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The Unforgettables


Reproduced from Abortion is a Blessing by Anne Nicol Gaylor.


ONE OF THE COUNSELORS at the Midwest Medical Center in Madison phoned me late one Friday afternoon to say a woman with two babies had come into the clinic at closing time. She had come up on the bus from St. Louis and needed a place to stay, since she had neither the energy nor money to return to St. Louis and come back to Madison the next week.

Our daughter, Annie Laurie, started putting her room to rights to receive company, and I drove over to the clinic to pick up the patient, Nancy Belle, and her babies.

Nancy was black, from the St. Louis ghetto, and she told me she had missed the bus she intended to catch, hardly surprising when you're traveling with two babies and have no one to help you. She couldn't decide whether to return to her apartment or wait for another bus, but she thought she might never get up her courage again, so she waited for the next bus with her babies, a boy two, and a girl, eight months.

On our way home I learned she had two other children who were staying with relatives in another city, one four years old and one three.

Nancy was twenty-one. Although she was bright and quick and wanted to work, the only job she had ever held was as a temporary clerk in a warehouse. She had drop out of school during her second year of high school when she became pregnant, and at that point, if not earlier, her life's script was written for her.

Nancy was only repeating what she knew. She was one of eight or nine children from a home that had never had a permanent father. Hers was the life style of the young single woman as she knew it. Only Nancy was a little more courageous than most. She had heard that there was an abortion clinic in Madison, so when she found out she was pregnant again, she took her babies, got on a bus, a came to get an abortion.

Nancy lived in an especially dreary and dangerous section of St. Louis. She said she never went out without gun in her purse and tried never to go out at night at all. Despite the gun, she had been robbed once of her rent money. Like most of her friends, she subsisted on Aid for Dependent Children (ADC).

We borrowed a crib from neighbors for her baby girl to sleep in, and she told us it was the first time any of her four babies had ever slept in a crib. She thought our old-fashioned kitchen was the height of style, and she had never tasted some of the ordinary foods we had. Her health showed the effects of five years of chronic childbearing. Thin and frail, she suffered from an ulcer and an as asthmatic condition, both triggered by pregnancy. Part of her weekend with us she nursed a throbbing tooth.

We liked Nancy very much and we loved her babies, but we worried about her two-year-old boy. She never smiled at him the whole weekend, and whenever she spoke to him, it was to admonish him. He seemed to be the focal point on which she could release all her tensions and frustrations and when he wet himself, quite natural for a two- year-old in strange surroundings, she spanked him with viciousness quite out of proportion.

So here was Nancy Belle with children aged four, three, two, and eight months. No one had ever said to her, when you have babies so close together you not only harm yourself, you cheat them in health and you cheat them in brains and you cheat them in love. And what could she have done if she had known?

Had there not been an abortion clinic in Madison and had Nancy Belle not had the extra gumption to get there, she would have had five children at age twenty-one, or perhaps the ghetto abortionist might have had another victim.

We sent a couple of letters and cards to Nancy--she had no phone--but we didn't hear from her for about a year. She had never been able to stay on the pill because of the bad side effects, so she used her Medical Card to have an intrauterine device (IUD) inserted a few weeks after her abortion. Then the IUD caused a serious uterine infection and she had to be hospitalized for a week.

Now she was writing because she was pregnant again, only, happily, in the year's interval abortion had been legalized by the United States Supreme Court and she could be referred to a safe clinic near her home.

Her dilemma, in a sense the dilemma of women everywhere, has me perpetually outraged with our society, which has money to supply much of the world with armaments, to fly to the moon, to print millions of unwanted pamphlets on strange subjects, to engage in all manner of inane bureaucratic wheelspinning, yet will not give priority to the search for contraception that is safe and reliable.

An important postcript: Dr. Kennan of the Midwest Medical Center in Madison did Nancy's abortion for free as he has done so many others. Although the clinic was closed on Saturdays at that time, he came in that Saturday morning to do the abortion for her.

When I drove Nancy to catch her bus back to St. Louis after her weekend with us, I glanced over at her little boy sitting on my daughter's lap. Still under the effect of a spanking for his bad toilet habits, he was subdued and tearful. When I lifted him on to the bus, he turned and clung to my hands, a tiny victim in the pathetic cycle of unwanted children producing more unwanted children.

