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Doctors Rally Around Colleague at Abortion-Rights Event

Perhaps in another part of the country, this gathering might not have been so necessary , or so important .

Those were the words, pronounced with that certain political twist in tone, that I heard again and again on a pleasant Sunday afternoon out by a back-yard pool, a guitarist weaving her music into the talk.

Linda Schwarz, the woman of the house, called it a “coming-out of the closet” event, $75 per to sip wine, or mineral water with a twist, while snacking on gourmet pate. Yet this was hardly a run-of-the-mill society affair.

Pro-Choice Orange County, a bipartisan political action committee, and seven local physicians were playing host. Many in attendance were doctors themselves. By virtue of their presence, they were standing up to say they support a woman’s right to choose whether to give birth.

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In Orange County, or so the thinking goes, this is hardly the simple proposition that one might suppose.

The guest of honor was Dr. William Moss.

“For the past 12 years, Dr. William Moss and his Doctor’s Family Planning Clinic have provided a full range of family planning services to Orange County,” the invitation said.

“For the past two years, they have been subjected to persistent, often frightening, harassment by Operation Rescue.”

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Dr. William Moss does abortions. This is still legal in this country, of course, yet one feels obliged to say that again. The reason is the tide is turning sharply to the right, in the courts if not in the opinion polls.

Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion across the land, is in clear danger of being overturned. Pennsylvania, Guam, Utah and Louisiana are racing to see whose test case can get there first.

So here were the Orange County doctors, Republicans and Democrats too, to say that is not right. Yet even among this group--and there were others who sent only money and others, pro-choice, who said, “Thank you, but no"--there were signs that the vocal opponents of abortion rights are scoring points.

Dr. Stuart Sitzman, a gynecologist who has performed abortions for his private patients before, told me he’d be happy to be quoted by name. “Just don’t call me an abortionist,” he said. And this was not entirely in jest.

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Still, the message is clear, the image slicing sharp. In the vernacular of this bitter political fight, words have been turbo-charged then mutated into something else.

And if an image doesn’t hurt the conscience--Dr. Moss has been called “murderer” more times than he can count--then perhaps it might at the bank.

The gynecologist says he doesn’t relish the thought of pickets outside his office door. No business person does.

Dr. Moss stood on a raised planter, his head barely clearing the lattice patio roof, to say a few words. He looked at the crowd and said that a lot of us looked pretty young. Back when he started out, abortion was still underground.

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William Moss was an intern at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital in 1949. The obstetrical ward was divided in three. Over here were the normal, vaginal births; over there, the surgical cases, Cesarean sections, etopic pregnancies, miscarriages and the like. Then there was something called septic OB.

“Ninety-nine percent of these cases were women who had illegal abortions,” Dr. Moss said. “Some of them were done by abortionists, who were alcoholics or drug addicts, doctors who couldn’t make it any other way. But most of them were done by self-trained midwives.”

Crochet hooks, hangers and knitting needles were the instruments of choice. “I even saw one where they had used the staff from an umbrella,” he said.

Except something would always go wrong. The uterus wouldn’t empty; tissue would get infected. Women died.

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“There were 60 patients on that ward,” he said. “Every day, I had to do three to eight D and Cs.”

Then there was Santa Ana Hospital, back before the institution was called Santa Ana Med. A woman wishing an abortion had to go before a board of four.

“There would never be any discussion,” Dr. Moss said. “We would just put our vote into an envelope and that is how a decision was made.”

One time, the doctor recalled, an administrator said she had made a mistake. She didn’t know when she appointed one of the doctors that he was Roman Catholic and opposed to abortion on all grounds. A psychiatrist had just testified on behalf of his patient. The woman would kill herself, the psychiatrist said, if an abortion were denied.

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And it was.

Dr. Moss said he doesn’t know if the woman took her own life.

The militant among us might shout, “Never again,” when they hear such tales. There are thousands of other stories like these; “The Bad Old Days” could be the anthology’s name. Now the specter of a sequel nips at the heels of women too poor, too ignorant or too geographically isolated to fight back.

The militant on the other side, of course, will say quite something else. They will argue, passionately, for saving unborn lives regardless of cost. They will say that women who have abortions kill. They will say that doctors who perform them betray the Hippocratic oath.

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It is a debate, in such terms, where nobody will shake hands at the end. It is polarizing Americans as in holy war.

But the gathering on this Sunday was a political affair, about channeling such potent emotion into votes, about learning a thing or two on that score from the other side.

Democratic state Assemblyman Tom Umberg, the only member of Orange County’s delegation who is pro-choice, had come to say that his election was proof that even here , not all is lost. If people continue to speak out, that is.

But not of the simplistic, and ultimately futile, exercise about whether abortion is morally right or wrong, about whether it is akin to murder in the first degree or as meaningless as removing a mole. Either extreme, when taken to its logical end, is a journey toward the absurd.

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Abortion is one of those rare touchstone issues in modern American life. It will not go away. If it is right or wrong, well, that is up to each of us to decide.

Now. While we still have the choice.


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