Mary Bagan Dratman, MD, is an adjunct professor in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. On the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, she spoke to a group of pro-choice physicians, medical students, and supporters about her experiences as a clinician before abortion was legal. Dr. Dratman is retired from clinical practice, but continues to do research and helps former patients and friends with advice, reassurance, and referrals.
“I am an endocrinologist who has always loved caring for patients. However, it turned out that I was also devoted to the science of endocrinology and was suited by temperament and inclination to do basic research. As a result, I always worked full time in academic institutions, and unplanned pregnancy was not an issue among the small number of patients I saw on a regular basis.
“Because I worked long hours in a sheltered environment, I was unfamiliar with the networks and facilities surrounding a woman’s right to manage her own body. I stood on the appropriate side of these issues, but I didn’t function there. Patients must have sensed that I wasn’t likely to be a resource for them in this area because no one had ever come to me with the problem of an unplanned pregnancy.
“I will describe the one exception. She was in her late 30s, a mother of two who had recently returned to full-time work in which she was passionately interested and at which she was increasingly successful. She and her husband had long ago decided that their family was just as they wanted it to be. They desired no more children. But she became pregnant nine years after the birth of their youngest child. She and her husband were both committed to the termination of her pregnancy.
“I simply told Mrs. A that I didn’t know how to help her and had no alternative to suggest. But Mrs. A soon returned, now more desperate, and reported how this problem was leading to disaster in her personal and professional life. I will spare you the details; I can only tell you that I felt impelled to try to help this woman.
“The problem of arranging for an abortion was solved through one of my dearest friends—she died of cancer many years ago—a classmate in medical school, who unlike me was an intrepid, tireless worker for human rights. She had a general practice in New York City, and given her known political and social positions, her practice was full of like-minded patients. I presumed that she would know of a good, safe abortionist. I was right.
“My New York friend explained that the abortion would be performed by an expert who had a medical degree from Romania but could not get certification here in this country. She detested herself and her patients and was unspeakably rude to them. But never had one of the women who were treated by her had any medically relevant sequelae from termination of the pregnancy, although they were no doubt traumatized by their experience with this particular sadistic abortionist.
“My patient was no exception. I drove her into New York, found the back street (literally) address, and was taken into the inner chamber. It was obvious that strict rules of infection control were being practiced. A nurse anesthetist was in attendance, the patient was harshly ordered to lie down, spread her legs, make no sound and do exactly what she was told during the procedure. Ether anesthesia was so skillfully administered that the patient was under within a few minutes. The surgical procedure was over almost before I thought it had begun. There was hardly any bleeding.
“But as soon as my patient opened her eyes the abortionist took her hand, yanked her upright, informed her that she would have had a perfectly formed boy child, taunted her for her decision to have an abortion, and after collecting her sizable fee practically threw us out of her office. Whatever drove her to this behavior seemed related to her self-loathing for doing what she was doing in the way she was doing it. But this was only speculation. I can only tell you that neither I nor the patient was angry with this woman, who was clearly the product of a system that drove its participants into a frenzy.
“But how humiliated we both felt! And this patient, recently under anesthesia, utterly devastated by the abortion procedure, leaning on me, was so violated, so put to shame that she seemed to be scarred for as long as I knew her. But the scars came from the shadows she had been cast under, her need to break the law to save her own and her family’s life. This is what scarred her and made her so bitter.
“So I learned that as in the case of racism, where the object of racism and the racist are both diminished, so also are the victims of antiabortion policies and those who inflict them. Roe v. Wade liberated us all—women seeking control of their own bodies, illegal abortionists seeking to help them, and antiabortion forces seeking to abridge their rights. Roe allowed us all to take the next step toward a better life.”