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A Lifetime Of Experience With Abortion

The past two years of a Trump administration have produced an ugly upsurge in controversy over women’s rights, from the serial sexual predation revelations of the #MeToo movement to yet another state following the lead of the 25 white male Republicans (for their photos, click here) who voted to ban abortion in Alabama and send doctors performing the medical procedure to jail for up to 99 years.

Getting a safe abortion is already extremely difficult for women in many parts of the US. In some states, abortion providers are rare and in many states numerous laws have been passed restricting access, including medically unnecessary ultrasounds and days-long waiting periods.

You do know, of course, that when any of the precious daughters of those 25 Republicans discovers an unintended pregnancy, daddy will jet her to midtown Manhattan for a long weekend to have a safe, albeit expensive, abortion.

Sunday morning’s Guardian opened with an utterly cheerless and thoroughly alarming article detailing the anti-abortion religious right’s willingness to engage in an actual physical second Civil War over abortion. The well-researched piece is here and very chilling indeed, especially given the religious right’s vocal support of gun ownership.

With that, I’m reprinting below a Health Tip I wrote a few years ago about my decades-long experience with abortion as a physician here in Chicago.

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 wants 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 begin to see 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 that 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 abortion providers 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.

The more you read about abortion and birth control, the more you appreciate that it is indeed a matter of power, every move 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 until 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 anti-abortion 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 anti-abortion 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 an herbal bitter apple compound, 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 anti-abortion enthusiast would probably take steps to have my father arrested for child abuse.)

And, oh yes, by about age 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 the US 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 obstetrics 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 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 here 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 and devices should be free and advice about which form to use should come from virtually anyone in health care: physicians, nurses, pharmacists. After a few sex-ed classes, birth control could even be sold over the counter to anyone who has started menstruating.

–We need to shift the prism on the whole right-to-life concept. If its proponents are serious, they would guarantee any pregnant woman that her child indeed has a right to life. This means if a woman carries 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


PS: The abortion bans passed in Georgia and Alabama are more restrictive than those in roughly half of the Middle East’s Muslim-majority countries. Click here to read more.

Leave a Comment

  1. Pat Haase says:

    Thank you for this article!

  2. Tina Hepworth says:

    Thank you Dr.E for supporting a woman’s right to have a safe abortion if they wish. No woman I believe, wants an abortion and has to live with it for the rest of their lives. Sometime they have to make that very difficult decision, and deserve to do it safely and w/o risking their lives. All the pius ‘pro-lifers’ are pro-birthers’. Where are they when an unwanted child is born/ neglected b/c Mum has to work, doesn’t have enough food etc etc. Far, far away! Why some people believe that a woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy is ANY business of theirs is beyond me!

  3. Jill says:

    Well said.

  4. Denise Keefe says:

    Abortion is a crime! Life ends when the heart stops and begins when the heart begins to beat. Every women (except for incest and rape) has a choice. Don’t get pregnant.
    David, you need to go to a socialist country if this one isn’t working out for you. That way every one, (supposedly) will be taken care of. After all just check out the socialist countries that are out there! There people are doing well and thriving!!!
    Keep the politics to yourself please. Wholehealth should be a healthcare clinic not a political platform.

  5. Carmen Severino says:

    Thanks Dr. Edelberg for supporting women’s right to control their bodies.

  6. V. Sander says:

    This is a dishonest misrepresentation of facts. First, as much as Donald Trump may understandably be disliked by many for his lack of polish and his pathetic past deeds, we should be thanking him for the Me Too movement which would not exist if he did not become our president. He was an ideal target and brought down many with him so we are grateful. Sometimes positive change comes from unlikely sources. As far as the many other untruths here, the pro life movement is NOT anti woman but merely feels the need to stand up for human life in EXACTLY the same way those brave men and women in the 1950’s stood up for black lives and, before that, those who defended the lives of slaves. I am a woman and certainly do not desire to be controlled or to control other woman, I just have a different perspective than you Doctor. I’ve lived a different life, have seen different things and had different experiences, also suffered different abuses than you. I and most of my friends are Catholic and pro life and we think a woman has a right to do what she wishes with her body without the government interfering. We also think a baby’s body is its own and do not believe mothers should have the right to kill their children at any age. I could go on with addressing more misleading statements made here but it would take too long. Based on this article and many before it, you make it clear Doctor that you wish to rid your practice of patients with conservative values as you consistently misstate our views and malign our character. My family and friends hear you loud and clear.

  7. Marion says:

    Dr. Edelman,
    I can see that your position is motivated by genuine concern for women. I read, admire, and agree with many of your articles and will look forward to future opinions. Still, after reading this article I must ask: what about the baby? No matter how impacting the circumstances or grave the situation, the destruction of the baby is no answer. You are right to insist that “we need to shift the prism on the whole right-to life concept” though I have some misgivings about government being the answer.

    Birth control might seem a logical answer; however, I can personally attest that as a young woman, my IUD failed which resulted in an abortion. I never had unprotected sex and sometimes used more than one birth control method, so driven I was that I would never endure what happened to my older sister, who became pregnant at 15 and was sent to one of those “homes” you reference. Not only did my poor sister suffer, but this brought scandal and devastation to my family.

    I do not nurse an abortion wound, and I don’t waste time regretting what I cannot change. I do wish, now that I’m older, that I would have had more courage then and pursued another outcome. What do I remember of my abortion? I honestly felt relieved at having dodged my sister’s fate.

    I am not a “man” and neither wield “power” nor “dominance.” Frankly, I find that argument problematic and a little insulting. I am a woman who personally experienced unwanted pregnancy directly—and indirectly through my sister. The options, then and now, are less than stellar. Destroying babies is not the answer. Abortion may deceptively seem to alleviate a devastating situation, but it only compounds the problem. You ask, “Are there honestly people who want to return to the bad old days of death by illegal abortion? Of course not. Nor do I want to continue with these bad old days of death by legal abortion. I wish I had the answer(s). I don’t, but legal abortion is no solution.

