By Andrea Pineda-Salgado

Judith Vivell was a 19-year-old college sophomore at University of California, Berkeley, when her roommate asked for a favor. “I have to get an abortion. I’m going to Tijuana, and I need you to drive me back,” her roommate told her about plans to cross the Mexico border. It was 1960 and abortions in the United States were illegal. As soon as Vivell finished her Spanish final the next day, she got in her roommate’s 1957 Cadillac convertible and made the nine-hour journey to Tijuana. Her roommate left to get the abortion while Vivell stayed in the car. 

“There I was in this Cadillac convertible, a 19-year-old girl just scared out of my wits,” Vivell recalls. “When my friend came out, she was bleeding and we got out of there as fast as possible because we were both really scared.”

They stopped at a motel just outside of San Diego to rest for the night, and her roommate bled throughout their entire journey. Her roommate continued to bleed and by the next morning, she was almost unconscious but would not give in to Vivell’s pleas and go to the emergency room. “I’ll get arrested,” she told her. The girls got back on the road, and Vivell was driving as fast as she could hoping her speeding would get them stopped by the police and they would then be forced to go to the hospital. 

When they finally reached campus, Vivell stopped in front of the health center. She took her roommate’s keys and marched into the hospital telling the staff that her roommate was bleeding a lot. With a stern look on his face, a doctor put his hand on Vivell’s shoulder and said, “She’s having a miscarriage, right?” Vivell couldn’t bring herself up to say her roommate had an abortion, so she just said yes. The doctors quickly dragged her roommate out of the car and put her in the ICU. She was there for three days. 

Judith Vivell is now 82 years old. 

On May 2, a draft was leaked from the Supreme Court that sparked protests all over the country. The draft opinion stated that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that stated abortion was a constitutional right, would be overturned. People across the U.S. have been protesting against this probable decision by the thousands saying it’s setting the U.S. back more than 50 years, to a time when women like Vivell’s roommate had to travel far to get a very unsafe abortion. In preparation for the influx of women hoping to get a legal abortion, New York, is ramping up its abortion protections, one of them being the Reproductive Freedom and Equity bill. 

Protest at Foley Square on May 3. Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado / Epicenter NYC

The bill was introduced by Assemblymember Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas and would allow women in New York State, as well as women coming from out-of-state, better access to abortion. It would do so in three ways:

  • Empower the Department of Health to provide money to nonprofit and abortion providers. This would help with the training and retention of staff, add extra security to abortion clinics, retrofit the facilities and any other operational needs.
  • Deal with uncompensated care, but ensure that funding to get an abortion is covered so that insurance status does not matter. Anyone would be able to get an abortion with or without insurance.
  • Direct money to nonprofits so that they can provide out-of-state abortion seekers with practical support such as travel resources, child care and hotel stays. 

“We need to be ready and willing to stand up for the right of every person to be able to choose when and how to create a family and then be able to provide real access to abortion services when you know the rest of the country has failed our people,” Gonzalez-Rojas says. 

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, it is expected that millions of women seeking to get abortions will come to New York. In 1970, when abortion was legalized in New York state more than 300,000 abortions were performed and more than half of the women lived out of state. While the story of Vivell’s roommate may seem like it is stuck in the past, if Roe v. Wade gets overturned, the U.S. will be seeing cases like this repeat itself. 

Organizations such as the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault say they worry women in states where abortion would be banned will get unsafe abortions out of desperation. They support the Reproductive Freedom and Equity bill; the demographic that the organization serves will greatly be impacted by the overturn of Roe v. Wade. 

“If you really care about sexual assault survivors in this country, we should all be supporting full access to abortion services,” says Emily Miles, executive director of the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault. “Public opinion’s pretty clear that a majority of Americans support access to abortion and an even greater number of Americans support clauses that would allow abortion in the case of rape or incest. Up until about 10 years ago, those clauses were really common in anti-abortion legislation. But there was a wave of more conservative state legislatures that have come in in recent years, and the resulting anti-abortion legislation, most of them no longer include those exemptions.”

If Roe v. Wade gets overturned, in some states such as Utah and Idaho, women would have to prove that they were sexually assaulted. That’s complex because the majority of assaults do not get reported to law enforcement. Women will need to travel to states like New York to get abortions, at great personal and financial expense. 

“In many ways, we are lucky because we live in a state in which we have protections for those who are seeking abortion services,” Miles says. “It’s important to support this bill because as I said, it provides funding for abortion services and care needs of individuals both within the state and for those traveling from outside of New York. It supports those organizations, abortion providers and nonprofit organizations who provide those services, but also supports individuals traveling to New York.”

Because New York was a safe haven for women seeking abortions — even in the 70s — Vivell’s own abortion story was different from her roommate’s. While working as a waitress in New York City in 1978, she was raped, and found out she was pregnant soon after. Vivell felt lucky that Roe v. Wade had already been legislated and her insurance covered the abortion. She went to Queens to get her abortion. 

“My insurance was pretty bare bones. There was no anesthesia, nothing like that and it was very painful,” she recalls. “But it was an abortion and I wasn’t bleeding and I was fine. It was not the nicest abortion. But believe me, I was so grateful that I wasn’t in Tijuana. I really understood the difference.”

Vivell recalled the abortion feeling like a simple medical procedure; “like getting a mole removed,” she says. She hopes that all women can have an easy and safe abortion like she had. 

“[Women need] a ticket to a decent abortion and an easy way to find that ticket and for everybody to know how to get that ticket,” she adds.

While the abortion nearly took her life, Vivell’s roommate was able to complete her studies and went on to get a Ph.D. at Brown University, while Vivell continued her career as an artist and built a family. 

“This is a moment where we really need to do the right thing [because we are] in a very, very dark moment,” Gonzalez-Rojas says. “There’s literally lives on the line, abortions are not going to stop when abortion bans are upheld. It’s just the safety of abortion care that is going to be challenged [as well as] access to equitable and compassionate health care is going to be eroded. So this is literally a life and death issue, and we need everyone’s support.”

How to help:

If you are a victim of sexual assault looking for resources, or want to support the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault visit its website.

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