One Woman's Abortion

Each year for hundreds of thousands of American women there is a wide gulf between what the law forbids and what they feel they must do. The author of this article, whose credentials are trusted by the Atlantic, is a college graduate in her forty-sixth year, the mother of three children, living with her husband and family in one of the many commuter communities in the East

Nearly everywhere in the world families now have the right to limit the number of children they will conceive, according to their ability to love and cherish, feed, house, clothe, and educate them. The need for similar adult freedom of action to terminate accidental and unwanted pregnancies, for personal and social reasons as well as therapeutic ones, is being discussed covertly and sometimes openly by church, lay, and medical groups.

What are the facts about abortion in the United States today? How widely is it resorted to and by whom? What percentage is legal (therapeutic) and what illegal? Are its illegal practitioners sinister moneygrubbers without skill, knowledge, or proper instruments, or are they licensed physicians? Is the operation as potentially dangerous as generations of women have been led to believe?

Reliable statistics are, naturally enough, hard to get in the United States, though they are readily available from such countries as Sweden, Denmark, Russia, and Japan, where abortion is, in varying cases, legal. Nobody who places a bet with a bookmaker has any particular hesitation about admitting it, but few women, gossips or not, discuss their abortions at the bridge table. Lack of discussion probably has nothing to do with shame or reticence but is simply a loyal conspiracy of silence on the part of women to protect abortionists. Any woman of childbearing age who knows a reliable man in this field has a stake in keeping him in business. She may need him herself, or have a close friend who will.

I set out recently to find an abortionist in the large Eastern city where I live. My husband and I are in our mid-forties and have three children. When I discovered that I was pregnant for the fourth time, my husband and I considered the situation as honestly as we could. We both admitted that we lacked the physical resources to face 2 A.M. feedings, diapers, and the seemingly endless cycle of measles, mumps, and concussions of another child. Years of keeping a wary eye on expenditures (a new suit for my husband every two years and one for me every five) had allowed us to set up a fund which we felt would enable the children to attend reasonably good colleges away from home if some financial assistance in the form of grants or scholarships could be obtained. Since my husband's income has reached its zenith, it was plain that one of the four would have to forgo all or part of a chance at higher education. The part-time secretarial work which I had been doing for some years to augment our income would have to stop since the revenue it produces would not cover baby-sitting fees. We have no rich uncles likely to make our children their beneficiaries. We have also had sufficient experience living to acknowledge that while the Lord will sometimes provide, He may be busy looking after somebody else when you need Him most.

A brief foray for information in medical circles indicated that in the state where we live, legal grounds for abortion are limited to patients known to have cancer, ectopic (tubal or peritoneal) pregnancies, and in some rare instances, acute heart conditions or advanced psychoses.

I spent a brief moment of reflective gratitude for a clean bill of health on these counts, and then pushed my glasses up on my nose to read a book called Pregnancy, Birth and Abortion, written by four members of the Institute for Sex Research, founded by the late renowned Dr. Kinsey. It turned out to be most reassuring, though it probably wasn't intended to be. I discovered that abortion is an operation that all med students learn, even if they don't get much chance to perfect techniques; that of the institute's sample, only a minute percentage of women had suffered either physical or psychic aftereffects; and that while the authors made no attempt to estimate the number of abortions performed every year in the United States, it was plain that even without the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, I had lots of company.

Calmed by authoritative word and two tranquilizers, I settled down to see what could be done. First step was a visit to my obstetrician. (The boys from the institute indicated that probably every doctor in the country had been asked at least once to perform an abortion, and there was some evidence that out of compassion many had obliged.) Mine had run out of compassion by the time I saw him at 6 P.M. or else was too worried about getting his snowbound car out of the parking lot to pay much attention to me. He verified by pelvic examination the positive rabbit-test result which had previously very nearly guaranteed that I was pregnant, and refused to interfere with nature. When I asked him whether he would perform an abortion on me, he said, "No, thanks," in an absent way, as if I had offered him a cigarette he didn't want, and I left.

With the only legal avenue I knew closed, I began my search for illegal ones. I started out by going through my personal address and telephone book and selecting from it five close friends who had the following in common: all were intelligent, well educated, sympathetic, and discreet. Otherwise, they were a mixed lot. Some were married, some divorced or widowed; some were young, some mlddle-aged; two were Protestant, one was Jewish, one Catholic, and the fifth a scoffer. Of the five, one had, to my knowledge, herself had an abortion, but that was too long ago to lead me to suppose her operator was still at the same old stand.

I called each and stated bluntly that I needed an abortion and asked whether she knew anybody reasonably reliable who might do the job. Two (in addition to the one I have already mentioned) said that they themselves had obtained abortions within the last two years. Each gave me without hesitation the name, address, and telephone number of her physician. The fourth friend did a little detective work and in twenty-four hours came up with another physician, chiefly remarkable for the fact that his office was directly across the street from one of the city's police precinct stations. Fees, I was told, ranged from $300 to $750. My fifth contact got A for effort but was able to glean information only on a sort of disassembly-line procedure in a neighboring state, reputed to be supervised by a doctor. I discarded this as too shady for a middle-aged woman with obligations to a family and sat down to call the physicians.

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