By Molly Redden
When she was 20 years old, Renee Chelian began every Friday with a predawn drive to an airplane hangar outside Detroit. There she met an abortion doctor, and a pilot who flew them to Buffalo, New York.
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This was 1971. Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that established a woman's right to an abortion, was still a year and a half away, and New York was one of the few places in the country where abortion was legal. Chelian was the doctor's assistant. She cleaned instruments and made appointments for women who hitchhiked or drove from all over the Midwest and New England to reach the clinic.
Chelian knew well why these women were willing to make the journey to Buffalo. Just five years earlier, at 15, she'd gotten pregnant by her high school boyfriend. She was resigned to dropping out of school. On the night she was packing her suitcase, "to go get married," her parents came into her room and asked if she wanted an abortion instead. "What's that?" Chelian asked.
A few days later, Chelian and her father let a stranger blindfold them and drive them to a warehouse on what she thought were the outskirts of Detroit. Chelian waited her turn on a folding chair, staring at an oil slick on the cement floor. The place seemed to be packed with other women, but it was hard to tell. "All I can picture are women's feet," she recalls. "I was afraid to look at anybody, because what if I just somehow upset the balance and they wouldn't do my abortion?" After what felt like hours, someone—she doesn't know if he was a doctor—performed the illegal procedure. They packed her with gauze and sent her home.