Harry Jonas, MD

Harry Jonas, MD, served on the Board of Directors of PRCH until 2006. He received the Kenneth J. Ryan, MD, Physician Leadership Award in 2004 and serves on the Ryan Memorial Program Committee. He is special consultant to the dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, where he served as dean for nine years. Prior to returning to his home state of Missouri, Dr. Jonas was assistant vice president for medical education at the American Medical Association for 13 years. As a young physician, Dr. Jonas witnessed numerous casualties of illegal abortion and was active in his efforts to change the abortion law both locally and federally.

Edited transcript from Voices of Choice:

I had a galvanizing experience that got me started in the pro-choice movement. When I was a first-year intern at the Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, the first patient I had was a woman who’d had 11 children and had self-aborted herself, because she couldn’t get a legal abortion, with some instrument of some kind. And I was in charge of her case, as a young intern, with her intestine coming out of her vagina because she’d perforated the vagina with the instrument. And she had massive infection, multiple abscesses in all the vital organs in the body and she died.

I still remember that patient. I remember exactly what she looked like. I remember the bed she was in on Ward 1418 in Barnes Hospital. I remember seeing her in the emergency room when she came in, and she told us that she was desperate because she had a husband that was gone most of the time and a troublemaker. And she could not raise another child. She could not feed another child. She had not been able to find any doctor that would help her. I’ll never forget that.

Prior to Roe v. Wade in this country, we had no way of knowing, but probably there were as many illegal abortions performed as there are today legal abortions being performed. The big change that occurred with Roe v. Wade was to legitimatize the procedure, to put it in the hands of physicians who would practice safe medicine. And to preserve an individual’s reproductive choice, because faced with an unwanted pregnancy, women do desperate things.

The anti-choice movement has so heavily been involved in our political structure, to politicize an issue that is not one that should be politicized. It’s a medical patient issue, not a bunch of male Congressmen trying to fashion a law that fits their moral standards. And the way this issue has taken over our body politic is very disturbing to me because many of the people in the movement trying to cut out all legal abortion are people who don’t favor any form of family planning whatsoever. And that’s been very clear in all the other assaults we’ve had on every bit of scientific development about safe family planning methods.

I was actively involved in the family planning movement prior to Roe v. Wade, but when women would come seeking information about abortion, the only thing I could do other than to violate the law and perform an illegal abortion (which I didn’t do) was to try to get them someplace else where they could get something done, in another country or another place. But that was only for those who could afford it, not for the more desperate ones. I practiced in a very blue-collar community, where people weren’t affluent and couldn’t afford to go to Tokyo or Stockholm or wherever.

Many of them ended up with illegal abortions, and many of them died. And for 25 years prior to Roe v. Wade in my state of Missouri, the most common cause of death in women of childbearing age was death due to infected, illegal, self-induced abortion. Since Roe v. Wade, it’s not on the radar screen anymore. If we go back to more women in Missouri dying from illegal abortion, this country ought to be ashamed of itself.

Prior to Roe v. Wade, I led a group of obstetricians to Jefferson City to the state capital to try and get the law changed in Missouri. Missouri had this very restrictive law. And we got down to the state capital with a group of maybe a dozen physicians who wanted to see the law changed. They had busloads of people who came to protest any change in the law. We were out-numbered and the pressure from the numbers, I guess, had an impact on Missouri legislators and they never changed that law. I very publicly, on the House of Representatives floor, argued to the legislators in Missouri, but I was unsuccessful. Missouri was one of the more restrictive states, and still is in its legislative challenges to reproductive choice.

I’m sure there are a lot of people just like me in my generation, who feel as strongly as I do about the issue. I’ve been active in a number of pro-choice organizations, including Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, which is an excellent group of doctors who are really dedicated to this commitment.

I think the next chapter is to generate awareness on the part of the public with the leadership of young physicians. You’ve got people that are articulating an anti-choice position for political gains, who know nothing about the real world of women’s healthcare, who’ve never talked to a woman who has an unwanted or unintended pregnancy. I’m an optimist and I have hope for the future, but I want to try to galvanize and stimulate leadership that will take over for those of us who’ve been there.