Saturday, January 27, 2007

What it Meant When Abortion Was Illegal

Published on Wednesday, January 24, 2007 by the Portland Press Herald (Maine)
by J. Michael Taylor, M.D.

My father graduated from medical school in 1928 on the threshold of the Depression and set up general practice in a small New York town. My mother's engagement ring sported the world's tiniest diamond and had been given to my father by an elderly patient in payment for his compassionate care.

Our family went to church every Sunday in our "Sunday best," and like our president, my father would sometimes read the Bible in the morning before heading to work.

My parents were also Republicans -- common, and true compassionate conservatives-who would not belong to the exclusive country club and who were charitable in every sense.

Beloved by the community and particularly by his patients, he was a general practitioner that delivered babies, repaired hernias, set bones, treated pneumonia and -- well, it seemed like everything, really.

He was the school physician, and at a recent high school reunion, my classmates all had a story to tell about something that he had done for them -- fix a broken nose, coach them through a complicated labor and delivery, remove an infected gall bladder.

My father was a complex person who was difficult to know. He didn't become my hero until several years after his death in 1992, and for me, that carries all of the regrets that go with insight coming too late.

He was muscular and strong, an outdoorsman and a hunter -- a man's man. The one and only time I saw him cry, I was a sophomore in high school. His lack of control was both a shock to me and a life-altering experience where my feelings for him changed in an instant. He became human.

Dad was just home following his efforts to save a 16-year-old girl who had developed a raging infection from a "botched abortion." She was a student at the neighboring school so I didn't know her, but he knew her well.

The shame of an unintended pregnancy had forced her to an unskilled abortionist who used dirty instruments on a table in a garage. By the time she came to my father, the infection had spread, and she died under his care. He was despondent and angry for weeks.

With wisdom based on first-hand experience, my conservative parents breathed a sigh of relief at the Roe v. Wade decision back in 1973.

They knew the significance of eradicating these self-righteous, mean-spirited laws. They welcomed the end of onerous, life-threatening prohibitions on women making personal decisions about childbearing.

My dad has been gone many years, but he would not have been pleased to see science replaced by a narrow view of morality and politicians again claiming jurisdiction over women's bodies and lives a full 34 years after the Roe decision. How angry he would be to see physicians threatened and harassed for providing compassionate care to women making difficult life choices.

He had welcomed the advent of new technologies that gave women and men the opportunity to plan their families, and he would be furious, as I am, to know that our president had appointed someone who does not even support contraception to run our nation's family planning program.

Before the days of Medicare, Medicaid, and even Blue Cross/Blue Shield, my parents spent Christmas Eve in front of the fireplace going through the unpaid bills of Dad's patients. They usually burned the bills and forgave their debts, except for a few who they knew could and should pay.

The inequity of poor women -- those perhaps most impacted by an unintended pregnancy -- being denied funds for abortion care is something they could not have understood.

The issue of abortion is abstract and hypothetical for some and Roe is a history lesson for others. But for those whose memories stretch back a few decades, and for my father and all of our mothers and grandmothers and sisters, the significance of Jan. 22, 1973, can not be overstated.

This week, I am honoring my father and the memory of that 16 year-old girl. I am telling the story because going back is not an option.

J. Michael Taylor, M.D., (e-mail: is a physician in Portland, Maine.

If holier-than-thou types really cared about the "culture of life", they would spend more time eradicating poverty and those conditions which make young women feel they have no choice. Instead they spend all their time trying to reverse a decision and take away a women's ability to control her own body. The irony is that "life" is an abstraction for them. They have no problem with brown people dying in a foreign land. They numb themselves to the images of 19 year old troops dying in an unjustified war. Reversing Roe v. Wade is about them checking another item off their Religious Right club checklist. A chit or Brownie point that will assure them passage into Heaven. Lives here on earth don't matter just as long as they get to the hereafter.


Laura said...

Both groups are guilty of often dismissing the challenges of working class/poor women and women of color, but pro-lifers seem to have much more tunnelvision. Upper/Middle class white women usually did not have to seek 'back alley' abortions because their families had the means (and privacy of their own home rather than an apartment complex) to deal with the matter "discretely." Not that I think it should be considered shameful, but it was, so it is what it is.

Today, these same divides exist. Rich women have the means to travel the 100+ miles it takes to get to a clinic - because in rural areas they are few and far between. Poor, working women often have to save for months to get enough money to pay for transportation, lost wages, lodging, and the procedure itself. By that time - it's often too late. Accessibility isn't an issue for rich white women.

Women who are most likely to have abortions are those who cannot afford to support a/nother child. You're absolutely right about compassion and 'family values'... often the poor (and the brown) get forgotten by these holier than though elitist congregations.

dbackdad said...

Laura -- well said. I agree with you on all your points.

GrannyGrump said...

Why is this girl's death (rightly) acknowledged as needless and tragic, but the deaths of Barbara Hoppert, Christella Forte, Erica Richardson and others like them shrugged off? Legalization didn't stop the dying. It just made it highly unlikely that the abortionist would go to jail.

Why is one sixteen-year-old girl's life so much more valuable than other girls' lives? That's one I just don't get.

Somehow I doubt that Barbara, Cristella, and Erica are sitting around in the afterlife, gloating that their abortions were legal.

GrannyGrump said...

Laura, a Black woman entering an abortion clinic is twice as likely as a White woman to die of complications from her abortion. Why is this of no concern to the people who say they care so much about minority women? Why is there not even any research into why they're so much more likely to die?

I remember when I got an envelope of death certificates from women who had died from complications of legal abortions in the Chicago area. I was supposed to just abstract them for research purposes. A co-worker found me with my head on my desk, weeping. She asked why and I shoved the death certificates at her and said, "Just look. They're all Black women. Nobody is ever going to care." That was over ten years ago. And I was right. Nobody but the woman's family cares when a Black woman is butchered by some "safe and legal" abortionist.

dbackdad said...

Grannygrump -- Not sure quite what point you are trying to make. Are you lamenting that there is the potential of deaths in legal abortions? Any medical procedure has a risk of complications. You couldn't possibly be suggesting that illegal abortions are safer than legal ones?

Before Roe V. Wade, between 5,000 and 10,000 women were dying annually from illegal abortions. Recent statistics have there being only 4 deaths from legal abortion in 1999 in the U.S.

Do you really care about these women or do you just care about pushing your pro-life agenda? I don't like abortions any more than you do. But I don't have the right to dictate to someone else whether they should have one or not.

Do I care about the plight of poor women ... or black women? Of course I do. Nothing in the posted article or in my comment dictates otherwise. Are you helping either of these groups by encouraging abortions to be done in the back alley again?