© 2022 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

A Manatee County woman shares how she got an illegal abortion before Roe v. Wade

Older woman stands in a park at an abortion rights rally holding a sign. Reporter stands in front of her with a microphone.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Terry Gebhardt, 73, recently attended the Bans Off Our Bodies rally in Tampa. She says threats to abortion access are inspiring her to attend protests and share her story

Terry Gebhardt navigated an underground network and traveled to Mexico for an abortion more than 50 years ago. Now she's fighting to preserve access to the procedure for younger generations.

It’s still unclear whether Florida lawmakers will further restrict abortion access if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, but the possibility worries people like Terry Gebhardt of Bradenton Beach.

The retired educator recently attended a Bans Off Our Bodies rally in Tampa to protest threats to abortion access and followed up with Health News Florida after the event.

Gebhardt, 73, knows what it was like to need an abortion before Roe protected access to the procedure. She shared her story, which begins when she was around 20 years-old. Gebhardt had recently moved to California from Michigan with her friends and said she went on a date with a neighbor, who raped her. Then she found out she was pregnant:

"I called him and he said, verbatim, "What do you want me to do about it?' So obviously, he did nothing. Now I'm working at a pizzeria. I don't have a car, I don't have money. But the one thing I knew more than anything was that I did not want a baby.

"I didn't tell the people I lived with. I had one friend named Linda, I confided in her, we worked together. We set about finding the underground, for lack of a better word, to see where I might be able to get an abortion.

"We ended up finding a list and we drove to this lady’s house to pick up the list of abortion providers, a very clandestine kind of thing. Included in it were warnings: sometimes you will arrive and the clinic will be closed. Also, providers have given women anesthetic and woke them up without doing any procedure, so the women went home and they were still pregnant. There were just a lot of warnings. Again, I knew I didn’t want children, so there was never any decision; I never struggled with it.

RELATED: A Clearwater poet needed an abortion to save her life. Now she's fighting to preserve Roe

"There was nowhere for me to go in the United States, so I found an abortion clinic in Mexico City. Linda drove me to the bus station and I took a bus from San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico. Then I got on a plane to Mexico City. I was supposed to be picked up at the airport. No one came. Then I'm kind of like, 'Oh, what now?' You know? I had a slip of paper with the number on it so I got a payphone and called. And they said, 'Oh, there's a mix-up, we'll send someone to get you." It was a frightening thing for a young girl out of the country for the first time.

"I went to the clinic, they did the procedure, and in the recovery, I started talking to some of the other young girls. And unlike me, they had money. So they were staying in a really nice hotel in Mexico City and they said, 'Come with us.' And it was kind of like we're all in the same boat, and it was very comforting.

"I got back to San Diego and about a week later, I had an appointment with the gynecologist. He knew that I had gone to get an abortion. So he tested me and he said, 'Well, you're not pregnant.' I started crying. And he said, 'Why are you crying now?' And I said, 'I'm crying because I'm not pregnant.' I was so happy.

"It was a very traumatic time that I don't think I even realized it was traumatic until I started talking about it. And I guess that’s why I’m crying. Wow.

Hundreds of people holding protest signs and yelling chants.
Daylina Miller/WUSF Public Media
Hundreds of people gathered in Joe Chirulla Courthouse Square in downtown Tampa, chanting things like “What do we want? Choices! When do we want it? Always!”

"I'm thankful I was in California, because I tried to think, would I have found an underground network in Michigan? Probably not. So I was fortunate in so many ways. Fortunate that I got myself there and got picked up from the airport and met those girls. And fortunate that they actually did the procedure, because that was a huge fear of mine, that they’d take my money and not do the procedure.

"Because I didn't have children, I was able to get my teaching degree. I was a principal in three different school districts. And I feel like I added to the world by taking care of other people's children in the schools.

"It feels pretty freeing, I think when you start to talk about it. And I'm saying that in part, because, I'll go back to the part where I didn't tell my three girl roommates, because I was afraid they would judge me and be mad at me. And in fact, I told a couple of them last summer at a rally in Michigan. And that was also when I told my husband, last year.

"At both of the rallies, the one last year and this year in Tampa, there were young people, but so many of the people were my age. So many of the people were people who had gone through this. And every time I saw a young person, I would say, 'I'm so glad you're here. I don't want this to happen to you.'

"I think some of their heads are in the sand right now because they didn’t know any different. They didn’t know when there wasn’t birth control, they didn’t know when abortion wasn’t legal. And I’m telling them, as are my friends who are my age, 'You have no idea and you better be prepared.' Now they know it isn’t okay.

"And we know that if you have enough money you you'll always be able to fly somewhere. But that's not the case for most young girls or women who are struggling already with their family and taking care of their kids. So we're going to have to get much more active and we're going to have to vote. That's how we got into this mess is with elections. So we've got to be diligent.

WUSF wants to hear how access to abortion has affected your life and what might happen if it went away. What conversations are you having with friends and family about abortion? Fill out our form and if you’re willing, a reporter may contact you.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.