The Supreme Court Abortion Decision

A Supreme Court ruling on 18 April 2007, upheld a law banning late-term abortion with no provision for the health of the mother. In addition, the law is so broadly written that many legal experts believe it leaves the door wide open for individual states to further restrict abortion. Many already have by making life so dangerous for physicians who performed abortions that there is no clinic or hospital within hundreds of miles that will do it.

You may think, because old women are past child-bearing age, that this is not an elder issue. You would be wrong because:

1. Women who are elders now fought hard 40 years ago for Roe v. Wade
2. We lived in the days before Roe v. Wade and know the horror

I’m not here today to discuss the moral question of abortion. Whatever one’s belief in that regard and whatever the law, some women will seek to end some pregnancies. They always have. In ancient Rome, they left unwanted newborns on dung heaps to die of exposure. Today, women who cannot afford or do not have access to medical abortions, leave infants on doorsteps throughout the world. Now, if abortion is further restricted in the U.S., the coat hanger solution will return.

I remember it well in my teens and twenties. Not to be too graphic about it, imagine sticking a wire coat hanger up your vagina and poking around with it through excruciating pain and bloodletting risking failure and a mangled embryo or fetus, infection and hemorrhage. Some died.

Most communities in those days had one or more local abortionists whose names were furtively passed around when a woman was seeking to end a pregnancy. These were the kitchen table abortions, performed by people untrained in medicine or surgery, resulting in the same mangled fetuses, infections and hemorrhaging. Some died.

The third option was to find a brave physician who, because he (there were not a lot of women doctors in any medical field in those days) believed in women’s right to choose, performed secret abortions at high fees and subject to prosecution and jail if discovered. Because this kind of abortion was not performed in a hospital, when there were complications, some women died.

Let me tell you a story:

When I was 18 years old in 1959, I became pregnant. I worked as an office clerk taking home about $250 per month which covered my expenses, if I was careful, and no more. The father made it abundantly clear that he wanted no part of a child nor, any longer, me.

Another factor young women today cannot appreciate when high schools commonly have day-care centers, is the stigma that was attached to becoming an unwed mother in the 1950s. So powerful was the shame attached to it that many pregnant girls and women were sent by their families to visit “Aunt Mary” which was, in reality, a home for unwed mothers in another state where they stayed for the duration of their pregnancy hoping that no one back home would learn the truth.

In actuality, everyone did know what was up and when the girl returned, she was ostracized by everyone, including her previous girlfriends, and her name was passed around among the young men in the community as a girl who was “easy.”

For a number of reasons, a home for unwed mothers was not available to me. That left abortion. I knew I didn’t have the guts to attempt the coat hanger solution and I didn’t want to die on a stranger’s kitchen table, so I approached a friend whose husband was a doctor.

A few days later, her husband met me on a corner in the business section of the city and had me write down the telephone number of a man in Seattle he said was a physician who performed secret abortions in an office unassociated with his practice.

A week later, I arrived at the Seattle office at the appointed hour. It was dark, dingy and not very clean. The linoleum floor was cracked. The paint was peeling. There was dust in the corners. As I lay naked from the waist down on a cold, metal table, the doctor, using surgical instruments of dubious sterility, poked and scraped inside me. There was no anesthetic. I screamed. The nurse (well, she was dressed in white and wore a cap) slapped my face and told me to shut up.

I screamed again. She slapped again. She told me the doctor would not complete the abortion unless I was quiet. I screamed no more, but I shed every tear my body was capable of producing and bit through my lip.

In under an hour, wobbly-kneed, I made my way to the airport and returned home.

I was lucky. There was no infection, no hemorrhaging and within a week or two, I had fully recovered. Many women in those days did not.

Do we really want to return to those bad old days? In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg – the only woman on the Supreme Court - called the Court’s decision “alarming” and “irrational.” She also said it

“...cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this Court - and with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women's lives."

Men and women bring different sensibilities and attitudes to many issues. I have always believed society benefits from including and weighing these gender differences in public debate. But abortion is where I get radical.

Until a man is capable of giving birth and/or every man is forced by law to both financially support and participate in the gestation and raising of every child he fathers, and such law is enforced without exception (a permanent ankle tracking device for those who run comes to mind) no man has a right to discuss abortion, let alone to vote on it.

No one can convince me that pregnancy, birth and the choice to abort or not are anything but women’s domain, exclusively.

* Contributing Editor Ronni Bennett also blogs at Time Goes By - What it’s really like to get older.,


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