When I interviewed for my OB/GYN residency at the prestigious Northwestern University program, which was my first choice, I was told very clearly that Northwestern’s OB/GYN department supports a woman’s right to choose whether she keeps a pregnancy or not, and that if I did not support reproductive rights for women, Northwestern probably wasn’t the right fit for me. My second choice was Harvard’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital, where I was told the same thing. Both programs essentially told me if I didn’t want to do abortions, I should go someplace like Georgetown, a Catholic school.
When my fundamentalist Christian mother found out that I had decided to accept the position offered to me by Northwestern, she asked me if I planned to do abortions. I said yes, that it was my strong value system to support a woman’s right to choose whether to keep a pregnancy- for any reason- and that if I was to become an OB/GYN, I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t perform abortions myself.
My mother threatened me with exiling me from the family, disowning me, shunning me. I will never unhear the words she spewed at me- “I can’t possibly love an abortionist.”
So I figured I would lose the love of my mother when I chose to do what I considered the right thing, and I decided to do it anyway.
I wept through my first abortion at Northwestern. I knew I was killing something with a heartbeat and it was very confusing, since as a child, I was nicknamed “The Squirrel Girl” by our local paper. I was the child who tried to rescue wild things in nature that got injured and nurse them back to health- squirrels, birds, baby raccoons. I considered myself a supporter of life, and yet, here I was, with a suction catheter in my hand, about to end the beginning of a life.
It was the first of many times in my life when I would feel that cognitive dissonance of two competing parts in me that could never completely settle, even though the parts that supported a woman’s right to choose were dominant over the parts that considered myself a life-giver. It took me many months to stop crying through the abortions I performed, and that only happened because my heart was so touched by the gratitude of the women I supported through their painful choices that my conviction that I was doing something loving and kind for these scared, sad women was stronger than my grief and fear over terminating a potential life.
When I finished residency, after performing probably a hundred abortions in my four years there, I interviewed for a job with a group practice in San Diego with four women OB/GYN’s and one man. When I asked what their abortion policy was, they told me they refer out for abortions. “We send them to Planned Parenthood,” I was told with a raised eyebrow.
“So you reject your patients if they wind up with an unwanted pregnancy?” I didn’t understand. “Are you all not pro-choice?” I wasn’t sure I could join a practice with OB/GYN’s who weren’t.
I was told they were all pro-choice but none of them liked to get their hands dirty with actually performing abortions. I was shocked by what I considered rank hypocrisy. After all, nobody likes to get their “hands dirty” by performing abortions! Not once did I perform an abortion without feeling that tug in my heart. I never grew numb to it, no matter how many times I did it.
But I did abortions anyway- because I believed nobody should have to be a mother or carry a pregnancy to term and give up the baby if they weren’t ready.
I accepted that position and decided to do all the abortions for my practice, not because it thrilled me to do all those abortions, but because I didn’t want even one of our patients to feel like her doctors were shaming or abandoning her in her time of struggle. We didn’t advertise what I was doing, and if a new patient called our practice and asked if we did abortions, we said no. But if an existing pregnant person wound up with an unwanted pregnancy, the patient got referred to me.
Some of the abortions I did were on remorseful, terrified teenagers who had slipped up and forgotten to use birth control. Because I specialized in pediatric gynecology and got referrals from all over the state of California, a few were victims of rape or incest. Because I cared for the Somali refugees on the Mexican/ California border, a few were Muslim women who came to me in secret without the consent of their husbands, begging not to have to carry a twelfth or thirteenth child when they were already incontinent and exhausted. Twice, I terminated pregnancies in transgender patients who did not consider themselves women.
But the vast majority of my abortion patients were married middle class white suburban housewives with several kids who had a birth control failure of some sort and just couldn’t bear the idea of having to start all over again. Some of their kids were in college already and they were in their forties. The idea of having another baby left some of them feeling suicidal. They felt humiliated and ashamed and utterly selfish and figured they must be the only one. I reassured them that, indeed, they were in the company of plenty of other relatively privileged women in my practice who simply didn’t want to have another baby. Fortunately, I told them, the law protects you, no matter what reason you have for deciding you don’t want to be pregnant.
