Irving Rust, MD

Irving Rust, MD, was former medical director of the HUB, a Planned Parenthood clinic in the Bronx, New York. Prior to Roe v. Wade, Dr. Rust was active in bringing about abortion reform. He was also the lead plaintiff in Rust v. Sullivan, a U.S. Supreme Court case that addressed the right of doctors in federally financed establishments to talk about abortion with their patients. Though Dr. Rust lost the case by a five to four decision, President Bill Clinton reversed this policy on his second day in office. Dr. Rust died September 7, 2001, at the age of 71.

I became a doctor in 1963. I’m a New Yorker, and my family has a background of West Indian and Central American. My father was a Jamaican. My mother was a Costa Rican. They came here in the 1920s and I was born in 1930. I’m a New Yorker all my life.

During the 1930s, I was a young kid in Sugar Hill, Harlem. My mother was a seamstress and my aunts were seamstresses as well as workers in other industries. Some of them did domestic work. But because there was very little contraception, of course, poor women had no outlet for protection. And I would notice that there were periods of time in which my mother and my aunts would get sick and they would be whispering between them and I would hear the word abortion and I would see how sick they were during these periods of time.

And as I grew older, I realized what had happened is that they had had to go for illegal abortions. They were poor people working. Your mother’s income had to support the family and they couldn’t stop working. They wanted children. They had some children, but they couldn’t have a child every year or every other year, like it would happen if you had unprotected sex. So many women’s lives were put in jeopardy and danger because they had to have these illegal abortions. And my family, my mother and my aunts, were part of that situation.

It was a secret, and it had a connotation of shame to it, a connotation of doing something wrong. My mother was a devout Catholic, and the only thing that she ever broke was this church premise. She knew she could not raise a family of many children and live a life of poverty. So she opted to break that one tenet of the church. I think she must have prayed and gone to confession about it, but she just felt she could not have a large family to take care of.

During the period of time when I became a resident, I would rotate between Lincoln, Jacoby, and Albert Einstein. Lincoln Hospital was South Bronx, black, Hispanic. The first year of the residency was spent in the operating room doing septic incomplete abortions. In other words, every morning of my residency, I would go to the operating room and I would have anywhere from ten to 25 cases of women who had aborted themselves. They would stay, two, three, four days and then they would go home. The wards of the hospitals were full.

I think to go to down to Mexico or Cuba, it cost $1,000 to $2,000. If you had an abortion here by a doctor here in New York, but one done well, it would’ve cost you $4,000 or $5,000. So there was a complete separation of good medical care and the difference in social and economic groups of New York at that time. You’d go to an abortionist and they would charge you anywhere from $60, $80, $120 in that range, not even $200, because people didn’t have a lot of money to have an abortion.

I just knew as a young boy from the relationship to my mother that a woman had to have that choice. They had to have that choice. I always knew that. My mother was a guiding light in my whole life, in my career. And if she made a decision that she had to have it, I knew it was a right decision. I never got a bad decision from her in all of my life. So I knew what she did was, for her, the right thing.

I’m a black physician, an Afro-American physician. I knew there was an inequality of the system. I knew that the system was skewed, not only for me, but skewed for anybody who came out of the ghetto. You had a child as a young black girl you weren’t going anywhere hardly if you were a young black girl in the ghetto anyway. So you had a child, you were finished. Completely finished.

This is an issue that will never, never go away. And if you’re a thinking person in this country, you’ve got to be willing to be involved in this cause, because the cause is not going to go away on both sides. It’s an issue that separates people. It’s an issue that divides people and it’s an enormously emotional issue.

I have great respect for people who are advocates and strong personalities, because they’re the ones that make changes and then people follow them. You’ve got to be willing to sacrifice. You’ve got to be a strong personality, willing to sacrifice everything for that cause.

—Edited transcript from Voices of Choice