* * * *

Eileen was never more to me than a small voice on other end of the long-distance line, but as her story unfolded she seemed to symbolize the great wrongs that doctors, hospitals, church and state have inflicted on women.

She was in her late thirties, in a fifteenth pregnancy. She had eight or nine living children; her other pregnancies had resulted in stillbirths or miscarriages. She had all the ailments associated with excess childbearing-varicose veins, pernicious vomiting, kidney and bladder problems. Although her last four births had been by Caesarean she had been denied the tubal ligation she asked at the time of her last delivery.

For readers unfamiliar with these terms a Caesarean section is a major operation, in which a large incision is made through a woman's abdomen and uterus to baby when she cannot deliver normally. At the time a Caesarean is done, since the abdomen is already open, it is very simple for a doctor to do a tubal ligation or sterliziation, cutting the Fallopian tubes, so the woman's eggs no longer reach her uterus. Because of the large wound, a Caesarean patient is usually hospitalized ten days. After leaving the hospital she must return to her doctor reguarly for checkups, until the wound is totally healed. Most physicians recommend tubal ligations after three Caesareans since there is risk in future pregnancies of rupture of the much-scarred uterus. Such a rupture usually results in death. A tubal ligation done at the time of a Caesarea section does not add to the woman's hospital stay, to the surgical risk, or to her bill; so it is practical from ever standpoint to have it done at the time of a Caesar section.

Eileen and her husband both worked to support their large family. A latecomer to the pill because of her Catholicism she had had to give it up because it made her constantly nauseous. Now she was pregnant again. She couldn't afford to be pregnant because she needed to work. She could not face another pregnancy physically, let alone another Caesarean. Her Catholic upbringing left her poorly prepared to deal with abortion, but she was calling because she knew, as I knew, that she was fighting for her life.

The Midwest Medical Center was booked three weeks ahead at that time, but Dr. Kennan agreed to take her as an extra patient. He came back at night to do the abortion for her, working her in very promptly since she was already at ten weeks, the cutoff for the suction abortion method.

So much of my time in the past few years has been spent helping people pick up the pieces of their lives that never should have been pieces in the first place. Any woman, let alone a woman who has had four Caesareans, has every right to have a tubal ligation if she wants one, and the doctor and hospital who deny it to her should have their respective licenses revoked. Eileen did not want an abortion any more than Nancy wanted an abortion; no woman wants an abortion. But women will continue to have abortions until society recognizes their need for sure, safe contraception, and until all hospitals offer access to permanent birth control through sterilization.

Among my referrals has been one other woman in a fifteenth pregnancy. She, like Eileen, had had several of the pregnancies end in stillbirth or miscarriage; she, luckily, had had only two Caesareans. It is a terrible commentary on the calibre of the medical profession in Wisconsin that these women should have had to endure what they endured. They both had obstetrical histories that would have elicited sympathy from a stone, yet their physicians would not help them. These abominable doctors would rather have their women patients suffer and risk death than do a simple, safe, sensible tubal ligation for them.

* * * *

I have referred so many women with so many great problems-medical, financial, social-that it is difficult to sort out the unforgettables. In a sense, as individuals, they are all unforgettable. I have referred twelve- and thirteen- year-olds for abortions and I have referred a grandmother, the oldest fifty-two. Women I've referred have represented every social and economic class and they have ranged in attitude from the organized, composed matron who could say, "Cost is no problem," to the totally disorganized teen-aged girl who sobbed, "I'm pregnant and I don't want a baby and I don't have any money and my boyfriend has left town and what am I going to do?"

It saddened me that so many of the women seeking abortions had physical problems which meant that never should have been pregnant at all. So many women had diabetes, or heart conditions, or epilepsy. One women had two children both with serious heart defects could expect another child to have the same disbility. Another woman who called from St. Louis had a blind baby, and her doctor had told her the chances were fifty-fifty that this pregnancy would result in another blind child. Bone-marrow disease was a defect in another family that the woman could expect to transmit to a child. For all of these women it was an undeniable blessing that the were oases of help in Madison, Wisconsin, and New York City, where they could go for safe, legal abortions.

