1970-1979: ERA OF CRISES

Roe vs. Wade ruling slowed out-of-state trips

By Michelle L. Klampe of The News-Sentinel

Joan Uebelhoer remembers the days before abortion became legal in Indiana. It was acceptable only for clergy to discuss the issue with pregnant women considering that option.

That's why pro-choice activists such as Uebelhoer partnered with sympathetic members of the clergy. Together, they gave women who wanted abortions assistance and information. To get abortions, however, women had to go to other states, including Michigan, where it was legal.

Roe vs. Wade was the landmark 1973 court decision that legalized abortion. Women across the country celebrated when they heard the news.

"Before Roe vs. Wade came, it was terrible," Uebelhoer said. "We would help get (the women) transportation out of state so they could get abortions."

"Women's feet were nailed to the floor for decades," said feminist Mary Leggitt. After Roe vs. Wade, they were no longer "slaves to their female functions."

But no law could remove the controversy surrounding abortion, which remains a contentious issue today.

Protesters still gather at least weekly outside the local abortion clinic to pray and offer help to the women who enter. They hold a march and memorial service for aborted babies each year on or around Jan. 22 — the day the Roe vs. Wade decision was made — said Tom Auer, chairman of the March for Life.

Legalizing abortion didn't make it easier for women in Fort Wayne to obtain one, however. In the early days, a few private Fort Wayne physicians offered them, but they stopped amid protests.

The Women's Health Organization proposed opening an abortion clinic here in the late 1970s. When the facility opened at 827 Webster St. in 1978, protesters gathered. Uebelhoer and other members of the Fort Wayne Feminists trained escorts to guard women entering and leaving the clinic. Bomb threats were made against the facility.

Despite the scene outside, women came to the clinic anyway. In its first month, the clinic performed 100 abortions, according to an article in The News-Sentinel.

But the clinic met trouble again when a woman died after an abortion in July 1979. The woman's death was ruled accidental — the coroner determined she died from an extremely rare infection — but the clinic ceased operations for several days afterward.

The clinic continued, though, and supporters began to fight back. Late in 1979, the clinic filed a suit to limit protests outside its doors. The lawsuit was dropped in the early 1980s when picketing slowed.

Pro-life activists are frustrated the Roe vs. Wade decision is still standing after all these years.

"I never thought it would take this long to get things changed," said Auer. "It will take the changing of hearts" to make a difference.

The continued controversy about abortion does not sit well with some women. Feminist Betty Lou Nault says the debate will continue as long as women continue to be treated as second-class citizens.

"If women had rights," said Nault, "abortion wouldn't be an issue."

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