Woman recalls horrifying illegal abortion experience in Detroit warehouse in 1966

‘There were grease and oil stains on the floor’

In 1966, Renee Chelian was pregnant. “I was 15-years-old and I got pregnant by my 16 year old boyfriend, I hid the pregnancy for as long as I could. My mother took me to a doctor finally and my parents were getting ready for me to marry my 16- year-old boyfriend, as was his father,” Chelian, now in her 70s said. “My mom and dad came into my bedroom one night and asked me if I wanted to have an abortion. I didn't know what it was. I asked them and they told me that I wouldn't be pregnant anymore, which meant I'd be able to finish school.”

In 1966, Renee Chelian was pregnant.

“I was 15 years old and I got pregnant by my 16-year-old boyfriend, I hid the pregnancy for as long as I could. My mother took me to a doctor finally and my parents were getting ready for me to marry my 16-year-old boyfriend, as was his father,” Chelian, now in her 70s said.

“My mom and dad came into my bedroom one night and asked me if I wanted to have an abortion. I didn’t know what it was. I asked them and they told me that I wouldn’t be pregnant anymore, which meant I’d be able to finish school.”

The abortion was illegal, taking place six years before Roe v. Wade, which established the right to an abortion in the U.S.

After making arrangements in code because, her Highland Park neighborhood was still on a party line, her abortion was paid for, $3,000. The price is equivalent of more than $27,000 in 2022.

“We parked our car, and my dad and I were blindfolded and put into another car so we laid down in the backseat. And it was a Sunday morning. There wasn’t a lot of traffic and when the blindfolds were taken off, we were in a warehouse of some sort. There were grease and oil stains on the floor, which is what made me think it was a warehouse. Or a place where they kept cars or trucks. I looked up once. I knew that this room was filled with other women. And then I was afraid to look again for fear that they wouldn’t do my abortion. So I counted shoes while I waited.”

Renee was given a sedative and when she woke she was told the procedure was over.

“I woke up, they were explaining to my father that I was a little farther along than they thought. So they couldn’t complete this abortion, that they had packed my uterus with gauze, and that I would pass the pregnancy at home,” She said.

But she didn’t. After a week, arrangements had to be made again.

“We were blindfolded, put in another car, driven to another abandoned, empty warehouse. A different warehouse. It looked different,” She said. “Again, there were other people there. But I remember even less about that, except that when I woke up, whoever did my abortion was explaining to my father that this time I would go into labor.”

Two days later she began having contractions. Her father took her siblings out of their small house. Her mother closed the doors and windows afraid nearby neighbors would hear her screams.

This time the procedure was completed and was finished in her bathroom. With the help of a neighbor, who had been a gynecologist in Columbia, and a nurse who came with pain pills, she survived.

Years later, Renee would open three health clinics in Metro Detroit, Northland Family Planning, so no one else would have to receive an abortion the way she did. But she’s worried about what happens to women now, in country where half the states will restrict or ban abortion.

“I think we’re going to see public health consequences like we have not imagined or ever seen before,” Chelian said. “I think that we’re going to see we’re going to see women jailed. We’re going to see them prosecuted and I think we’re going to see them die.”

In Michigan, abortion is still legal. A 1931 ban on hold by court order and efforts by anti-abortion groups and politicians are already underway to prepare, if that ban goes into effect. Recently, Michigan Republicans attempted to set aside $20 million for pre and post-natal care and abortion. Most of those measures were vetoed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

There are also a handful of District Attorneys, and the state’s Attorney General Dana Nessel, who have vowed not to uphold the ban should it go into place. But none of that eases Chelian’s fears.

“Women don’t choose to have an abortion lightly,” she said. “I don’t know what they’ll do, actually with this money that they say they have set aside, because history shows us that they cut every program for children and newborns can continuously. So how long will that last?”

Now a mother of two daughters, she wonders how long will her work last? How long can she keep doing her work so no one else has to seek help in the oil-stained warehouses of Detroit?

“I’ll work to help women get safe abortions,” Chelian said. “I hope Michigan will be one of those places. And I’ll do everything I can nationwide. To work to help states one by one bring back reproductive rights for as long as I’m alive. But I will not break the law.”


About the Author:

Grant comes to Local 4 from Oklahoma City. He joins the news team as co-anchor of Local 4 News Today weekend mornings and is a general assignment reporter.