I Got an Illegal Abortion Before Roe v. Wade
She was 15 when she got an illegal abortion in a dirty Detroit warehouse. Now, she’s terrified others will experience something similar.
VICE News by Carter Sherman | April 7, 2022 | Read full story
Renee Chelian still doesn’t know who performed her abortion.
In 1966, Chelian was 15 years old and living in the Detroit area when she got pregnant. She had no idea what an abortion was, until her parents asked her if she wanted one. But Chelian soon underwent one—after being blindfolded and taken to a dirty warehouse crowded with women looking for illegal abortions.
Determined to keep pregnant people from facing the kind of uncertainty and danger she did, Chelian eventually become an abortion provider herself. She now runs three abortion clinics around Detroit.
In the 1950s and ’60s, somewhere between 200,000 and 1.2 million illegal abortions were performed annually. Banning abortion doesn’t make the procedure disappear. It just keeps the public in the dark about it.
With the advent of abortion-inducing pills, the technology of abortion has evolved since the days of Chelian’s procedure; experts now believe that using pills to self-manage an abortion can be safe. But Chelian fears a moment where people will be cut off from the procedure she’s devoted her life to providing. The Supreme Court is now deliberating over a case that threatens to topple Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
In order to understand what this future might look like, VICE News turned to the past—to the stories of the people who’ve had front-row seats to the last half-century’s fight over abortion. Chelian spoke to VICE News about her illegal abortion and her abortion clinic network, the Detroit-based Northland Family Planning, as part of our series about the legacies left by veterans of the U.S. abortion wars.
This article, told in Chelian’s words, has been edited for clarity and length.
I learned about abortion when I was 15 years old. I knew I was pregnant, but my mother took me to a doctor to confirm it because I just couldn’t tell her. My parents were getting ready to send me to Ohio to marry my boyfriend, who was 16, and my dad and mom came into my bedroom and asked me if I wanted to have an abortion. I said, “I don’t know what that is.” They said, “Well, you won’t be pregnant anymore… You won’t have to get married. You can finish high school.”
Because in 1966, pregnant girls were expelled from high school. Boys weren’t. But girls were. And I would have done anything at that point not to have a baby, not to be thrown out of school, and to be able to go forward with my life.
My boyfriend’s father made the arrangements. Everything was done by secret and by code. We had party lines—you shared a phone with a neighbor, so you couldn’t talk freely to someone on the telephone.
My parents were given the information on where to go. My mom was six months pregnant with my youngest sister, and my father was afraid for her to go. He took me and we drove to some spot in Detroit, and both of us were then blindfolded and put in another car and driven to this place. When the blindfolds were taken off, we were inside some kind of warehouse. The floors were greasy.
I was scared to look around. I was afraid that if they hurt me, my father was going to kill somebody and he would end up in jail. I didn’t really understand the other kinds of consequences.
Around me, there were a lot of women. I only looked at people’s feet. I was afraid to look up at their faces because if I did, I was afraid they’d make me go home. They gave me something to put me to sleep. When I woke up, my father and the person who did my abortion explained to me that I was a little farther along than they thought and that they couldn’t finish the abortion, that it was going to happen at home. What I know now is they packed my uterus with gauze in hopes that I would go into labor and pass the pregnancy at home. They said it would happen in a couple of days.
My mother had told our family physician, who told a young OB-GYN doctor from Colombia, who had just opened a practice in the small city within Detroit where I lived. He called my mom and said that, if there were any problems at all, that she should call him and he would take care of me. I found out later his sister had died from an illegal abortion in Colombia.
That OB-GYN put me on antibiotics, which was probably the best thing that happened to me, because it was more than a week and nothing had happened. In that week’s time, the people who did my abortion sent my dad and I to a pharmacy. We gave a fake name and a code word, and they gave us a bottle of quinine pills. All they did was make my ears ring.
Another appointment was made for my dad and I to meet them at another spot. We were taken, blindfolded, to the same sort of situation as the first appointment. I’m sure my dad was terrified, though he didn’t really let me know. I was scared.
