Richard Hausknecht, MD

Richard Hausknecht, MD, is a founding member and served on the Board of Directors of PRCH until 2004. Dr. Hausknecht pioneered research on the safety and efficacy of methotrexate-misoprostol for medical abortion. He also served as the medical director of Planned Parenthood of New York City and medical director of Danco Laboratories. During the 1960s, he was very active in abortion reform, and he continued to be active in the pro-choice community through the 1990s. Dr. Hausknecht died in October 2008.

I’ve always believed that abortion was an integral part of reproductive healthcare, from the very beginning of my training. But I didn’t realize it until I began to see the effects of the lack of availability of safe abortions.

One single event galvanized me. It really was an astonishing experience. A woman was admitted to Elmhurst City Hospital, which is where I was a senior attending, and she was admitted to the medical service because of jaundice. She was quite yellow because she’d stopped making urine and she was quite sick. She had a high fever. They thought she had hepatitis. She didn’t have hepatitis. She had a chemically induced hepatitis and renal shutdown due to Lysol being injected into her bloodstream. She also had a very serious pelvic infection with a large pelvic abscess and when she was transferred to our service, she was deathly ill.

And I remember going off to the operating room with this young woman. She was 20 or 21 years old with a close family unit. And before she was given anesthesia, I told the family that this was a very risky situation but that we would do our very best.

Well, our very best wasn’t good enough. And with the abdomen open, and trying to resect this enormous pelvic abscess, which involved the large intestine as well as the uterus, tubes and ovaries, her heart stopped. Attempts were made to start it again and we gave her drugs to maintain her blood pressure, but it was a losing battle. And before we could get the abdomen closed, she died on the table. And I had to walk out of the operating room and sit down with her father, mother, brother, and two sisters and tell them that she had died. I cried with them. I cried I guess mostly because I felt impotent, totally unable to undo the effects of the chemicals that were unleashed in her body.

That event had enormous impact on me. I began to actively participate in political activity to change the law, signed petitions, tried to get other physicians to join the cause of changing the state law.

I was afraid to do illegal abortions, terrified. Terrified that I’d blow my whole career, that I’d have to give up the practice of medicine, that I’d be prosecuted. But just as soon as it became legal, right here in New York City, I knew that this was going to be an important part of my life and that I would devote significant effort to it, and I did.

We opened up the first abortion clinic in New York City in July of 1970 in a building on the corner of 73rd Street and Madison, and we did thousands of abortions. Women came from all over the United States because we were one of I think three states that had made abortions legal. They came by plane, by bus, by train, by car.

Many of my friends are now dead, and we aren’t being replaced at anywhere near the rate at which we’re disappearing. So the number of people available to do abortions is changing. As long as I am physically able, I will continue to pursue the goal of making abortions safe and effective and, most importantly, available.

I get very angry when white, elderly statesmen stand up in the halls of our Congress and try to deny abortions to women. Women don’t have equal representation and don’t have equal rights. You travel to parts of this country where there are no abortions available. Women have to travel hundreds of miles. Physicians who do provide abortions are subjected to the risk of death, certainly ostracism. We live in a country in which the climate of fear is extraordinarily invasive. Bulletproof vests, bulletproof windows, cement block houses where abortions are performed.

We’re a long way from making abortion part of routine, everyday, reproductive care. Contraceptives fail. Abortion will always be necessary. There will never be anything that is perfect. There never is in medicine. So abortion will always have to be taught and will always have to be necessary and available.

There are young people coming up the path who share our dream, and I feel very good about that. There aren’t a lot of them. I wish there were so many more. But there are some important things happening out there, which hopefully will make the dream of real freedom of reproductive choice available in this country.

—Edited transcript from Voices of Choice