The callers I couldn't help are unforgettable too; many of these were mothers of large families. There is a woman in Madison who phoned me when she was twenty-four and had five children. After the birth of the fifth child she got birth-control pills from a doctor, but her husband found them and threw them away, saying no one was going to tell him how many children he could have. When she phoned she was four months pregnant. Had we been able to get her into University Hospital in Madison for the late abortion (which we couldn't, since they take only a few and are always booked ahead), there still would have been the problem of husband's consent and money. In New York where a husband's signature is not so commonly required by hospitals, she would have been accepted, but how could we come up with the large amount of money needed to get her there?

Another mother of ten children told me that after the birth of her last baby she wanted to take the pill, but her husband, a staunch Catholic, would not let her. Here was another woman who called too late for outpatient care; we could do nothing for her, since a Madison hospital abortion would have required her husband's signature and financial help. Again, the hassle and expense of going to New York made that out of the question.

One rural woman I referred told me that because of her husband the only birth control method she could use was rhythm, and they had had seven children that way. Her husband was employed only seasonally, so in addition to just not being able to face another pregnancy she was burdened with great financial worries. She had pleaded with her doctor to help her with contraception, but he told her she was "healthy as a horse and could have ten more." She had the abortion, as many mothers of large families have had, without her husband's or her doctor's knowledge.

There was the young woman with four kids, three and one-half, two and one-half, one and one-half and three months. She had begged her doctor to do a tubal ligation at the time of her last delivery, but he had refused her, saying, "Dear, I'm surprised you would even think of it. Anyway, you're only twenty- three." This gem of a physician, the only one in her community, didn't believe in contraception either. Fortunately, she was in time for a clinic abortion.

Some days the phone calls were not only unforgettable, but they made me feel like a Madison outpost for Guinness World Records. One morning I referred a thirty-two-year old woman with eleven children, all single births. Another woman, twenty-five, had seven children, the oldest six. Besides the six-year- old there were five-year-old twins, a four-year old, three-year-old twins and a ten-month-old baby. One fifteen-year-old girl I referred already had had two Caesareans.

Rape and incest calls were commonplace, but I soon learned that rape by strangers is far less common than rape by relatives. I referred teen-agers impregnated by their fathers, their stepfathers, their brothers, their half brothers, their brothers-in-law, their uncles and their cousins. There were days when I decided Wisconsin was just one big Peyton Place.

I also made the discovery that a certain amount of rape goes on within many marriages. Over the years I talked to a dozen Catholic mothers of large families who said in essentially the same words: "I could do without sex. I would have done without sex rather than take a chance on another pregnancy, but my husband couldn't." Slavery, of sorts, is still with us.

Among my family's unforgettables was the fragile, beautiful African woman who came on the bus from Michigan and stayed with us the night before her early-morning appointment at the clinic. Her husband, a graduate student, would have had to drop out of school if she had had another child.

We remember Francie who came down from northern Wisconsin with her six-months-old baby and stayed at our house. Francie's recollections of her delivery were only too vivid; her doctor did not believe in any anesthetic, and Francie, although she was a strong, athletic young woman, still reacted with terror to the thought of her particularly painful and exhausting delivery, au naturel. Since she obviously in need of reassurance, I told her I knew the doctor with whom she had her appointment, Dr. Jovanovic would keep her comfortable during the abortion but I saw she was still apprehensive. On the way to the doctor's office to pick her up after her appointment, I hoped I hadn't overdone the reassurance; women have such different thresholds of pain. But abortion was easy for Francie. When she saw me she smiled and said, "I didn't feel a thing"--music to my ears.

Once I asked John Carr, who was business manager of the Midwest Medical Center in 1972-73 during its very busiest times, if he had an unforgettable patient. During, that time John was seeing about 120 patients a week, all kinds of possibilities. Since I knew that out of every one hundred patients, the clinic could expect two to be victims of rape and three to be victims of incest, I expected him to refer to one of these. Unhesitatingly John said that there was a married couple whom he would never forget. They came in to the clinic from northern Wisconsin and their poverty was very apparent. They had ten children at home. John said they were fat, the unhealthy fat of years of living on surplus starchy foods, and their teeth were rotting from lack of care. His office soon filled with the aroma emanating from stale, unwashed clothes and unwashed bodies. They were nice people, John said. They were well- meaning, likeable people. Yet they were caught in the vicious trap of poverty because they had not been able to stop having babies.

Until now.


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