A Lifetime Of Experience With Abortion

Let me start by saying the opinions on the topic of abortion are mine alone and not necessarily those of any staff at WholeHealth Chicago. For Health Tip readers who have commented that I should not voice political opinions and stick to my work as a doctor, I suggest you glance at any of the websites aimed at physicians themselves. Fully one third of the articles are politically themed.

With the president overturning Obamacare and the Republicans having nothing to replace it with except a vague, 27-page position paper, we’re facing a serious health crisis over the next few years. Every doctor worth her salt is invested in the outcome. If you’re thinking about unsubscribing, consider instead using the comments section below to voice your opinion.

The only definite in any Republican proposal seems to be an egregious lack of concern for women’s health. With the new president ready to nominate a Supreme Court justice who will likely vote to overturn Roe v Wade and recent moves to defund Planned Parenthood and contraception counseling in both the US and other countries (via the Mexico City Policy), we get an idea of Trump’s position on the health care needs of women.

The confirmation of Health and Human Services director Tom Price, MD, seals the deal. As this Reuters piece notes, “Democrats also criticized Price for his opposition to Obamacare, his ideas about restructuring the Medicare program for the elderly and disabled, and his opposition to Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides abortions and other affordable healthcare and education services.

I believe what anyone does with her body is her own business. You don’t want to take statins? That’s your business. A Japanese Yakuza cutting off his own finger? His choice, not mine. Goth teen wanting a Vermeer tattooed on her back? Not my concern. A woman who wants to terminate a pregnancy should be able to make that decision and have a safe, legal abortion. It’s not the business of elderly Caucasians in the White House, Congress, or Supreme Court, and it’s certainly not the business of any religion telling other people how to live their lives.

Historical perspective
Looking at the history of abortion over the past two centuries, you sense it’s all about power and control. Whether it’s men, government, or religion, abortion opposition is an issue of dominance, and that can work both ways. Consider the fact that a large percentage of abortions occur because of male pressure to abort.

During the 19th century, women had plenty of abortions. Some occurred because women were simply unable to care for the huge families created during times of zero birth control and a husband’s “entitlement” to sex. Then and well into the 20th century, there were not only abortion opponents, but also strong hostility to women’s suffrage and plenty of opposition to black voting rights, which sadly continues to this day.

There were equally strong positions against birth control. How-to birth control books were classified as pornography and burned. Although plenty of professional abortionists were available throughout the 19th century and up to Roe v. Wade, they were rarely caught, fined, or jailed unless a botched procedure resulted in a woman’s death. Here’s an informative article about abortion in the 19th century.

Interestingly, if/when Roe v Wade is overturned, in Illinois both the physician and her patient could face prison time as an old law rears its ugly head (though legislators are currently working on a bill to ensure this doesn’t occur).

The more you read about abortion and birth control, the more you appreciate that it is indeed a matter of power, any steps possible to keep women in their place. The language used against abortion during the 19th century sounds very much like the opposition language to the (failed) 1973 Equal Rights Amendment. Because the ERA proposed including in the US Constitution the right of a woman to have an abortion, strong anti-abortion voices where among those who most vehemently opposed it.

During the 20th century, up to the 1973 passage of Roe v Wade, it was illegal for a woman to have an abortion and for a doctor to perform one. Yet certainly many women terminated unwanted pregnancies and plenty of doctors performed the terminations. I don’t remember any Illinois doctor or patient ever being jailed, but are you aware that many states could jail women if it were discovered she’d had an abortion? This lengthy but illuminating link comes from the book When Abortion Was a Crime.

The surge in pro-life dialogue began relatively recently. As the feminist movement grew in the 1960s, using anti-abortion language to keep a woman in her place began to lose its effect. It really took Roe v Wade for the term “right-to-life” to become a rallying cry. But regardless how gruesome the language or imagery (check out the chilling 1970s movie “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?”), at the heart of the pro-life movement is control over women.

Lessons from a life
It’s now a lifetime later and I’d like to share some of my own experiences and lessons along the way. Spoiler alert: I am, and will remain to my dying gasp, vehemently pro-choice.

In the 1950s, from age 9 to 18, I worked in my father’s south side drugstore. Even though I was quite young, pregnant women who knew having another child was impossible would ask for something that could bring on their period. Later, my father explained what a period was, though not its relationship to pregnancy. I likely unwittingly took part in numerous abortion attempts, selling this homeopathic product and the herbal bitter apple compound shown below (the label saved from my father’s drugstore), both purchased by women who were hoping to abort.

