Doctors who began providing abortions before Roe v. Wade tell their stories

At New York Magazine, seven doctors who began providing abortions before or shortly after Roe v. Wade reflect on what it was like in those early days, and how anti-choice violence and legislation has affected them in the decades since. 

Many of them discuss how seeing the horrors of illegal abortion first-hand as young doctors or med students influenced their decision to provide the procedure. Dr. Warrne Hern, who performed his first abortion in 1973, says:

As a medical student in the early ’60s, I was regularly taking care of women who were suffering and dying from the complications of illegal abortions. There was a woman who had been turned down for an abortion at a nearby hospital. She went home and shot herself in the uterus and then drove herself back to the hospital.

Dr. Sadja Greenwood, who performed her first abortion in 1968, says:

When I was 20 I had an illegal abortion in New York City. Thankfully, my father used his connections so I went to a doctor’s office and had it done by an ob-gyn. I really saw the gap between people that had means and people that didn’t. I got mine in a safe, sterile doctor’s office, and other women weren’t as lucky. Later, when I was in medical school, I saw a woman die of an illegal abortion. It’s something I still think about to this day.

Dr. David Grimes, who performed his first abortion in 1972, says:

When I was in medical school in North Carolina, I got a page one night to tend to a patient with a 106 degree fever. I assumed that number was made in error. It wasn’t. When I examined her I found a red rubber catheter protruding from her cervix. Another day, I was paged for a young co-ed in septic shock with barely any blood pressure. There was a fetal foot protruding from her cervix. The first had gotten an illegal abortion, the second had tried to do it herself.

Awful stories of unsafe pre-Roe abortions are a powerful reminder of the truth — a verifiable reality, despite the anti-choice movement’s instance otherwise — that, regardless of its legality, people will go to great, dangerous lengths to end an unwanted pregnancy. And many of the doctors voice concerns that post-Roe generations, with no memory of a time when abortion was illegal, have lost a viseral sense of that truth.

And that’s likely true to some degree. But, still, there’s plenty of evidence all around us that women today are doing whatever it takes to get an abortion. They’re driving for hours upon hours. They’re pawning possessions and skipping meals. They’re walking through gauntlets of hateful, shaming protestors.

And, as this anecdote from Dr. Suzanne T. Poppema shows, they’re getting abortions even when they believe, thanks to lying anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers, that the procedure is performed with a medival fucking torture device:

No matter how much you shame and scare them, women will still come for abortions. Pretty recently I had this young woman, 15 maybe, and we did the procedure. I said, ‘Your uterus is empty, the procedure is over. I have to go check to make sure we got everything,’ and I left the room to examine the tissue. Then I came back and told her, ‘Everything’s fine, your uterus is healthy.’ And she said, ‘So … when are you going to use the steel ball?’ I picked my jaw up off the floor and said, ‘Steel ball?’ She said, ‘Well, I went to the crisis pregnancy center and they told me you’re going to put a steel ball that’s covered with sharp blades into my uterus and twirl it around.’ And this kid still came! I was thinking, How did you ever make yourself walk in the office believing I was going to do that?

Read the rest here.

Header image credit: Physicians for Reproductive Health’s Facebook page

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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