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The Way It Was

The Beatles ruled. The mini was in. I was seventeen, and pregnant. What happened next is what could happen again.

The author at 17.The author at 17.In 1959, when I was a precocious smarty-pants still in grade school, I wrote a fake letter to Doris Blake, the New York Daily News advice columnist. I pretended to be a teenage girl "in trouble." I spun a tale of a liquor-soaked prom night and passing out in the back of a car. I included a cast of entirely fictional characters—a worthless boyfriend, a mentally unstable mother, a strict, brutal father. I ended my letter with: "Now I think I am pregnant. Please help me. I am desperate."

I'm not sure what I expected, but my letter was not printed, and no advice was forthcoming. The silence was utter. Possibly Miss Blake, like Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, had a drawer where such letters were tossed. If so, the other letters in that drawer were no doubt a lot like mine—except that they were not written by wiseass children. They were real. And for the writers of those letters, the silence was real. And I remember thinking: Gee, what if I really were that girl I made up? What would I do?

One summer night some years later, when I was not quite 18, I got knocked up. There was nothing exciting or memorable or even interestingly sordid about the sex. I wasn't raped or coerced, nor was I madly in love or drunk or high. The guy was another kid, actually younger than I, just a friend, and it pretty much happened by default. We were horny teenagers with nothing else to do.

Nature, the ultimate unsentimental pragmatist, has its own notions about what constitutes a quality liaison. What nature wants is for sperm and egg to meet, as often as possible, whenever and wherever possible. Whatever it takes to expedite that meeting is fine with nature. If it's two people with a bassinet and a nursery all decorated and waiting and a shelf full of baby books, fine. If it's a 12-year-old girl who's been married off to a 70-year-old Afghan chieftain, fine. And if it's a couple of healthy young oafs like my friend and me, who knew perfectly well where babies come from but just got stupid for about 15 minutes, that's fine, too.

In the movies, newly pregnant women trip, fall down the stairs, and "lose the baby." Ah. If only it were that easy. In real life, once that egg is fertilized and has glided on down the fallopian tube, selected its nesting place, and settled in, it's notoriously secure, behaves like visiting royalty. Nature doesn't give a fig about the hostess's feelings of hospitality or lack of them. If the zygote's not defective, and the woman is in good health, almost nothing will shake it loose. Anyone who's been pregnant and didn't want to be knows this is so.

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On November 5, 2003, three decades after Roe v. Wade established a woman's constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, President George W. Bush signed the Partial Birth Abortion Ban bill into law. We've all seen the photograph: The president sits at a table with a modest little smile on his lips. Nine guys—senators and congressme—stand behind him, watching that signature go onto the paper, giddy grins on their faces. They look almost goofy with joy.

Two of these happy fellows are actually Democrats: Jim Oberstar and Bart Stupak. The rest are Republicans to their marrow: the bill's sponsor, Rick Santorum, as well as Steve Chabot, Orrin Hatch, Henry Hyde, Tom DeLay, Mike DeWine, and Dennis Hastert.

Be assured that it's not just "partial-birth" abortion they're so happy about passing a law against. It's all the law heralds. Like some ugly old wall-to-wall carpeting they've been yearning to get rid of, they finally, finally loosened a little corner of Roe. Now they can start to rip the whole thing up, roll it back completely, and toss it in the Dumpster.

For with the PBAB, Bush and Co. have achieved the first federal legal erosion of Roe v. Wade since its adoption in 1973. Roe states that a woman may terminate a pregnancy up to the point of "viability," approximately 24 weeks. After that, states may prohibit or restrict abortion, but exceptions must be made to preserve "the life or health of the woman." The PBAB has been around the block before—in 1995, 1997, 1999, and 2000. What stopped it before was always the debate over allowances for women's health. President Clinton vetoed it three times because it disallowed exceptions to prevent serious disabling injury to the woman. But when the bill came up again in 2002, allowances for prevention of disabling injury to the mother were left out, as were those for rape and incest. A "partial-birth" abortion would be permitted only as a last resort to save the mother's life, or if the fetus was already dead. In other words, the risk of permanent injury to the woman if she proceeds with the pregnancy is not a good enough reason to perform one—not in Santorum's book. She has to be literally on death's doorstep. A couple of Democrats tried to offer an amendment that brought up that pesky women's health issue again. The bill's authors objected. Women and their doctors will just use the amendment as a loophole! Chabot worried it would create "a phony ban" and Santorum predicted it would be defeated. It was.

Like some ugly old wall-to-wall carpeting they've been yearning to get rid of, they finally, finally  loosened a little corner of Roe. Now they can start to rip the whole thing up, roll it back completely, and toss it in the Dumpster.

One Democratic senator proposed a nonbinding resolution, expressing "…the sense of the Senate that…Roe v. Wade was appropriate and secures an important constitutional right and should not be overturned." This amendment passed in the Senate by a 52-46 vote. The House version of the PBAB lacked any such amendment.

In conference, the Republicans quickly took care of that feeble bleat on behalf of Roe: They simply deleted it. When the bill landed on Bush's desk, the resolution to reaffirm Roe was gone.