These patients were my most grateful ones. I treated them with dignity and did my best to make a traumatic situation less devastating. Almost all of my patients cried, and I often cried with them. I got more flowers and gushing cards from the women whose pregnancies I terminated than from the ones whose babies I delivered.
When the Catholic newspaper in my neighborhood made me a headline as the “New Abortionist In Town” and encouraged Catholics to picket my office and harass me, my mother doubled down on her threat to excommunicate me from the family and withdraw her love. But fortunately, it turned out to be an empty threat.
When it came right down to it, my mother couldn’t throw me away like disposable trash, even though I chose to defy her and follow my own compass and not hers. After decades of letting her control almost every aspect of my life, I hit my limit of how much coercive control I would tolerate without standing up for my right to be an autonomous human being who didn’t always agree with my mother.
My mother said, “We shall never speak of this again. I will pretend this never happened.” But she broke her promise. On her death bed, she begged me to pray for mercy from a generous God who would forgive me for my sins if only I confessed that what I had done was a sin against God and nature. When I refused, she said, “You’re going to deny your dying mother her last wish?” I said, “Yes, Mother.” And then I called my therapist and bawled my eyes out because I felt like such a crap daughter.
This is not a story I tell many people, because every OB/GYN I know would prefer to deliver a living baby than to terminate one. Many people get to say “I’m pro-choice,” and vote to support those words without getting their hands dirty. But only OB/GYNs have to actually put their actions behind their ethics and put that suction catheter inside someone’s cervix or prescribe pills to put in someone’s vagina to cause them to miscarry.
I have never had an unwanted pregnancy or gotten an abortion, but I always considered myself lucky to live in a country that supported a woman’s right to choose. Today, when Politico broke the news of a leaked draft of what appears to be Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s majority decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing access to abortion as a constitutional right, parts of me froze inside.
In today’s Letters From An American, history professor Heather Cox Richardson wrote, “According to law professor and legal commentator Neal Katyal, the draft appears to be genuine and shows that in a preliminary vote, a majority of the court agreed to overturn Roe v. Wade. It takes a hard-line position, saying that states can criminalize abortion with no exceptions for rape and incest. This is a draft and could change before actually being handed down, but it has already stirred a backlash. As soon as the draft hit Politico, which published it, security put up fences around the Supreme Court in expectation of protesters and counter-protesters.”
Some parts of me are terrified and panicking on behalf of women in my country today, including my 16 year old daughter. I feel like we are under attack, and I will not let that happen without leveraging every bit of my power, platform, and privilege to say “Hell to the f*@k NO,” even if it would make my mother roll over in her grave. Today, Heather Cox Richardson said, “And so here we are. A minority, placed in control of the U.S. Supreme Court by a president who received a minority of the popular vote and then, when he lost reelection, tried to overturn our democracy, is explicitly taking away a constitutional right that has been protected for fifty years. Its attack on federal protection of civil rights applies not just to abortion, but to all the protections put in place since World War II: the right to use birth control, marry whomever you wish, live in desegregated spaces, and so on.” That is truly frightening.
The good news about democracy is that we get to disagree about things, and we get to use our power to vote to build consensus and decide what we want as a majority vote- or at least that’s the utopian vision our country has rarely actually practiced.
I support democracy, so if a majority of our country thinks this Supreme Court opinion to overturn Roe Vs. Wade is good news, then I stand outvoted. But because a minority of our country is destroying democracy, corrupting our government, interrupting our power to vote for our own choices, and trying to hand the country over to a small group of wealthy, powerful, mostly white supremacist male oligarchs who do not care about the marginalized and oppressed people of the United States, including women, BIPOC, immigrants, the disabled, the poor, and the disenfranchised, I, for one, am royally pissed off and frankly terrified. If you care about social justice, reproductive rights, and democracy itself, I hope you are too.
Let’s talk about this. Remember, be respectful. You can have strong emotions and express them, but if you attack me or anyone else, we will ban and delete you to protect the safety of this container. We need to create safe, brave places where we can crowdsource community conversations about such things. I hope we can create such a place here.