Lest We Forget the Era Preceding Roe vs. Wade
I could tell you, on this 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade ruling, about the politics of abortion: how conservatives earn “pro-life” props by sticking it to poor women and young women with mean-spirited rules and bans; how President Bush appointed to a federal reproductive panel an anti-abortion doctor who wouldn’t prescribe birth control for unmarried women; how Senate Republicans may make it illegal for teenagers in states that limit abortion for minors to travel to get abortions in states that don’t. (Gee, why didn’t they try that on the underage spring-break party animals who used to drive from New England to Florida so they could drink legally till they puked?)
I could tell you about the violence, too, the torching of clinics, the harassing of patients -- a Los Angeles woman who had had abdominal surgery was pummeled by “pro-lifers” until her stitches tore -- and the intimidation, the killings of doctors, nurses and staff by zealots.
But I’m going to tell you about how it was before abortion was legal, and if the “pro-life” forces get their way, this is how it will be again.
Every big-city hospital had one -- a septic abortion ward, for women who had nearly killed themselves trying to abort a pregnancy.
Dr. Daniel Mishell is now professor and chairman of the ob-gyn department at the Keck School of Medicine at USC. In the years before Roe vs. Wade, he was a resident at Harbor General Hospital near Torrance and later at what is now County-USC hospital.
The women he treated “were the sickest patients, I’ll tell you that, because of what they did and the infections they got” -- appalling infections like gas gangrene, which killed tissue and sometimes the patient. “We had ladies who got so infected they went in shock and their kidneys shut down. A lot of them did die.”
At any one time, 15 or 20 women lay in the county hospital septic abortion ward, an additional half a dozen at Harbor. They were too sick to talk, but Mishell knew the common thread: usually unmarried and abandoned by the man, uniformly, suicidally desperate.
They jabbed into their uteruses with knitting needles and coat hangers, which Mishell sometimes found still inside them. They stuck in bicycle pump nozzles, sometimes sending a fatal burst of air to the heart. They’d try to insert chemicals -- drain cleaner, fertilizer, radiator-flush -- and miss the cervix, corrode an artery and bleed to death. Mishell once put a catheter into a woman’s bladder and “got a tablespoon of motor oil.”
“I’m telling you, it was really an awful situation. It touched me because I’d see young, [otherwise] healthy women in their 20s die from the consequences of an infected nonsterile abortion. Women would do anything to get rid of unwanted pregnancies. They’d risk their lives. It was a different world, I’ll tell you.”
(Why didn’t they just get birth control, you wonder. Because some state laws still defined contraception as “obscene,” and not until 1965 -- in living memory of some of you reading this -- did the Supreme Court say contraceptives were legal for married couples. The unmarried didn’t get that right until 1972.)
The women Mishell treated were poor working women. The rich had other means of breaking the laws against abortion, with doctors as discreet as they were expensive. Mishell spent 1961 working in Sweden, and remembers frequent calls from colleagues back home wanting to send their pregnant, prosperous patients over to get abortions.
It’s the American way, the “country club exemption.” If you have the money and connections, there’s always a way around the law, whether it’s taxes, the draft or abortion.
On a fine morning a while back, in a pleasant Southern California kitchen, I was talking with a woman who, 40 years ago, was known to the world as Sherry Finkbine.
She was host of a children’s TV show, had four kids and was pregnant with her fifth when she took pills her doctor-husband got from Europe. They turned out to contain thalidomide, a drug that creates nightmarish deformities in fetuses.
No American state, no American law permitted her to abort the deformed fetus, so she flew to Sweden, and for a time she was reviled from her hometown to the Vatican.
In her kitchen that morning, she told me, “I’m a real believer in freedom of choice. And if you think abortion is horrible, then for God’s sakes I would never try to talk you into it.” It is “the most intimate, personal, heartbreaking decision anyone has to make -- a human issue that doesn’t have any business in a political campaign.... I wish all those energies spewed out by those right-to-life people could be turned into time spent improving the quality of life for a battered child, the orphaned child, the hungry child, the unwanted child.”
Two things happened in her life on Jan. 22, 1973: Her step-granddaughter was born, and her youngest daughter wrote to congratulate her on the bittersweet news of the Roe ruling: “The Supreme Court finally decided to listen to you.” Her mother’s answer: “Fortunately for your generation and the generations to come, man will no longer sit in legal judgment of abortion.”
And yet here it is, 30 years later, and hers, the first generation of American women to live with the legal protection of Roe vs. Wade, may also turn out to be the last.
Patt Morrison’s columns appear Mondays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org