A couple of years ago, Jeannie Morris was asked to give a talk at a breakfast meeting to a group of lawyers in town for an American Bar Association conference. The veteran sports broadcaster had been asked to choose a topic relating to sports, and she had prepared a speech. But as the time approached, Morris reconsidered her subject.
She had heard that one of the topics on the association’s agenda that afternoon was a reconsideration of their official prochoice position. When she appeared before the group, she told them,”You have a very important vote this afternoon. I’m gonna tell you about something you’re not expecting to hear about.” And Morris proceeded to tell them about the time, before Roe v. Wade, when she went to Mexico and had an illegal abortion. It was the first time since the harrowing experience more than 20 years earlier that Morris had talked about it publicly.
It must have been a shock to some in the audience. Morris’s television image, one part wholesome good looks and one part highly visible marriage to sportscaster Johnny Morris suggested a comfortably nonpolitical persona—the girl next door grown up to be Mrs. America. And indeed, Morris says, during her years as a journalist, political activity was off-limits to her—she was bound by contracts and agreements that she remain “objective.” But by the time the Supreme Court’s Webster decision came down in 1989, she had gone from staff to free-lance status, and found herself free to say what she thought about it.
In 1990 she was one of a group of women who founded the Women’s Issues Network, an organization of women who want to influence public policy to benefit women. One of the group’s concerns is the legalization of the French “abortion pill,” RU 486. Since the drug causes the uterus to shed its lining, as in menstruation, it has the potential to eliminate the use of surgical abortions in terminating early pregnancies. RU 486 isn’t available in the U.S., even for testing; its manufacturer is withholding it, apparently intimidated by vocal antiabortion factions. WIN decided to make a video documentary on the subject and Morris was made executive producer.
The documentary would include interviews with politicians, medical experts, and, WIN hoped, women who had endured illegal abortions. Morris didn’t have any trouble finding these women, but getting them to talk on camera turned out be another matter. “One of the harrowing things about it was that you didn’t tell anybody,” Morris says. “And now, 25 years later, in this political climate, it was the wrong time to tell your children, your husband, your mother, or your sister.” Morris decided it was time for her to tell her own story.
In 1966, when she had four children under the age of nine, including a three-month-old infant, and a marriage that looked like it was washed up, Morris got the news that she was pregnant again.
“I was sure the breakup of my marriage was imminent,” Morris says. “I thought, I don’t know when this is going to happen; I’ve got four children, they’re my responsibility; I have to get my strength back.”
Convinced that she needed an abortion, Morris began a search for help. Her gynecologist was sympathetic but afraid to break the law; a reputed mob abortionist (reached by telephone) “blew us off.” When a high school friend in Los Angeles said she could help, Morris hopped a plane. “I thought she had a doctor in California,” Morris recalls, “but when I got there, she said, ‘We’re going to Tijuana.’
“We had instructions to meet this guy at a seedy motel on the California side of the border,” she says. “We rented a room there and waited. My friend’s boyfriend was with us and he was drunk. This experience was too much for him.” When the abortionist arrived, “he didn’t speak much English, but he was clean, poised, he seemed intelligent. He wanted two things: he wanted his $400 up front, and he wanted me to come with him by myself.”
She refused to go alone. In their own car, Morris, her friend, and the inebriated boyfriend followed the man’s white Cadillac across the border, winding through the dark streets of Tijuana, into the hills. “We had no idea where we were. He pulled into a garage, told me to get out and told the others to drive away. He didn’t want the car parked in front of his house with the California plates on it.” Again, Morris refused to stay by herself. “Since my friend’s boyfriend was too drunk to drive, he stayed with me and she drove off.
“We walked through the garage to a shed in the back. It had a dirt floor, a table, a bare bulb, another sort of side table with instruments on it. And he had a sort of dental gas mask. There was no anesthetic, but he gave me this mask. He said not to scream—he didn’t want any noise. He said, ‘If you feel pain, put this thing over your face and inhale.’
“I was so scared. I had been shaking for three hours before I got there. I remember thinking, I’m going to do it and get through it. I’m going to survive it. Emotionally, it’s like running into a hail of bullets to save a buddy. You feel like you’re saving lives, not destroying them. You’re doing it for positive reasons.”
She climbed on the table and had a D & C. “It was very painful, but I expected it to be painful. And it was relatively fast. When it was over, he said, ‘Get out. Out, and away from this house.’ But we couldn’t leave. My friend got lost driving around the hills; all these shacks looked alike and she couldn’t tell where we were. We sat in front of his house for something like half an hour, just terrified that she had run into something untoward. When she finally showed up, we all cried.
“The first thing I did when I crossed the border was call my children. I was so anxious to get back to them, to feel normal again. They thought I was on vacation. ‘Are you having fun, Mommy?’ they said.”
Morris returned to Chicago the next day, bleeding heavily and infected, but without any lasting damage. Like most women who had pre-Roe abortions, she hasn’t told her story very often; when she does, it still makes her cry. Although her marriage to Johnny Morris survived into the 1980s, she says she never regretted her decision to abort; only that she had to risk her life to do it. “I know it was the right thing for my family,” she says. “And what I learned from it, from my own determination, was that it always has happened and always will.” Morris says RU 486 would have made an enormous difference for her; if her daughters ever need it, she wants it there for them.
A benefit premiere of Science Held Hostage: RU 486 and the Politics of Abortion, with narrator Cybill Shepherd in attendance, will be held Monday at 5:30 at the Chicago Historical Society, Clark Street and North Avenue. Tickets are $45. Proceeds go toward the video’s distribution. Call 944-4868 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.