Social conservatives are engaged in a battle to prevent women from having access to birth control while, at the same time, attempting to force women to suffer when they get abortions to terminate the pregnancy produced by the lack of access to contraception.The mindset of the people – men – who are behind this assault on the rights of women is difficult to fathom, but there seems to be a desire to return women to second class status as citizens by forcing them to be baby bearing factories for husbands.
I remember the days when abortion was illegal except under extraordinary circumstances.
I was a doctor in training during this period. I would like to put a human face on America at that time; a time that preceded the Roe vs. Wade decision. (I, by the way, am not related to that Roe. As you know, I'm sure, Roe was a generic name like Doe.)
The year was 1966. I was a third year medical student. For some reason, still a mystery to me, Obstetrics and Psychiatry were taught at the same time using the same patients for teaching purposes. So, we interviewed young women in the prenatal clinic who were just coming in for their routine visits before having a baby, as though they were psychiatry patients. The care was free so the young women, mostly African-American, went along with the game. The upshot was that we found some seriously disturbed people in the process. We, also, had our leg pulled by some. One young woman told me with a straight face when I asked her what brought her to the hospital, “the bus.” I asked which one and she said, “The one that the people at the bus stop said went to the Medical Center.” As part of the psych work-up we asked questions to establish orientation to time and place. This same woman who came "on the bus" told me that the governor, mayor and president were the ones who had been in office two elections before. The governor was a one term, not very memorable governor. It was then that I realized the woman was very bright, was playing a joke on me, and totally “with it”.
Unfortunately, one of the women, seen by someone else, wanted an abortion. She seemed very depressed and threatened suicide. She was admitted for evaluation, and following admission there was a student-teacher conference to discuss the legal issues, the difficulty of establishing depression as a condition that would qualify as a threat to the woman’s life should she be denied an abortion, and we were told that the young woman would be discussed at a meeting of psychiatrists, the hospital attorney and obstetricians the following day to decide how to proceed.
The meeting never happened. The woman stepped out of her 7th floor hospital window and fell to her death that evening.
Fast forward to 1973. I am a resident, moon lighting in the emergency room of a community hospital in a small town near Phoenix. It is a fairly slow week night. A young Hispanic woman is brought into the emergency room after being seen in a doctor’s office for weakness and abdominal pain. The doctor finds that she had been to a back alley abortion clinic earlier that day and had a “coat hanger” abortion. Whatever was used to do the abortion went through the wall of the uterus and she has been bleeding into her abdominal cavity all afternoon. She is unresponsive and in profound shock when I see her.
Despite the administration of intravenous fluids and blood she dies before the Gynecologist can get there to do a hysterectomy and stop the bleeding.
I don’t know the details of either woman’s story. Were they married? Was this their first baby? It doesn’t matter. It was their last pregnancy, the one that pushed them over the edge.
These are just two stories that I remember. There were many others, like the young woman that lived with her pediatrician’s family throughout her pregnancy – she was in high school and unmarried – prior to giving up her baby for adoption. Some sadistic nurse showed the young mother her baby after delivery before taking it away. It was a heart wrenching moment that was, apparently, supposed to punish mom for her sin. We were “house sitters” for the pediatrician while he and his family were away on vacation and got to know this young woman very well. She was just a teen that got caught doing what a lot of teens get away with.
I interned and did my residency in a Catholic hospital. There were an unusually high number of hysterectomies done on Catholic women by Catholic doctors. Many of the women had normal uteruses removed. We jokingly referred to these hysterectomies as Vatican approved birth control.
Is this the America we want to return to? Do we want to return to an America where religious zealots are not content just to provide moral instruction, but insist, in addition, on punishing women, sometimes at the cost of their lives, for failing to follow their misogynistic religious laws? Do we want to have a lot of celibate, sexually-frustrated, men dictate how women live their private lives?
Do we want to return to a time when a major surgical procedure becomes a substitute for birth control?