Knowing now the contents of these products, I’m pretty certain not only that no one was ever hurt, but also that no successful terminations ever occurred. In all this, I was as emotionally involved as if I were selling Alka-Seltzer. (Today, some pro-life enthusiast would probably take steps to have my father arrested for child abuse.)

And oh, yes, by about 13 or so I did understand what I was selling and a couple of years later when one of my high school friends was convinced he’d gotten his girlfriend “in trouble,” I stuffed one box each of Bitter Apple and Humphrey’s into my jacket and suggested she try them.

Before Roe v Wade, abortions were illegal, but like much else in America safe abortions were readily available if the family had money. The pregnant girl would disappear for a few days and return a little pale but freshly “chaste.” (Not infrequently, she’d return sporting a bandage over the bridge of her new Gentile nose, a surgical rite of passage for middle class Jewish girls that legitimized an absence from school.)

Pregnant girls without family money had one of three choices:

  • She married the putative father if possible.
  • She went into seclusion until delivery and then put the baby up for adoption. There were several Dickensian-sounding “Homes for Unwed Mothers” around the Midwest, most owned by the Salvation Army.
  • She attempted to self-abort or had a notorious back-alley abortion.

Giving up a newborn for adoption after a stay in the “home” was psychologically brutal for most. After enduring labor and a bevy of stern-faced nurses, delivery and relinquishment was society’s way of punishing a woman for having sex before marriage. She delivered and her infant was immediately swaddled and whisked away, the young mother not even allowed to see the baby. When I rotated through OB as a resident, I witnessed a young woman screaming “My baby, just let me see my baby!” and never forgot it. I also never forgot this sign posted in the delivery room: “This is a Catholic Hospital. When faced with the decision of saving a mother’s life or her baby’s, you must always save the baby.”

A recent study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, showed that the psychological risks of having an abortion are minimal. The authors concluded: “Abortion denial may be initially associated with psychological harm to women and findings do not support restricting abortion on the basis that abortion harms women’s mental health.” More in the New York Times.

In the 1960s, before legal abortion, if you had the cash an illegal abortion could cost a stunningly expensive $500. Because I was in medical school, non-medical friends seemed to think I knew the ropes about where to get an abortion. When asked, I did the sensible thing and asked a senior OB-Gyn resident.

“SSSHHH!” he whispered, but wrote down a phone number. “When you call, ask for Virginia. Then they’ll know what you want.” With pleading eyes, my friend begged “Can you make the call?”

“Virginia” (who had a male voice, and was indeed the doctor himself) was pleasant. He asked how long it had been since her last period, and said the price would be $350 cash. Three of us drove from the medical center area to an address on the south side, parking in front of a respectable-looking medical building.

Once inside, the reception room was spotlessly clean and distinctly memorable. The physician, who hadn’t yet materialized, was clearly successful and apparently wealthy if having an oversized waiting room filled to capacity with stuffed hunting trophies from Africa and India were any indication. The patient was soon escorted through a pair of frosted double doors while her friend and I sat among a full-sized lion, two zebras, a tiger, and several antelopes

She came out about an hour later, pale and gaunt. “How was it?” we both asked.

“It hurt, you bastards.”

Botched abortions and the facts today
According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 1965 illegal abortions made up one-sixth of all pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths, with low-income women disproportionately affected. I saw botched abortions when I was on emergency room duty. God only knows who had inserted what tools into these frightened girls with huge clots between their legs. Not a few left the hospital a few days later without a uterus. When someone attempts a D and C with kitchen cutlery, the results can be savage.

I’d already started my practice when Roe v Wade passed on January 22, 1973, and because we still had some of the milk of kindness in our veins from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the situation changed immediately. Pregnancy termination was a phone call away and performed by a board-certified gynecologist in the outpatient surgery section of a hospital or clinic.

Today a first-trimester abortion is one of the safest medical procedures. For more facts on abortion, review this Guttmacher Institute report.

A return to the brutal past?
It’s hard to believe we might return to the days when I called “Virginia” to arrange an illegal abortion. I have three suggestions to end the abortion controversy. Don’t expect much movement soon. We’ll likely need a woman in the White House to get it done.

  • There would be far fewer abortions (something everyone purports to want) if there were unrestricted access to birth control. Birth control pills should be free and advice about which pill to use could come from virtually anyone in health care: physicians, nurses, pharmacists. After a few sex ed classes, they could even be sold over the counter to anyone who has started menstruating. Birth control devices like IUDs would also be free.
  • We need to shift the prism on the whole right-to-life concept. If its proponents are serious, guarantee any pregnant woman that her child indeed has a right to life. This means if a woman carries her baby to term, she receives an immediate government stipend for herself and her child until the child reaches age 18. In addition, mother and child are guaranteed full healthcare coverage and, for the child, a fully-funded college education. Limit two children on this proposal. If more children are wanted, the family supports them.
  • If, even though a pregnant woman is aware she’ll be financially supported by the government, she still wants an abortion, she could have one at no cost.

