Today’s post is by guest blogger Torie.
“No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg” – Frederica Mathewes-Green
Having been born well after Griswold v. Connecticut, Eisenstadt v. Baird and Roe v. Wade, Supreme Court decisions which affirmed a Constitutional right to privacy, permitted unmarried women to obtain contraceptives and legalized abortion, I have no first hand knowledge of what life was like for women before these rulings. Sure, I knew that women once used Lysol as birth control and knitting needles for self-induced abortions, but I somehow viewed these as aberrations. I had no appreciation for the immense suffering and desperation women and their families faced during that time, until Rick Santorum’s rise in the Republican primaries and his increasing misogyny.
I had always dismissed Santorum as a serious candidate. I thought given his extreme views on science, homosexuality and women that his campaign would have crashed and burned months ago. I never thought the rights women literally died for would ever truly be taken away. Yes, anti-choice candidates and politicians might propose legislation that would infringe upon those rights, but I could not imagine those rights ceasing to exist. I had to learn about life for women before Griswold and Roe. I needed to understand what life could become for me and the millions of other women should Santorum ever make to the Oval Office.
Below is an excerpt from the book “The Worst of Times” and a graphic description of life before Roe.
I graduated from medical school in 1954. During my medical training, I saw women being treated for septic abortion, and as a resident I took care of lots of them. I have no idea what the real abortion numbers were in those days, but I’m pretty sure we just saw and identified as “abortion patients” the tip of the iceberg–women where something went wrong and they had no private doctor. I suspect that no more than one in five abortions was actually listed as an abortion, maybe even less.
The women on the wards were generally more seriously ill than the private patients. Now, that may be due to their generally inferior health status. They didn’t have the advantages of good nutrition and hygiene. They didn’t get regular health care or any kind of maintenance care. They also tended to be black, and the private patients tended to be white, but this was probably typical of the times. However, it didn’t mean that white women got better abortions. They all got lousy abortions.
The technique of the criminal abortionist wasn’t limited to a catheter or coat hanger. Many of them injected some kind of caustic substance–bleach or something like that–into the uterus. The uterus would contract to get rid of the irritant, but there was a high risk of complications.
Potassium permanganate [a dark purple salt] was another common choice. The abortionist dissolved some of the crystals in water and inserted the solution into the uterus through a syringe or catheter. On the street, women heard that potassium permanganate would work, but they didn’t get all the details of how to use it, and we would see women who would just insert the crystals into the vagina.
By the time these women got to the hospital, they would have terrible burns or even actual holes in the vaginal lining, because the crystals had simply eaten away the tissue. The irony is that placed in the vagina, potassium permanganate didn’t abort the pregnancy, but it sure did a lot of damage to the vagina.
The complications we typically saw on the ward were severe pelvic inflammation and infection, with pelvic abscesses which had to be drained. Many women got an ilius, or shutdown of their intestines. They had to have a nasal-gastic tube so we could just keep their intestines quiet until they started to function again.
They would also get a generalized peritonitis. Some patients died of “uremia”–at least that’s what would be written on the death certificate again leading statisticians to miss the abortion connection. Uremia is an extremely severe infection with septic shock and kidney shutdown.
Hemorrhage was sometimes a complication, although often these women died at the time of the abortion, before they ever got to a hospital. With a perforation in certain parts of the uterus, where the blood supply is concentrated, it would take only a few hours–a day at most–for the woman to bleed to death. If it isn’t that part of the uterus, perforation could take several days to cause death.
With illegal abortion, there were lots of ways to die. The lucky ones made it through. The not-so-lucky ones died fairly horrible deaths.
In the 1950s and early ’60s, in spite of that always-full hospital ward, no one talked about abortion as a public health problem. It was just a fact of life, and you dealt with it the best way you could–taking care of the complications. It was the women’s rights movement and not public health concerns that made abortion legal.
I remember that when I first went into private practice in 1961, if a woman wanted her tubes tied, she had to get her husband’s written permission. I thought that was way out of line. Her body didn’t belong to her husband! Besides, she didn’t have to sign for his vasectomy. But that’s how it was.
For as long as I can remember, I have been in favor of making abortion legal, because I always thought that a woman ought to have the right to control her body.
Overturning Roe, banning contraception will not stop women from seeking abortions and birth control. A woman will do whatever she feels she has to do to exercise control over her body, no matter the consequences. Reversing Roe is in no way pro-life. It will not save women and babies. It certainly will not change our country for the better. In fact, without access to safe and legal abortions, more women will die. Their spouses will be left alone. Their children will be left motherless. Their parents will be left without their daughters. This circle of tragedy will continue to expand as our society loses parts of itself.