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What Life Was Like For Women Before Roe v Wade: A Doctor’s Story

Just about every woman of child-bearing age in the US cannot remember what it was like before the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade struck down anti-abortion laws on the grounds that they violated a woman’s right to privacy. But I was a medical student and resident in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and what I saw was imprinted on my brain, and it led me to become an abortion rights activist.

In those days, a woman was forced to place herself in the hands of unskilled and often unscrupulous abortionists when she was faced with a pregnancy she could not continue. I saw women brought into emergency rooms in septic shock, with perforated wombs, even disemboweled by incompetent butchers because their own physicians were prohibited by law from helping them.

One woman in particular stands out in my memory. She was brought in to the emergency room with a foot of black, gangrenous bowel hanging out of her vagina, mute testimony both to her desperation and to the ignorance and brutality of whoever had butchered her. With a hysterectomy and bowel resection, she survived, but barely.

Another egregious episode occurred to a patient whom I was never to see, only hear about. One day I overheard two of the obstetric residents discussing a consultation that had been received on a pregnant patient who had been admitted to a medical floor. An alcoholic, she suffered from cirrhosis of the liver and was already the mother of several children. To make matters worse, she had rheumatic heart disease and one of her deformed valves was infected and leaky.

The medical doctors taking care of her had consulted the gynecology service, requesting that their patient be given a therapeutic abortion. They were certain that the stress of pregnancy would exacerbate her heart condition, perhaps fatally. The obstetric residents, both Catholic, were discussing how to make sure this patient’s case was presented to one of the Catholic attending doctors, so that the therapeutic abortion would be denied.

Incensed, I reported what I had heard to the only female attending obstetrician. I suspected correctly that she would agree that an abortion was indicated. We were unable to find out the name of the patient and months later, the attending physician wrote to tell me that the patient had been readmitted in intractable heart failure late in her pregnancy, and had died.

I was horrified, deeply angry, inexpressibly sad, and very guilty. I should have tried harder to find out who she was. I felt that I was just as responsible for her death as the residents who plotted to have her case presented to a Catholic attending. To this day, I regret not looking for her until I found her and obtained for her the abortion that might have saved her life. Instead I left her in the callous hands of doctors who put their religious beliefs before her desperate need.

The right to safe, legal abortion is under attack in the United States. Recently, eight state legislatures have passed restrictive anti-abortion laws, some outlawing abortion under any circumstances. And if that can happen in the US, will the infection cross the border and affect Canadian women?

Behind these laws are vicious, misogynistic legislators who would like to return women to a state of reproductive slavery. They claim that abortion is murder because they believe that from the moment of conception, a fetus is a human being, but a fetus is no more a human being than an acorn is an oak. And even if the fetus, or the embryo, or—to use the old Catholic teaching—the sperm itself were defined as human, the rights anti-abortion laws give to them would still be far in excess of the rights enjoyed by any human being in this society, especially by women.

No human being’s right to life includes the right to use another person’s body, or any part of it, without that person’s consent—not his kidney, his cornea, a graft of his skin or a pint of his blood. Yet anti-abortion laws give a fetus the right to occupy an unwilling person’s abdomen and use not just her uterus, but every major organ system in her body—without her consent.

But laws criminalizing abortion aren’t just inherently sexist. They’re also racist. Women die without access to abortion—and minority women die more often.

In 1962, nearly 1,600 women were admitted to the Harlem Hospital, which serves a largely Black community, with incomplete abortions, a common complication of illegal abortion—marking one abortion-related hospital admission for every 42 deliveries at the hospital that year. At the Los Angeles County Medical Center, another large public facility serving primarily indigent patients, 701 women with septic abortions were admitted to hospital in 1968—one admission for every 14 deliveries. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 39 of the 130,000 women in 1972 who obtained illegal abortions or self-induced abortion died. From 1972 to 1974, the mortality rate due to illegal abortion for non-white women was 12 times that for white women.

The real issue is not viability, or whether fetal life is human life. The real issue is whether women have the right to control their own bodies. “No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body,” feminist pioneer Margaret Sanger famously said. “No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.”

Forcing a woman to continue a pregnancy against her will is one of the vilest forms of sexual abuse. Forcing a woman to be pregnant is as repulsive as forcing her to have sex.

I urge women in Canada to be vigilant and outspoken in defence of their fundamental rights.

Barbara Hudson Roberts, MD was the first female adult cardiologist in the state of Rhode Island. She graduated from Barnard College and Case Western Reserve School of Medicine. As a resident at Yale New Haven Hospital, she became active in the pro-choice movement, before Roe v Wade made abortion legal. She helped found the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC) and was the keynote speaker at the first national pro-choice demonstration in Washington, DC, in November 1971. She also was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement, and spoke at the last mass anti-war demonstration on the grounds of the Washington Monument on the day of Nixon’s inauguration in 1973. She was a staff physician at Planned Parenthood for many years, and continues on the voluntary faculty at Brown where she is an Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine.

Connect with Dr. Barbara Roberts on Facebook @barbara.roberts.14, Instagram @bhrdoc, Twitter @BarbaraHRoberts and visit www.thedoctorbroad.com. Her book, The Doctor Broad: A Mafia Love Story, releases on September 3, 2019.

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