Twenty-five years old and two weeks late on her period, poet Nora May French knew she was pregnant. Unable to afford an abortion performed by a doctor, she bought pills advertising “suppressed menstruation,” “regulation” or “the cure” from her local drugstore. Despite being described as “reliable” by local newspapers, these medications contained turpentine, tansy and pennyroyal — potentially lethal chemicals. But Nora didn’t have a choice. She bought the pills and made her way back home.
Her boyfriend, Harry, had convinced her to make the move from Los Angeles to San Francisco. It was in their San Francisco house that Nora swept the floors and washed the dishes, hoping to distract herself from potential cramps after swallowing the pills one Saturday morning. But it wasn’t until that Sunday that they hit her. Clenching her teeth, so as to not disturb the neighbors, she began writing a letter to Harry.
“Very dear,” she began. “I have been through deep waters, and proved myself cowardly after all.” The letter concludes, mid-sentence, “Motherhood… I looked into it day after day, and sometimes I could see the sky, and sometimes only my drowned butterflies. Oh—”
“It takes some kind of woman to write a letter about an abortion to her boyfriend while she’s administering it,” writes Catherine Prendergast, a professor of English at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and author of “The Gilded Age,” a book on Nora May French. “It is one of very few early-twentieth-century first-person accounts of abortion.” The details of Nora’s case are gripping, and with the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade, her story is especially relevant more than a hundred years later.
From “California Dreamin’ ” to “California Gurls,” California lives in the public imagination as a land of sunny beaches and progressive politics. Tweets about the Supreme Court’s ruling express sentiments such as, “California is not Florida,” and “You got to love California,” but California is not the abortion safe haven we view it as.
An LA Times article chronicled a pregnant woman’s experience at 28 weeks, where her fetus had built up excess fluid in the skull that prevented the brain from growing correctly and could lead to a very short life for her child. California law states that unless the mother’s life is at risk, an abortion cannot be performed if the fetus is viable, or “able to survive outside the womb without extraordinary medical intervention.” She was unable to obtain the abortion in California and had to travel to Colorado for a $17,000 abortion, plus additional travel expenses.
Adora Perez served nearly four years in prison after delivering a stillbirth while testing positive for methamphetamine. The district attorney of Kings County dropped the remaining charges against her, but told CalMatters he “intends to refile charges against Perez.” Until September of this year in California, fetal deaths at or after 20 weeks (except abortions) were viewed as “unattended deaths,” requiring a coroner to investigate. When the coroner is also the sheriff — as is the case in 48 out of 58 California counties — law enforcement is automatically involved in these investigations, putting subjects at risk of prosecution. Governor Gavin Newsom only recently signed AB 2223, which lifted the requirement of a coroner investigation.
While it’s true that Californian laws are less restrictive than many other states — Newsom, along with the governors of Oregon and Washington, have declared a “West Coast offensive” to protect reproductive health care and medical privacy, and as of November 2022, Californians voted to enshrine the right to abortion in the state’s Constitution — there is still widespread lack of access. Forty percent of counties within California don’t have a single clinic that provides abortion, disproportionately affecting low-income people who face greater hurdles when traveling to seek abortions.
Even companies promising to protect abortion can fall short. While some may provide abortion insurance or reimbursement, contract workers are not offered the same benefits as full-time employees. This has severe implications, especially when considering that contracted employees are more likely to belong to marginalized groups than the direct tech workforce.
As Jia Tolentino pointed out in her post-Roe New Yorker article, this new post-Roe era will see “widespread state surveillance and criminalization—of pregnant women, certainly, but also of doctors and pharmacists and clinic staffers and volunteers and friends and family members.” Silicon Valley is at the heart of this. “If you become pregnant, your phone generally knows before many of your friends do. The entire Internet economy is built on meticulous user tracking,” Tolentino writes. Facebook has already handed over information involving a 17-year-old girl’s abortion to Nebraska police. “Social media is not free,” CSU East Bay professor of communication and history Nolan Higdon told NBC Bay Area in regards to the story. “It costs you your privacy. You are the product to provide data they process and analyze.”
Despite its image as a progressive safe haven, California is not a promised land for abortion seekers. Silicon Valley’s role in surveillance actively contributes to the increasing criminalization of pregnancy. French and Perez’s experiences over the last century highlight abortion’s status as a historical issue for Californians, and it will remain one on into the future.