What, you might ask, is "partial-birth" abortion? Most of us know that the term is not a medical one. Invented by the pro-life folks in the last decade or so, it's a vague reference to "intact dilation and extraction," or D&X. Introduced in 1992, D&X is a variation on a similar, well-established second- (and sometimes third-) term procedure—"dilation and evacuation," or D&E—used after the fetus has grown too large to be vacuumed or scraped out in a simple D&C, or "dilation and curettage."

In a D&E, the fetus is usually dismembered inside the uterus and extracted in pieces. Old obstetrics books from as far back as the 1700s have disquieting illustrations of the various tools of yore used for fetal dismemberment. Nowadays, powerful gripping forceps are used, making the procedure much less dangerous for the woman.

The D&X was developed with the same objective. An inherent hazard of D&E—aside from potential damage by the instruments themselves and the risk of leaving tissue behind, increasing the chances of infection—is that fetal bones begin to calcify at about 13 weeks. As they are broken up, the sharp bone ends can puncture, scrape, and perforate. Hence the "intact" dilation and extraction. The fetus is brought out whole instead of being pulled apart bit by bit. The head is punctured and then collapsed by suction or compression so that it will fit through the partially dilated cervix. The fetus is dead, but in one piece. This, specifically, is the procedure the PBAB has sought to criminalize—when the fetus is killed while its body is outside the uterus, therefore "partially born."

Under the PBAB of 2003, a D&X would be permitted only to save the woman's life or if the fetus is dead. It would require a girl who'd been impregnated by her uncle, father, or brother, and who, out of shame, ignorance, and fear had hidden her condition until it was obvious to the world, to carry the fetus to term and give birth. If a woman discovers, late in her pregnancy, that the fetus has, say, anencephaly—a brain stem but no actual brain—then she must carry it to term, give birth, and let it die on its own.

Since lurid descriptions of partial-birth abortion have been so effective in rallying support for the bill, perhaps some balance is needed. I've read and heard hundreds of accounts of pre-Roe abortion, and there was a wide range of danger, squalor, sanitary conditions, provider skill, follow-up care. The well-heeled and well-connected often flew to Puerto Rico or Sweden and checked into clinics. Of the ones who couldn't do that, some were lucky enough to find competent, compassionate doctors. Some were treated kindly and recovered without incident. The other extreme was pain, terror, and death worthy of the Inquisition. A typical picture emerges, though, and it matches up just about perfectly with a story told to me by a woman I know.

A doctor friend there said he couldn't help her himself, but sent her to a local prostitute who did abortions. The prostitute had her own speculum. The procedure was done on the prostitute's bed: The catheter was inserted through the cervix and left there.

After a date rape (by a "poet") during a trip to Paris in 1967 when she was 23, she found herself pregnant. She tried the usual "remedies"—scalding hot baths, violent jumping, having someone walk on her belly. When she got home to Minnesota, she was two months along. A doctor friend there said he couldn't help her himself, but sent her to a local prostitute who did abortions.

The prostitute had her own speculum. The procedure was done on the prostitute's bed: The catheter was inserted through the cervix and left there. After four days of high fever, chills, bleeding, and passing big chunks of tissue, she landed in the hospital. They said her uterus was perforated, that she had acute peritonitis and an "incomplete" abortion. She was given a huge dose of penicillin and treated as if she were some sort of contemptible lower life form. The emergency-room doctor snarled, "What have you done to yourself?" Later, she realized that the first doctor—her friend—had known all along that she'd probably get desperately ill. Only then could a hospital legally give her a D&C.

She recovered—sterile, violently allergic to penicillin, and so "paralyzed and ashamed" by the experience that she stayed away from men for four years. Who says deterrence doesn't work?

Originally taken by a police officer in Norwich, Connecticut in June 1964 and published by Ms. magazine in April 1973.Originally taken by a police officer in Norwich, Connecticut in June 1964 and published by Ms. magazine in April 1973. WikimediaThen there's the famous 1964 police photograph of a woman's corpse on a motel-room floor in Connecticut. She's kneeling naked, face down as if to Mecca, legs bent to her chest, bloody towels bunched under her. The case had made local headlines, but the picture wasn't seen by the general public until Ms. Magazine ran it in a 1973 article lauding the ruling of Roe v. Wade. Details emerged about the woman's life and death: She was 27, married with two young daughters, but estranged from her violent husband. Her lover had performed the abortion, using borrowed instruments and a textbook. When she started hemorrhaging, he panicked, fled the motel, and left her there.


Compared to those two women, I got off easy. By the middle of September, I'd missed two periods and my cigarettes were tasting peculiar. I was bound for freshman year at college in Boston, though, so I just ignored the facts and went off to school. It took a third missed period and almost throwing up in the backseat of a car packed with kids to penetrate my adolescent thick headedness.

I had a savvy friend in New York, Kat, who only dated rich older men. I figured she'd be the one to call. Soon a long ride on buses and trains took me out to a house in a Boston suburb. The doctor's wife answered the door. There was no waiting room, no magazines, no other patients. The house was completely ordinary, perhaps a touch run-down. She showed me into a room off the front hall and vanished.

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