When There Was No Choice
At 77, Dr. Harry S. Jonas can still pinpoint the exact moment when he understood the importance of making abortion legal. The year was 1952 and he was an eager, young obstetrics-gynecology intern in Independence, Miss.. The specialty promised exciting pregnancies and bouncing babies, but his very first patient entered the hospital extremely sick. A mother of 12 children, she had tried—unsuccessfully—to induce an abortion. "She came into the hospital with her intestines hanging out her vagina," recalls Jonas. "Then she died."
For Mildred Hanson, the belief that abortion laws had to change came more gradually, even after she first learned about the danger of illegal abortions as a girl in rural Wisconsin. In 1935, when Hanson was 11, a woman on a neighboring farm died at home after having an illegal abortion. Hanson remembers her mother going next door to help the ailing woman, holding her while she died. The widower was left with six children, two of them in diapers.
By the time she finished her medical training in 1959, Hanson was seeing many patients with complications from illegal abortions. Some had gone to illegal practitioners. Others attempted the procedure themselves using rubber tubes, knitting needles, or potassium permanganate—a corrosive substance that could end a pregnancy but all too often only caused bleeding, ulcers and burns. And of course there were the wire hangers. Hanson eventually developed a reputation for being among a minority who would treat these women. She tended to their infections, bleedings, and wounds for almost two decades. And by the time abortions became legal, Hanson knew she would perform them.
Eugene Glick's first experience with illegal abortion was personal. His wife, who was then his girlfriend, was 19 when she got pregnant in 1951. Neither was ready to have a baby—she wanted to finish college and he was planning on going to medical school. They thought they were lucky to find an OB-GYN willing to perform the procedure illegally, but "he didn't even sterilize the instruments," as Glick remembers. Glick's wife got a serious infection and wound up needing major surgery.
When he got to medical school, Glick noticed his teachers willfully ignored the consequences of illegal abortions. "They didn't want it to even appear that they knew what to do," he remembers. But Glick couldn't overlook the desperation—and began finding ways to perform abortions even before they were legal. His hospital had an abortion committee, which would approve the procedure if a doctor determined that a pregnancy threatened a woman's physical or mental health. "We all knew which psychiatrist to send them to," says Glick. "All of us sort of bent the rules." Eventually, in 1977, after delivering 5,000 babies as an obstetrician, Glick started performing abortions full-time.
If their paths toward providing abortions were different, Hanson, Glick and Jonas have a few things in common. Like many other doctors committed to choice, they witnessed the devastating consequences of illegal abortions firsthand. This week, the 32nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision establishing the constitutional right to end a pregnancy, will occur just two days after our anti-abortion president celebrates his inauguration. With several Supreme Court appointments potentially at stake, it's worth remembering what those pioneering physicians learned through treating thousands of women who'd had unsafe abortions: Outlawing the procedure doesn't make it go away.