The Stigma of Abortion, and How It Connects Chris Evert and Kermit Gosnell

BlogHer Original Post

We’ve had two major stories this week around abortion. As wildly different as they are, they both share an important thread.

The first, of course, is the guilty verdict in the highly politicized trial of Kermit Gosnell. On Monday, the Pennsylvania abortion doctor was convicted of murdering three babies, and of voluntary manslaughter in the drug overdose of a woman who died during an operation. I’m not going to repeat the gruesome details of Gosnell’s crimes--Laurie White's post on BlogHer offers a glimpse--or describe his “house of horrors,” except to say I’m glad he got convicted and will spend the rest of his wretched life in prison. But who wouldn’t be?

But I also have to ask: why in God’s name wasn’t he stopped sooner? Gosnell was allowed to operate his filthy clinic in a poor neighborhood for three decades without health officials so much as giving him a fine. Gosnell’s wife, Pearl, who routinely helped her husband perform abortions, was a cosmetologist. I don’t mean to make light of this, but by way of comparison, marijuana clinics have been shuttered in my hipster neighborhood in Los Angeles for far less. Even when patients alerted authorities about the unlicensed, untrained staff, the nightmarish and dangerous medical conditions, nothing was done.

From the grand jury report:

Several different attorneys, representing women injured by Gosnell, contacted the [health] department. A doctor from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia hand-delivered a complaint, advising the department that numerous patients he had referred for abortions came back from Gosnell with the same venereal disease. The medical examiner of Delaware County informed the department that Gosnell had performed an illegal abortion on a 14-year-old girl carrying a 30-week-old baby. And the department received official notice that a woman named Karnamaya Mongar had died at Gosnell's hands.

From Salon:

Pennsylvania authorities had failed to conduct routine inspections of all of its abortion clinics for 15 years by the time Gosnell’s facility was raided and closed down. In the scandal’s aftermath, two top state health department officials were fired, and Pennsylvania imposed tougher rules for clinics.

Would this appalling lack of oversight have occurred If Gosnell’s clinic had served mainly middle-class white women instead of low-income black and Asian women who had nowhere else to go?

I think we all know the answer to that.

Again, the grand jury report:

A former employee testified "that white patients often did not have to wait in the same dirty rooms as black and Asian clients. Instead, Gosnell would escort them up the back steps to the only clean office -- O'Neill's -- and he would turn on the TV for them. Mrs. Mongar, she said, would have been treated 'no different from the rest of the Africans and Asians.

May 1, 2013 - Beverly Hills, California, USA - Jimmy Connors, Tennis Champion during the Milken Institute Global Conference held Tuesday, May 1, 2013 at the Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (Image: © Prensa Internacional/ZUMAPRESS.com)

The other abortion story dominating headlines this week is sensational in a different way, and it involves Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert. For those of you too young to remember, or don’t follow tennis, Connors and Evert were the sport’s biggest male and female stars in the 1970s. In 1974, during the height of their fame, both won their respective singles matches at Wimbledon. He was 21, she just 19. Making their story even more glamorous, the two young champions were engaged.

As someone who was an obsessive tennis player then, who followed Evert’s every Grand Slam, it’s hard to underestimate how influential she was in the sport, how adored “Chrissie” was. Young girls flooded into tennis, awed by her competitive drive, her strength, and her success. As for Connors, he was the first bad boy of tennis. I often wondered what she saw in him, a tantrum-throwing, foul-mouthed jerk. When their engagement suddenly ended in 1974, I thought, good riddance.

Now Connors has confirmed just how much a jerk he really is. In his new memoir, “The Outsider,” he suggests that the reason he and Evert broke up is because she got pregnant and had an abortion. There are two things wrong with this. The first being that Evert has never said one way or the other whether she did have an abortion.

As Jessica Luther points out in The Atlantic, Evert has been pretty forthcoming about other private matters in her life, including an affair and two divorces. That she chose not to reveal whether she did have an abortion was her decision, not Connors. The second problem is that Connors never bothered to speak with Evert before he chose to disclose this utterly private and difficult experience. Instead, he took what was her story to tell and used it to serve up controversy and sell books.

“Jimmy Connors: ‘Youthful passion’ left Chris Evert pregnant with our love child…” blared the headline on the New York Daily News,”but the timing was bad for her tennis future."

If I were Evert, I’d probably be throwing my tennis racket against the wall. Instead, the 60-year-old tennis icon who continues to be a prominent figure in the sport released this dignified statement:

In his book, Jimmy Connors has written about a time in our relationship that was very personal and emotionally painful. I am extremely disappointed that he used the book to misrepresent a private matter that took place 40 years ago and made it public, without my knowledge. I hope everyone can understand that I have no further comment.

Here’s what Connors had to say for himself in an interview with ESPN:

It was not meant to be put in there for any other reason than it did have an effect on my life. I was able to step back and look at it and the emotions and pain it caused us. ... We had something special for a couple years. Looking back, that was a very important time in my life. But I didn't ask anybody about what I was going to put in the book.(emphasis mine)

That self-serving justification is probably more revealing than anything he could have said.

So how does Chris Evert’s abortion 40 years ago relate to the horrific Kermit Gosnell story? The women who went to Gosnell did so because they were desperate and didn’t have much money. But they also put their lives literally in his bloody hands because of the enduring stigma around abortion in this country. If there weren’t such a stigma, Gosnell’s clinic wouldn’t have even existed. There wouldn’t have been a need for it. But we continue to demonize women who have abortions, while also forcing out of business clinics that do operate safely and humanely.

More than 40 years after Roe v. Wade became law, women who have abortions still are condemned, harassed, and shamed, accused of being “murderers.” No matter that one in three women in America will have an abortion during her life. Even today, few of the women I know who’ve had abortions feel it is safe to talk about them. Which is tragic. But this shame also speaks to our enduring double-standard about the reality of women’s sex lives. More than 40 years after the Pill became available, making it possible for women to enjoy sex without the worry of pregnancy, we still call women and girls “sluts” because they dare to have sex.

Evert faced this stigma too. Even worse, she was a beloved public figure. Girls looked up to her, aspired to be her. It was a stigma so powerful that she kept her abortion secret for 40 years. Until Jimmy Connors blithely, and without even thinking of how it would affect her, how it might trigger painful memories for her, or even generate hostility and criticism from anti-abortion activists toward her, spilled it in his memoir.

We all make mistakes in life. Who knows how Evert feels about that decision she made so long ago, when she was a 19-year-old tennis star, the best female the world has ever seen. Maybe she regrets it. Maybe she doesn’t.

But her statement underscores one thing: she wanted to keep it close to her heart. "I hope everyone can understand that I will have no further comment,” Chris Evert said.

Jimmy Connors was always a jerk. He still is.

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