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Waiting for Our Gerri
Soon we'll have a new symbol of post-Roe America. I can't stop thinking about her.
Gerri Santoro was just 28 years-old when she died having an illegal abortion. The Connecticut mother-of-two, who was trying to leave an abusive marriage, died in a motel in 1964. The police photo of her body—slumped over, bloody, and naked—became an iconic pro-choice image. The picture was published in the pages of Ms. magazine with the headline Never Again, and plastered on protest signs when feminists marched for abortion rights before Roe v Wade.
The photo is terrible to look at—she was a human being who was loved—but it’s also powerful, putting the consequences of banning abortion on full grim display.
When I was waking up one morning recently, not even out of bed, the image of Gerri on the floor in that motel room flashed through my mind. It was upsetting, but my next thought was what truly shook me:
There is a woman out there right now, completely unaware that her image will become a horrific symbol of post-Roe America.
Maybe she lives in Texas, or Ohio, or Tennessee. This very second she could be laughing with a friend, or packing her kids’ school lunches. Or maybe she’s heading off to school herself. Whatever she’s doing, she has no idea that her smiling face will adorn the posters we march with. Or that pictures of her broken body will be desperately displayed to politicians in an attempt to get them to care, even for a moment, about what their laws do to women.
Maybe her family will pick out the photograph, sharing an image that reminds them the most of her, hoping that even a glimmer of who she really was will shine through. Maybe, like Gerri’s, the photograph will be the last one ever taken of her—captured in her final and most vulnerable moment.
What picture would you want used if you knew it would be you?
Whoever she is, where ever she lives, chances are that her death won’t be caused by an illegal abortion, but a denial of care. The advent of medication abortion means women can self-manage ending their pregnancies without much medical risk. That doesn’t mean we’ll no longer hear the kinds of grisly experiences so common before Roe, just that there will be less of them. I’m grateful for that, at least.
The (many) horror stories we’ve heard so far have been about women who sought out help from doctors and hospitals just to be turned away. It’s very clear that the women who will die post-Roe will likely do so after having seen medical professionals—maybe even while in their care.
When Savita Halappanavar died in Ireland ten years ago, she was in the hospital, begging for treatment for her incomplete miscarriage. She suffered for days before dying of sepsis. The American women who have shared similar stories these last few months seem to have survived by sheer luck.
I don’t know what’s worse: Dying in the darkness of a back alley, or in full view under fluorescent lights. They’re both tragic, but there’s something particularly cruel about the idea of dying while surrounded by those with the ability to save you.
This is what feminists mean when we say we’re moving backwards: We’re being literal.
In 2004, Gerri’s daughter spoke at a pro-choice rally; she told the crowd that her mother “was just one of countless women who died in this lonely and desperate way.”
“They were all someone’s sister, daughter, mother or friend,” she said.
So is the woman who is out there right now, living her life without knowing that her image will be this country’s next horrific reminder of what happens when you make abortion illegal. Whoever she is, I hope she’s having a good day. I wish I could tell her I’m sorry.