When I first opened a clinic for women's abortion care in Flushing, New York in 1971, women finally had access to safe, legal abortions – even before Roe v. Wade decriminalized abortion across the country. New York State had acted to decriminalize abortion in 1970, so we were already a step ahead. Doctors could now treat patients in a respectful environment, away from the back-alley secrecy and lethal dangers.
I started working on building the clinic as a neophyte, but in my new memoir, Intimate Wars, I describe how, over the next several years, I began to become more and more connected to the work, the women, and from there, social and political activism.
Below is an excerpt from Intimate Wars:
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After a few years of directing Flushing Women's [Medical Center], my days at the clinic had begun to feel a little more routine. By then we were seeing fifty women a week, and at that time I was still counseling most of them.
I can't remember how many hands I held, how many heads I caressed, how many times I whispered into how many ears, “It will be all right, just breathe slowly.” I saw so much vulnerability: legs spread wide apart; the physician crouched between white, black, thin, heavy, but always trembling, thighs; the tube sucking the fetal life from their bodies.
“It'll be over soon, just take one more deep breath” — the last thrust and pull of the catheter — then the gurgle that signaled the end of the abortion. Gynecologists called it the “uterine cry.” Over and over again I witnessed women's invariable relief after their abortion that they were not dead, that God did not strike them down by lightening, that they could walk out of this place not pregnant any more: that their lives had been given back to them.
It was the kind of born again experience that often resulted in promises: I will never do this again. I will always make him wear condoms. I will be more careful next time.
It was the very young girls that moved me most. I felt so much rage against the males who impregnated each child—was it her father, her brother, some young boy with no thought for the consequences? The girls, the women, were duly punished for their part of the sex act. But for the boy or man there was no censure, never was.
At times I was filled with a kind of bitter resignation. I knew that I might see each again soon. So many of them were barely more than babies themselves when pregnancy came, unplanned and unwanted. They were innocent and often ignorant, didn't believe they were pregnant until it was too late to deny it, too afraid to ask for help at first. “Maybe it'll go away,” they reasoned.
I spent hours counseling husbands, lovers, sisters, and mothers whose fury at their daughters' betrayal needed a kind of salve I couldn't give. “Let her get local anesthesia,” they said. “Let her really feel the pain so she knows never to do it again.” The daughters' heads lay on my shoulder as I sat on their beds, wiping tears of relief or regret or both, whispering comfort, giving absolution, channeling rage, sharing life.
“I would want to keep this pregnancy, if only…” I learned that it is in the “if only” that the reality of abortion resides. It's there in the vast expanse of a lived life — the sum of experience, the pull of attachment, the pain of ambivalence. “If only” is a theme with thousands of variations.
If only I wasn't fourteen.
If only I was married.
If only my husband had another job.
If only I didn't give birth to a baby six months ago.
If only I didn't just get accepted to college.
If only I didn't have such difficult pregnancies.
If only I wasn't in this lousy marriage.
If only I wasn't forty-two.
If only my boyfriend wasn't on drugs.
If only I wasn't on drugs.
If only . . .
I bore witness to each woman's knowledge of holding the power to decide whether or not to allow the life within her to come to term.
The act of abortion positions women at their most powerful, and that is why it is so strongly opposed by many in society. Historically viewed and conditioned to be passive, dependent creatures, victims of biological circumstance, women assume the power over life and death with the choice of abortion, an awkward mantle for many. They fall prey to the assumption — the myth — that women should not be trusted with this ultimate power.