Are there honestly people who want to return to the bad old days of death by illegal abortion?

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD

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70 comments on “A Lifetime Of Experience With Abortion
  1. Laurie says:

    Wonderful! Thank you for writing this and sharing it.

  2. Mel says:

    Why is the assumption by naysayers that everyone believes in God, what the Bible says, etc? I have the right to my “beliefs”, as does Dr. E. You may disagree. What you may NOT do is force your beliefs on me. You “choose” freely to believe abortion is wrong. Don’t have one. Do not presume to tell me how to choose. Wonderful article doctor. We need more brave men like you speaking up for women & our rights.

  3. Dr. R says:

    JW. Click “Unsubscribe” at the bottom of the email.

  4. Michael says:

    Sex education should be our priority, and yes birth control pills should rain over the world. Somehow I believe even the Pope behind closed doors would agree.

    I will not ever agree with abortion, as I believe it is the murder of a life.

    The idea you mention of support and college is already being abused all over our country! College is not happening enough with most of our poor needless to say, Some people use abortion as birth control, and others birth as way of financial gains in their life, sorry this fact does not wash with me. Many women have never had a job and or looked for one,and we entitled them to have their children with a lot of benefits,school, housing, clothes,food, phones, healthcare and more, if I sound sound like a hardened no goood right winger so be it, I am not, it is and always will be about taking a life, and justifying this repulsive act, I can not, this unborn child had no choice, So you say die and it’s ok!!!! You mention a birth mother paying a penalty of aborting a child, I say yes OK, if not jail how about they pay for education of live children, healthcare, food etc. I know this, if I owned dogs or cats and did this to the unborn, or partialbirth and let them lay till death comes or sell parts, I would be in serious trouble. So do you spay my animals, take them away, try to educate me, do nothing, feed them pills????? Pay me to continue on with them because they are mine!?????

  5. Patricia says:

    Thank you Dr E! Informative, compassionate and wise. Thank you for standing up for women’s health issues and women’s empowerment. It is really about women’s “health” isn’t it? I lost a great aunt in the past from a botched abortion.. and her husband went to jail for 2 years for ” assisting” her, when he carried her to the emergency room for help as she was dying…. let’s NOT go back there people! Shouldn’t we focus on “Women’s health” as a nation? Don’t put laws on my body! If you want to change my MIND about choosing or not choosing an abortion, do so with a poignoint persuasive argument…. not a LAW! why is this even a legal issue right now???I am smart… sway my mind with your point of view….don’t put a law on my body.

  6. Joan Hladek says:

    I chose to have my baby. It was the best decision I had ever made even though there were suggestions from people I knew to have an abortion. Abortion never entered my mind because I loved the child from the day she was conceived and I can tell you the exact time and date that was. It turned out that she was the only child I would have ever have (I had suffered one miscarriage after that). I was 26 and in college when I had first started to date seriously and got pregnant. It is my belief that if I had waited and said “no” I would not have been in my predicament though strangely enough my life turned out better as a result. My life, turned out great! My daughter turned out, great! My family and my church (yes, I am Catholic) turned out to be great in helping me and my daughter. Though we never married. her biological dad and his family turned out great! I eventually married a truly wonderful man. I think that the issue is that the great number of abortions these days are from the casual attitude in having sex. About birth control, isn’t there an issue about the effects on nature and the environment? For example, the changing characteristics on fish? I am now 77 years old and all I can say about this issue is for men and women to have more respect for each other and to think seriously about the serious possibilities and outcomes of having casual or even serious sex. Yes, you have had experiences that were significant in your commentary, but it would have/could have been balanced by offering some positive experiences by not having an abortion. Did you not know anyone who chose not to have an abortion? I am glad you voiced your opinion and let me have a forum to voice mine. I still respect you as a doctor. Hope you will consider my side of the story and add it to your article as alternative advice.

    I have checked the notify me of follow-up comments by email. Hope I can unsubscribe if my mailbox gets too full.

