes:

        The use of herbal remedies or physical interference to induce menstrual bleeding or control pregnancy is a practice that has been found in every quarter of the globe dating to prehistoric times. Indeed writers in antiquity recorded centuries of accumulated knowledge of the medicinal qualities of local plants, but this information was already ancient by the time it was written down. (2001, 93)

        While menstrual regulation has been used for more than just fertility control, to the extent that it was used for this purpose, we would understand it today as early abortion. However, when we want to speak about the experience of early pregnancy termination in the past, it becomes quite tricky epistemologically. In the days before pregnancy testing, a woman who had missed a period may have suspected that she was pregnant, but there was no way for her to know for sure. Because diagnosis of early pregnancy was always a retrospective diagnosis, only possible after a pregnancy was over, women never experienced a definitively pregnant state that they could be said to be wilfully terminating. Perhaps menstrual regulation was experienced by women historically as a protection against the threat of possible pregnancy, akin to what we would today think of as post-coital contraception. But whereas today we only have a matter of days in which this situation applies, historically women had weeks in which to act. Historically, ‘contraception’ may have covered a rather broad range of methods which were used up to a month or two following a sexual encounter. As King writes, “since conception was a gradual process taking place over several months… contraception extended several months into pregnancy” (King 1998, 134).

        https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA485808808&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=04450445&p=AONE&sw=w&userGroupName=mora54187

      3. I am n ot sure where this quote is coming from….Is it from that AH guy?….And what exactly is the point of it?

  7. “POSSIBILITY OF A TRUMPIAN-STYLE AUTHORITARIAN FUTURE”….I’m afraid we are already there….And neither of our 2 money parties are doing a thing about it!

  8. You’re wrong to keep saying that this is a “post-Trumpian” world. This is a Biden (or whoever his handlers are) world. Take responsibility for your TDS-fueled choices. And don’t mistake this for the response of a Trump supporter; I’m not.

    The only men I hear about in the abortion “debate” are those who oppose abortion. Since they’re not the ones who have to face the consequences of their actions and leave it up to their sex partner to deal with the 18 years of raising a child, I have always felt that they have no right to any opinion on abortion, unless they can get pregnant.

    However, in general I agree with you: men need to step up to the plate and shoulder the demands of the modern world. I also believe that violence against women won’t end until men stand up against it, but that’s another topic. (Or is it? Banning abortion can be seen as another type of violence.)

  9. OK, good story until the BS end, with another jerk trying to convince people to vote for one of the war monger pro-U.S. empire Wall Street parties. Screw that. Additionally, the Democrats have done NOTHING for abortion rights. They could have codified those rights, but instead have chosen to use this issue for campaign contributions and elections, by keeping this issue going and keep pro-choice people scared. If you support abortion rights and want to express that support by voting, find a party that actually supports those rights and vote for them. Only suckers and people who aren’t progressive vote for Democrats.

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