This time, I think they ruptured the membranes or amniotic sac, and repacked my uterus with gauze. They were certain I was going to go into labor this time. And within 24 to 48 hours, I started having contractions.
I lived in an inner-city neighborhood. If you reached your hand out the window and your neighbor reached their hand out the window, you could touch them. We had one bathroom and I had three younger siblings. So my dad took the kids for the day, and my mother closed all the windows and doors in the house because she didn’t know if I would scream.
I passed the pregnancy in the toilet, which unfortunately then presented another problem for my parents: What to do with the fetus? My mother asked me if I wanted to see it, and I didn’t need to. I was exhausted and I just knew I wasn’t pregnant anymore.
My mom must have gotten hold of my boyfriend’s dad, because the people who did my abortion told my mother that it would be a couple of hundred dollars more to come and pick up the fetus, which my parents didn’t have. My boyfriend’s father paid for the abortion. It was $2,000 total. I’m pretty sure my parents bought the house we were in right around then and paid six or eight thousand dollars.
My father is this Arabic man who doesn’t talk about menstruation or Kotex or girls’ things. He went to the store and he bought pads for me as well as a steak and beets. He bought things that only a dad would think would build up your blood, because he was scared I was going to be bleeding too much. He sat down on my bed and said, “You’re going to be OK, and we’re never going to speak of this again. You can never tell anyone. It could get us all in trouble. No man would marry you if he knew. This is something you don’t ever tell anybody.”
I hadn’t told any of my friends. My boyfriend’s dad had sent my boyfriend away during this time so that he didn’t come over to the house. When he came home, he did come to see me. But because I couldn’t talk about anything, he probably suffered more emotionally than I did.
Still, I felt very supported, very loved. The Colombian doctor I knew was watching out for me.
I never knew who did my abortion. I’m guessing someone with some sort of medical training, but probably not a doctor. But I was lucky I didn’t die. I was lucky I was not infertile.
[In the late 1960s and early ’70s, a handful of states had started to loosen their abortion restrictions. In 1970, New York legalized abortion up till the 24th week of pregnancy, turning the state into a hub for people seeking the procedure. By 1972, health officials had estimated that more than 400,000 abortions had been performed in New York. The vast majority of the procedures were done on patients who had traveled in from out of state.]
I didn’t start out thinking that I would work in abortion because I had one. When I was a senior in high school, the doctor who took care of me offered me a part-time job. He got his license to practice in New York, where abortions became legal. He offered me a job to fly to Buffalo with him on the weekends. He had set up a clinic. So I started working Monday through Thursday in his office here, and we flew to Buffalo on Friday mornings.
When I showed up to work, there were at least 100 patients every day—women who had come from a six-state area and Canada. Every weekend, usually, there was someone sleeping in my hotel room because I couldn’t send a hitchhiker back out on the street. I just remember thinking, “I am in the beginning of the women’s movement, because this is about women taking care of women. And nobody has a better hands-on experience right now than I do.”
We’d start at 7 o’clock in the morning and sometimes we were working until 7 or 8 at night. We would go out to get something to eat, go to bed, and get up the next morning and start all over again. We did that Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
There wasn’t really time to talk to the patients. I never stopped from the minute I got there until the last patient left. When I went in to work in the procedure room with the patient, I held her hand. I helped get her dressed. Then I had to take the instruments and the products of conception out of there into another room. We dumped them down the garbage disposal, which was not illegal. That was the standard of care. And I put the instruments in the sink, ran water on them. Once the patients were dressed, I helped them out the back door where I scrubbed instruments.
I actually didn’t know there was a case making its way to the Supreme Court; I don’t even know that my boss knew. But on the day that it was announced that abortions were legal, it was my first wedding anniversary. So we pretty much spent our first wedding anniversary helping my boss with getting the equipment from Buffalo back to Highland Park—which was the small city within Detroit where his office was—and starting doing abortions in Highland Park instead of in Buffalo.
That’s my memory of Roe—that, and being ecstatic. I was thinking of my sisters, that they would not ever have to face what I had to face, and neither would my future daughters.
