With the elevation of Brett Kavanaugh to a seat on SCOTUS, many are worried about the possible overturn of Roe vs. Wade. Such a move would rob women of control over their own bodies—and their lives.
Before Roe vs. Wade, desperate women often had what were called back-alley abortions, procedures performed by some unlicensed, probably unqualified practitioner. Other women induced their own abortions by using coat hangers. Too many died of sepsis (overwhelming infection) and other traumas.
So it was entirely inappropriate when a Republican legislator (sorry, can’t remember if he was state or Federal) made a joke (he thought) by saying, “Get your coat hangers ready, ladies!” It was a tacit admission that the only thing that will change about abortion is the safe treatment of women.
I well remember the era before Roe vs. Wade—and one specific incident which made the whole thing come home to me. My father was an osteopathic physician and administrator of a hundred-bed hospital in Chicago. He was also primarily responsible for getting osteopathic physicians to the right to perform surgery in the State of Illinois (he himself could have been sued for lancing a boil). It was no surprise that staff surgeons looked to Dad for advice and counsel.
One day when I was about twelve, I answered a mid-day phone call to hear a surgeon growl, “Let me talk to your dad.” With my best phone manners, I assured him Dad wasn’t at home. “Goddamit, Judy,” he exploded. “I know he’s napping, and I need to talk to him NOW. Go get him.” I did.
It turned out the surgeon had been called by a back-alley abortionist who had botched a procedure and thought his patient was dying. He was begging for help to save her life. This was a real dilemma for the surgeon: it being against the law to perform an abortion, he could lose his medical license if he tried to save the patient. His career, and his chance to help many other patients, would be gone; if he didn’t’ help, a young woman might die.
As I said, I was twelve, not tuned in yet to consequences, and I don’t know the outcome of this situation. But it has remained seared on my mind almost seventy years. I’m not going to argue the issue of when life begins—conception or birth—but I will argue to the death that a woman has a right to make her own decisions. I was never able to conceive, and I am grateful beyond measure for my four adopted children, but I consider the ability to conceive and carry to term an infant a gift from God. I am opposed to abortion. But that is me. I can’t make that decision or anyone else. The subject never came up with any of my girls, and I am grateful. Had they, in different circumstances, chosen abortion, I would have been disappointed but supportive. The life of the young woman I know and loved means more to me than that of the fetus.
If you were that surgeon, would you have walked away? Or would you have risked your career and future to save a life?