The opinions on abortion are mine and not necessarily those of the 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.
Concerning this Supreme Court leak planning to overturn the fifty year old right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy, American Medical Association (of which I am a member) came out clearly:
“The American Medical Association is deeply concerned by the contents and implications of the draft Supreme Court opinion for the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case that became public this week,” said Dr. Gerald Harmon, president of the AMA. “This opinion would lead to government interference in the patient-physician relationship, dangerous intrusion into the practice of medicine and potentially criminalizing care.”
“With deliberations underway, we strongly urge the court to reject the premise of the draft opinion and affirm precedent that allows patients to receive the critical reproductive health care that they need,” Harmon said. “Allowing the lawmakers of Mississippi or any other state to substitute their own views for a physician’s expert medical judgment puts patients at risk and is antithetical to public health and sound medical practice.”
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 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, affordable abortion. It’s not the business of attorneys, elected or appointed in the White House, Congress, or Supreme Court.
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. Surveys have shown that Americans favor access to abortion by a ratio of 2:1, not so much that they “love abortions” (most don’t) but that they dislike being victims of control related language. “Old men in black robes <Alito is 72, Thomas 72> just don’t have the right to tell me that I can’t continue a pregnancy. That choice should be mine.”
So, in this unusually long Health Tip, let me share with you some of my own experiences with pregnancy termination, starting at such a young age and degree of naivety that to me, a ‘period’ was simply a punctuation mark. Menstruation? Late period? I was clueless.
Forgive me, but I was about ten years old, helping out in my father’s south side (a/k/a ‘Bronzeville’) drugstore, a decrepit place built sometime just after the Chicago Fire. Even though I was quite young, years later I realized that being white gave me some medical authority. Young women, or their mothers, would ask for something to bring on their periods. Dad hastily explained the physiology which I only vaguely understood, and the products we had to sell. One, a homeopathic, is still available , the other called Bitter Apple Compound, I have not seen in years. Mifepristone, the early abortion pill, would not be available until the year 2000.
Knowing now the contents of these drugstore 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.)
A few 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. Outcome unknown.
Before Roe v. Wade, abortions were illegal, but like much else in the US, safe abortions were readily available if your family had money. Abortions, everybody knew, were readily available in New York City. A pregnant young lady would disappear for a few days and return not only having seen Mary Martin in “The Sound of Music” live on Broadway, but with what was jokingly called the Jewish two-fer, an abortion and a nose-job, the latter a frequent rite of passage that also completely legitimized her absence from school.
Pregnant girls without family money had one of three choices:
- She married the putative father if possible. Like most couples, he was the one most encouraging the abortion.
- 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. See the photo, scroll down to the nursery, and notice how everyone is white. Interestingly, having a baby and raising it alone, “single mom”, was not a common scenario.
- She attempted to self-abort or had a notorious back-alley abortion. During medical school and residency years, I spent many emergency room nights seeing the results of these botched disasters at Cook County Hospital (now Stroger).
Giving up a newborn for adoption after a stay in the “home” was psychologically brutal for most young women. After enduring labor and a bevy of stern-faced nurses, delivery and relinquishing your baby was society’s way of punishing you for having sex before marriage. You delivered and your baby immediately swaddled and whisked away. Often, you weren’t even allowed a peek at your newborn.
When I rotated through obstetrics as a resident, I witnessed a young woman screaming “My baby, just let me see my baby!”, and I 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 Journal of the AMA 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.”
In the 1960s, before legal abortion, if you had the cash, an illegal abortion could cost a stunningly expensive $500 (about $4,000 in today’s money). 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 to an address on the south side, parking in front of a respectable-looking free standing 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 of wealth.
Our 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.”
The Consequences Of Overturning Roe Vs Wade
In 1965 illegal abortions made up one-sixth of all pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths, with low-income women disproportionately affected. I saw enough of them 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.
Most low income individuals, at least in Illinois, had at the time, reasonably good health insurance that went by various names: Medicaid, Aid to Dependent Children, etc. This may be hard to believe, but pregnancy termination for a low income teenager was free. Since abortions could not be performed in the many Catholic hospitals in Chicago, outpatient freestanding “surgical centers” began opening everywhere.
As we Chicagoans wonder what is happening to our city with its rising crime rate and unsafe streets, one very well studied statistic is the 45% reduction in crime rate during the 15-20 years after abortion was readily available to low income teenage mothers. Pause and read that sentence one more time.
It’s hard to believe we might return to the days when I called “Virginia” to arrange an illegal abortion.
This overturning of Roe v Wade is yet another manifestation of Republican male dominance. Mitch McConnell held up Merrick Garland’ Supreme Court hearing, Then Trump swept in Brett Cavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, both of whom egregiously lied about their R v W position during their Senate confirmation hearings, and BANG! R v W is overturned.
Suggestion #1: No owner of a vagina should ever vote for another Republican.
Suggestion #2: We need 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.
Suggestions #3: We need to shift the prism on the whole right-to-life concept. If its proponents of ‘right-to-life’ are serious, they would guarantee to any pregnant woman that her child indeed has a right to life. This means if a woman carries to term, she will receive 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.
Can you believe there people who want to punish half of our population by returning to the bad old days of death by illegal abortion?
David Edelberg, MD