I worked for the same doctor for several months after. I loved him, but I didn’t like the way the patients were being treated in our Michigan office. If I answered the phone and a woman was asking me questions about abortion, I got in trouble. If I was answering them, he would walk by, put the phone on hold and remind me that he was the doctor, not me. If somebody had questions, they could make an appointment for an office visit.
[Chelian eventually quit that job, to open up a clinic for another abortion provider.]
It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but it was definitely closer. I hated the doctor, however. I thought he was mean and punitive towards patients who were obese or women of color, and I had no control over that.
Then, in 1976, I decided to open my own clinic. I was going to find a doctor who believed in women’s health care the way I did. I went to my husband. We had saved almost $100,000 dollars between 1972 and 1976. I asked him how he would feel about letting me use that money to open a clinic. He said, “Do you think that you can succeed?” I said, “Well, I don’t think I can fail.” If I had been any older, I would never have probably taken that risk. But I 100 percent believed I could do this.
In 1976, I opened Northland Family Planning Clinic.
I had my first baby in 1980, and my husband was a police officer—something that he loved. I would never have asked him to quit. However, when I was pregnant, he came home one night after getting shot at on a drug raid with machine guns, and said, “I’m never going to live to see this baby being born.” I told him to come work with me. “We can job-share,” I said. “We can take turns taking care of the baby and you can do the jobs I hate, like paying bills and ordering medical supplies, and I get to work with patients.” And he did.
At that time in 1980, there really weren’t men staying home with babies. Together, we grew the clinics, and together we took care of our kids in the way that we dreamed. He thought he was only going to be doing this temporarily, and we’re still working together.
Around 1986, national NARAL was doing a speakout. [NARAL Pro-Choice America is one of the largest pro-abortion rights organizations in the United States.] They were looking for women who had an abortion pre-Roe to tell their stories. I went home that night and I decided I was going to tell my story.
The first person I needed to tell was my husband. It was a really teary night, because what he said to me was, “My god, you could have died.” As a police officer, part of his job was showing up at the hospital when women have illegal abortions, when they were sick and feverish. The police were supposed to interrogate them. He said it was the worst part of his job and sometimes he just refused to do it. After I talked to him, I called my mother. We had never, ever spoken of my abortion. I called her up and told her that I was going to go public with this story. We spent a couple of hours on the phone sobbing.
Then I also needed to tell my mother-in-law, because I have my husband’s last name. When I told her, she said, “Good for you. I almost died of an illegal abortion in Syria.” We were shocked. It was the first time another woman had told me her story.
[The advent of antibiotics, in the 1940s, likely greatly diminished the number of deaths from abortions. In 1965, fewer than 200 people died of illegal abortions. But death wasn’t the only potential consequence of an abortion gone wrong. In 1968, one Los Angeles hospital admitted 701 women for abortions that had turned septic, per the Guttmacher Institute. That’s one admission for every 14 deliveries admitted to the hospital that year.]
I ended up opening three clinics, all in the Detroit metropolitan area. That was our balance: three clinics, two kids. We were managing. Then the anti-abortion activity got worse.
We lived for two and a half years with clinic blockades. Anti-abortion activists would meet in a parking lot, get handed a map on where they were going, and they would blockade all of the doors—block the building. You couldn’t get in. Patients couldn’t get in.
This other provider and I went to every Christian bookstore in the area and picked up all their literature. We got our families on every mailing list possible. So we always knew when there was going to be a blockade.
We’ve had two arson attacks in our clinics. I’ve had numerous death threats. We’ve had bomb threats. The worst for me was the home picketing, because they terrified my young children. These people who claim to be so “pro-life” and care so much about kids took great pleasure in terrifying my children. My youngest daughter wanted her bedroom windows bricked in. She wouldn’t play in the yard unless I was out there with her. She wouldn’t go to the end of the driveway. She closed her blinds the minute she got home from school and wouldn’t open them, well into her teenage years. She would lie in bed at night and scream, “Somebody is going to break in and kill us! Somebody is going to break in and kill us!”
I can’t tell you what it’s like to know that that kind of innocence is taken away from your child. Eventually, I got an ordinance passed in my city against residential picketing. It still let them come, but they had to protest feet away from our property.
