Mildred Hanson, MD

Dr. Mildred Hanson saw the aftermath of illegal abortion as a young gynecologist in the years before Roe v. Wade. She has been a pro-choice activist during her professional career. Dr. Hanson spent 30 years as medical director of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and South Dakota, while providing first and second trimester abortions at her own clinic, caring for women from Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Prior to Roe v. Wade, Dr. Hanson provided abortions within the hospital system. Dr. Hanson passed away in 2015.

I found myself becoming angry that women had to accept an unwanted pregnancy. I was frustrated that there was such an easy thing to do that was within our grasp technically, and yet we were denying it to women, and women were dying because of it. It seemed so unconscionable that we, as doctors, were allowing this to happen, when there clearly was an easy, efficient, cost-effective, safe procedure to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Instead, we were putting women through all this trauma, putting their lives on the line and making them endure unwanted pregnancies. It just didn’t make sense.

If you saw the distress of the women who wanted abortions and saw the morbidity and mortality rates from illegal abortion and the number of unwanted pregnancies, it was obvious that something needed to be done. No amount of proselytizing or theorizing about the sanctity of unborn life was going to change that reality.

I challenged myself: Is this right? Is this ethical? Is this Christian? Is this appropriate? Am I demeaning myself? Do I want to do abortions? There’s a lot of personal soul-searching. It’s not an easy decision that a physician makes to be an abortion provider. It’s something that we do, through our own personal soul-searching, over and over again.

Abortion is a part of medical care, and people who seek abortions are every bit as ethical, as Christian—as godlike, if you will—as those who don’t have abortions. And I really believe that with all my heart. And the people who do abortions are every bit as ethical and as kind and loving and godlike as those who think abortion is wrong. I say that with every conviction I have. Abortion clearly has improved women’s health, no matter how you look at it.

I worry that these people who’ve never seen the horror of illegal abortion are going to allow abortion to once again become illegal—or if not illegal, very difficult to get. We have to let young women and men know the tragedy and the horror of illegal abortion. And young doctors especially must realize what it was like when abortion was illegal. And we need more doctors, even though they may not be providing abortions themselves, to be pro-choice in their thinking and to allow abortion to become a part of total medical care.

When that kind of thinking becomes a part of our mission, then we will see the stigma removed. I think that people will no longer shun doing abortions because they fear the ostracism of their peers. We have to change our thinking about abortion and make it a part of mainstream medical care.

When you talk about the abortion deaths that occurred in pre-Roe v. Wade days, young people today don’t believe it. Young doctors today do not believe it. We have to let health care professionals and voters know of the tragedy of illegal abortion and the tragedy of abortion-related deaths. Abortion-related deaths among young women were not always young single girls having their first pregnancy. It was very often the woman who had three or four children, more children than she could already handle. Mothers’ lives were lost in the days of illegal abortion. We just cannot let that happen again. We’ve got to educate people that abortion is an important part of medical care.

We saw women who were desperate to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, who would resort to whatever it took to end that unwanted pregnancy, and sometimes they actually put their life on the line. They went to illegal abortionists. They bled to death. They died of infection, or they did self-mutilation procedures in an attempt to end the pregnancy: coat hangers in the uterus, slippery elm in the uterus, potassium permanganate in their vagina—anything they could think of.

These women were left as reproductive cripples: Many of them needed hysterectomies, many of them were left with pelvic abscesses, left with infertility, so that at a time in their life when they wanted children, they were unable to have those children. Unwanted pregnancy—unwanted parenthood—clearly is bad for society, and it is bad for the woman who endures it.

If Roe v. Wade were repealed, I think I’d go right on doing abortions. It isn’t like it was years ago, when I had responsibilities to my children. I think I’d go right on doing abortions. And I would frankly just wait for them to come and get me, because I would want to demonstrate that this is a detriment to the health of women. We’ve already shown that safe, legal abortion has improved the health of American women. Our experience since Roe v. Wade has convinced us so strongly of the need for safe, legal abortion. I feel more strongly about it now than I did in the days before Roe v. Wade. These days, I would go right on doing it. I would wait for the cops to come and take me. Absolutely.

—Edited transcript from Voices of Choice