  7. Karen Stroup says:

    I could not agree with you more that “If it’s not your body, it’s not your choice” – but here’s the thing you seem to miss. Abortion does not pertain to just a woman’s body – it destroys the body of a separate, innocent person (not a blob of tissue, but a human person). What gives a woman the right to say what happens to that person’s body? When a woman decides to have sex, she takes on responsibility for the new life that might be created. And doesn’t the Hippocratic Oath mean anything to you? “Do no harm” is not compatible with murdering babies. In a just and decent society, any physician willing to murder a baby would have his or her license taken away. Life begins at conception – it is a scientific fact, no matter what your religion. The Pro-life movement is not about imposing one’s religion on others – it is about defending the innocent from infanticide. Killing babies has absolutely nothing to do with women’s health.

  8. Deborah Todd says:

    This is written from the perspective of the pregnant woman only. Is there no consideration for the developing person within her? That life is important, too.

  9. Penny says:

    The rationale used in this article, Dr. E. Is stunningly “off the wall”. I am for myself pro-life, but I do not judge the choices of other women. That is between them and their spiritual guide. I am amazed, however, that you have written an abortion promotional article when many women value your counsel. As I said, the choice remains with each woman. This article does not make you “a brave man speaking up for women and their rights. This article shows rigid presumption and male pomposity, frankly.

  10. Nans says:

    Agree entirely. Excellent comments!

  11. Joan Hladek says:

    I have known Dr. E for 20 years. He is a good man and I am sure his experience(s) is from the heart. He did mean well and I don’t fault him. It just that we need to give him our opinions as well.

    On another note, I worked with men who had to pay child support for fathering a child. They were vehement about having to do so. Too bad they did not think of this possibility when having unprotected sex. I can’t say I feel sorry for them. I feel more for the child, though many of them did not have animosity toward the child, they had animosity toward the woman, who also should have known that the possibility of getting pregnant and not having to marry the child’s father would also be the outcome.

  12. Grace says:

    Someday you will appreciate the value Some religions have for the dignity of LIFE

  13. Frank Vodvarka says:

    Thank you, Dr. E., for your serious and compassionate commentary in regard to a serious subject. I find it amazing that there are those who consider your arguments to be pro-abortion; they are clearly pro-choice, a very different thing. It is sad that so many people – legislators and otherwise – of the conservative persuasion, while condemning government intrusion in the form of protective regulations, are quite happy to insert their opinions into this, one of the most private matters of all. (Parenthetically, support for Planned Parenthood – anathema for the right – would greatly aid in obviating the necessity for abortions.) Thank you for speaking up – it gives me great confidence in your decisions about my own physical and spiritual health.

  14. Teresa says:

    If religions cared more about life, there wouldn’t be so much poverty, so much ignorance, so much inequality. They would have done more for the children who were born to parents who couldn’t afford them monetarily, emotionally, or psychologically. The religious pro lifers need to step up their game. Don’t segregate your children in private schools. Don’t keep to yourselves in judgmental clusters. Be in the world and help end the circumstances that create unwanted pregnancies to begin with.

  15. Jeanne says:

    Penny says, “As I said, the choice remains with each woman.” There are many restrictions placed on the woman’s choice in many of the States right now, and the choice will not remain with each woman if the men in government are successful in eliminating Roe vs. Wade

  16. Dar says:

    Thank you Dr. Edleberg for your compassion and your wisdom and for having the courage to provide a forum for this discussion.

  17. Elle says:

    I feel that the pro life movement is a way the 1% keeps the 99% divided and distracted while they rape and plunder the planet and civilization. Also, they need to prevent population decline for the workforce and military. George Carlin’s “American Dream” explains the “Owners of this Country”.
    BTW, I love this website!

  18. Teresa says:

    Ell, so true. My parents were one issue voters for years–anti abortion. They were blinded and easily manipulated.

  19. Sue says:

    If a woman truly does not want or cannot afford a baby, is it fair to force it on her? No one is perfect and mistakes happen all the time. Forcing a woman to keep a baby she truly doesn’t want is leading to proverty and children that are hated by their own mother. No wonder they join gangs to feel accepted by someone.

  20. Catherine says:

    Thank you for this open-minded and open-hearted article. To me, this boils down to a philosophical/religious difference of opinion…and this type of opinion cannot be legislated. Morality cannot realistically be legislated. I have learned and experienced from my spiritual path that Soul enters the body at birth with the baby’s first breath. Prior to that time, the baby is a part of the mother’s body and she can choose to end or complete her pregnancy without guilt. It appears to me that those who want to force their own morality on another come from a position of power and not love. I do not have the impression that Dr. E is forcing anything on anyone…just giving us an important reminder of the history of what women have had to go through so we can be prepared for what to expect in the future.

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