We also once had a chemical bomb at our Westland office. They used something called butyric acid, and all they had to do was use a very long needle and put a few drops of it in a syringe under the door. When we walked in in the morning, it smelled like a thousand people lined up and vomited. These butyric acid attacks were happening at clinics all over the country. You had to strip the wallpaper, take out the ceiling tile, rip up your carpeting. After the first couple of days in the clinic, every night that I went home, we just burned our clothes. We couldn’t get the smell out of them. A year and a half later, when you walked into the buildings, there was still the faint smell of vomit.
One of the worst memories for me was when my oldest daughter was around 12. There was a shooting and a bombing at a clinic in Boston and I called all the doctors to tell them. We only had one clinic seeing patients that day, but two of the husbands of my staff were headed in their pickup trucks with rifles to go sit in the parking lot. I felt like I needed to go there and make sure that there wasn’t going to be any trouble. My oldest daughter grabbed me and begged me not to go.
I told her, “I have to do this. Freedom isn’t free. You have to stand up for what you believe in, sweetheart, and that’s what I’m doing. But I will be careful.” She wouldn’t let go of my legs. I had to peel her off me to get out the door. You shouldn’t have to do that to go to work.
My daughters, I thought, would never want to work in the clinic. However, one of my daughters went to law school and when she graduated decided that she wanted to work on public policy and advocacy for and on behalf of the clinic, both in the state and on the federal level. And that’s what she does. My younger daughter, who was terrified, never wanted to work at the clinic and didn’t for a long time—until the night Donald Trump was elected. She started crying so hard that her future children could be subject to an illegal abortion. She said, “I’m going to quit my job and come to work with you and fight this fight too.” And so I have two amazing daughters that, in spite of what they saw and lived through, are both working with me.
We have had protesters on and off since the day I opened the clinic, but since 9/11, they got worse. They were much more emboldened. And since Donald Trump won the election, they’re way worse. Almost every Saturday we have between 100 and 150 protesters.
I put shrubs outside as a fence—and then they try to scream in between them. They put a ladder up, so they can see over them. The guys who are on the ladder wear AK-47s with a fully loaded magazine on their back. You can see their sidearms under their shirt. It’s an effort to intimidate the patients in the parking lot.
We have a lot of security measures here and there hasn’t been a murder in a long time. But I don’t take that for granted. We have armed security guards and we had this amazing, amazing group of escorts who are out there every single Saturday. When the protesters find out that some of the escorts are in the LGBTQ community, they harass them even more.
These people think the ends justify the means, that they can do whatever they want to do to stop someone from having an abortion.
[Eight states, including Michigan, still have unenforced abortion bans that predate Roe and that remain on the books, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Authorities could try to enforce those bans if Roe is overturned. Twelve states have also put so-called “trigger bans” into place, which are meant to outlaw all or nearly all abortions as soon as Roe is overturned.]
We’re going to see a public health crisis in this country like we haven’t seen since before Roe. I think that many are going to try dangerous methods of ending a pregnancy. And my heart breaks for that. Women of means can fly to a state that’s safe. New York will be safe. California will be safe. Colorado will probably be safe. And there will be a couple of others, but not everybody can fly to one of those states. They can’t afford the airfare, much less babysitters and time away from work. The reason that most of our patients tell us that they are choosing abortion is to take care of the children they already have. And they can’t provide for another.
A group of us have been working for more than a year to get ready for a ballot initiative. This ballot initiative will put in the Michigan state constitution a protection of abortion and reproductive rights in the state of Michigan for every pregnant person. And then we will be able to keep the clinics open. We’re going to have to work very hard, but I’m very, very optimistic about winning. If we don’t, abortion will be completely illegal in the state of Michigan. Everywhere. And we’re a state surrounded on three sides by water.
What worries me is that women will face exactly what I faced. There will be illegal abortion shops set up again. While some people may feel that they’re going to be able to get pills online or through friends, it’s going to be more and more difficult.
I’m 70 years old. I will fight, but the battle has to be picked up by younger people now—men and women, or however they identify, to protect this right. I can’t fix this. Northland can’t fix this. Only the public can fix this.