  8. Amy says:

    It is mystifying how an intelligent person misses such simple logic on this issue. Yes, an individual can make choices with their own body. No, an individual may not make choices, aka rip apart/murder, another person’s body.
    So yes, there are people who want to return to the days when dismembering and murdering another’s body is illegal. May God have mercy on your soul.

  9. Jules says:

    Dr. E.

    I am so very proud of you and am most grateful to call you my DOCTOR!

  10. h2 says:

    Timely piece, Dr E, especially given this:

    Missouri Set To Become First State Since Roe v. Wade With No Abortion Clinic


  11. Lbe says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience. I always enjoy your articles, this one especially. I appreciate the perspective of a medical professional in discussion of a medical procedure, and what should not be, but has been, a political discussion.

  12. Kathy says:

    I am appalled at this article condoning abortion! I am a huge advocate of natural health and holistic is NOT about terminating life upon human will. How about society trying to teach God’s will…. no sex until married and ready for children? And how about giving women who make this mistake the options of giving their child to a family that’s been waiting forever to have a child? Im against my tax dollars going to support the murder of babies… and would be willing to give tax dollars to help deliver the child. I no longer wish to receive your news letters after seeing your opinion on this very sensitive subject!!

  13. Nikki says:

    Thank you for supporting women’s health & rights, Dr. E! And I was also glad to read the news today that Illinois lawmakers are moving to secure rights for women in the state.

    Speaking as someone who has lost three *very* wanted pregnancies (plus one vanished twin) & who saw heartbeats for all of them, I cannot stomach the dogma that places fetal “rights” above women’s rights & does not support quality of life initiatives for children & mothers & families.

    A heartbeat does not signify life, only viability comes close to equaling life. A fetus (an egg, for that matter) is a potential & any potentiality that is part of a woman’s body is within that woman’s control. It is not murder to terminate a pregnancy, a potentiality that cannot exist apart from the woman. A fetus is not a baby. Even those women who choose to terminate a pregnancy in a later term (a heart-wrenching “choice” that no would-be mother wants to make) do so only because the fetus is not viable.

    I mourned the passing of each lost pregnancy & found my experiences nothing short of traumatic. But, despite my emotional attachment to those potential-lives that I briefly held within my body, I did not once fool myself into thinking that an actual baby had left me. Now, that experience would have been different, I am sure, had the losses come later, but my point is that a pregnant woman alway has the right to make decisions about her own body. Despite some of the comments here, I agree with the good doctor—This is all about power over women’s bodies.

    Thanks again, Dr. E.

  14. Patricia Woodbury-Kuvik says:

    I do feel it’s sad that people who are vehemently “anti-abortion” hide under a banner of “pro-life”. They are not one and the same.
    At the same time, “exceptions” for rape and incest are a cop out – if someone feels syrongly that abortion is equivalent to murder then it should apply to all and not be cherry picked.
    The truth is not all woman have a choice whether or not to become pregnant, unless a man asserting his “marital rights” can be considered a rapist. So many women are dependent on men for their food, clothing and provision for their existing children – if a woman should choose not to become pregnant does that mean she needs to leave her home and children?
    So many don’t seem to understand that support for and access to reproductive choices actually lowers the incidence of abortions. Colorado has been able to reduce the rate of teen pregnancy by more than fifty percent by supporting and providing access to contraceptives – which also results in many fewer abortions being sought and performed.
    So the real “pro-life” folks, if they really want to see abortion rates reduced and not just moved to back allies, should wake up and support freedom of choice through meaningful and supportive programs, including financial support for those women who might prefer to carry their pregnancy to completion if they knew it wouldn’t destroy their lives.

  15. Julie Saum Gedgaud says:

    I have an ultrasound picture of my son at seven weeks of age. His head is curled into his little body, his spine, arms, and legs clearly formed, his thumb close to his mouth as if he had just stopped sucking it. This was in my “first trimester”. I shudder when I imagine other babies the same age being torn apart in the womb. I don’t deny other women a choice, and I recognize and value individual stories, but I wonder if those who choose abortion really know what they are choosing. This is a complicated issue that involves women, men, AND unborn children.

  16. Aelxa Hill says:

    You are right, Dr Edelman.An abortion is a personal medical decision that religion has no right to stick it’s finger in, especially since it is a Christian religious obsession.
    I had two terminations, why? Because I got so physically sick and was on so many medications that the doctors knew the baby would come out severely damaged and would not survive.

    But some religious nuts would now make me go through the traumatic experience of carrying a baby for nine months that would not live after birth.

    I am so glad I lived during the 1980s and could have a simple quick and relatively pain-free pregnancy termination with no one calling me a babykiller. I was very sad after each one, but relieved.

    For someone who thinks that makes me a bad person, each of you need to take the log out of your own eye before you point out the speck of dust in mine.

    The third time I got pregnant they told me the baby had a 33% chance of having some minor genetic problem, like a hole in ffront of the ear or lower IQ.The doctors wanted to send me to another state for a late termination, but I said no. I gave birth to a perfect baby boy. He did develop autism, due to my 2 copies of C667T interacting with the high dose folic acid they had me take before, during, and after pregnancy while breast-feeding…… but his IQ is high at 135.

    Pregnancy termination is a women’s personal decision, and is never an easy thing to do. It is a sad but often necessary decision. If it is not your body that is pregnant, then keep your religious views about termination to yourself.

    What ever happened to separation of church and State? How could the few religious radicals take over our government? By people not voting. People get out there and vote, talk louder than the religious minority before all your rights go down the tubes.

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