Robert Tamis, MD

Robert Tamis, MD, has been a physician for more than 30 years. He is currently with the Arizona Reproductive Medicine and Gynecology, Ltd. Prior to Roe v. Wade, Dr. Tamis was part of the clergyman referral service in Arizona, where he performed legal abortions through the hospital system. He was also active in his efforts to change the abortion law in his state.

I think one of the things that has made the doctors of my generation so active in the pro-choice movement is that we saw the horrors of the criminal abortionists and how it destroyed women. I don’t want to see that happen again.

Everybody takes it for granted. They have this freedom. They have this right. Nobody today thinks about the woman who had all four heart valves eaten away because she had a criminal abortion and developed septicemia and died.

We would have patients come in from the criminal abortionists. Septic, but still pregnant, and it was our mission to try to save her life and maintain that pregnancy. That’s how disturbing this pregnancy was to her, that she would go see some lay person using dirty coat hangers. Women would put potassium permanganate pills into their vagina, which would cause bleeding. They thought it was producing an abortion. All it was doing was eating away the vagina. They were willing to do these things because the pregnancy was that disturbing to them.

Around ’64, ’65, this girl went to a high school prom of some kind. She was gang-raped after the prom by five boys. They were all charged, found guilty, and all sent to prison for six months. She got pregnant from that rape and she gave that baby up for adoption. When she was in labor, all she could say was, “All those guys got was six months.” What did she get? She got nine months of her pregnancy. She got the pains of labor and delivery. She had the emotional horror of having been raped, not just once, but five times.

I can’t imagine that young woman could not have been tremendously, emotionally, negatively impacted by that event. What benefit was there in forcing her to continue with the pregnancy? If she felt that the horrors of all the things that happened to her were such that she didn’t want to continue this pregnancy, then she should have had the right to terminate that pregnancy.

I was approached by my rabbi, who was a member of the Clergymen’s Underground. I didn’t want to be in the position of forcing some other 16-year-old girl who was raped to continue her pregnancy. I became their referral physician in Arizona. There was no other place in Arizona that was doing pregnancy terminations, and we set up a system so that patients would get referred to me, and we could do terminations.

In those days, one could not do a pregnancy termination unless it was “indicated.” The law in Arizona was that you could only do an abortion to save the life of the mother. And the way we would save the life of the mother is that the woman would have to see a psychiatrist and talk about how disturbed she would be with that pregnancy—disturbed enough that she would be willing to consider suicide.

I worked with a group of about four different psychiatrists, who would see the patients very rapidly, for a very minimal sum of money ($25), and we would get the letters and submit them to the Hospital Committee. The Hospital Committee would approve them, and then we’d do the pregnancy terminations.

Where’s it my right to say a woman shouldn’t have an abortion? Where’s it my right to tell a woman with eight kids that she can’t have the ninth kid? It’s not right. We’re dealing with adults. We’re not dealing with children. It’s not my role to judge the patients. I’m not God. My patients have rights. My patients have feelings. My patients have needs, and I need to listen to them.

We live in a world where we don’t have a fail-proof method of birth control. We don’t have a school system that allows us to teach young children where babies come from. We don’t have a medical community that spends the time and effort to instruct patients on how to use birth control methods 100% accurately. We don’t have a birth control method that everyone can tolerate. We don’t have a police system that prevents rape and incest. We don’t have a scientific community that can guarantee every woman, when she’s pregnant, that the fetus is normal. As long as we live in this imperfect society, women have to have the right to be able to terminate a pregnancy. If we could guarantee every woman that she’s only pregnant when she wants to be, we won’t have to have abortions any more. Guarantee them that they’ll have a nice, normal, healthy baby, we won’t have to talk about abortion any more. If we can eliminate rape and incest and so forth, we won’t have to talk about abortion any more. I’d be thrilled.

—Edited transcript from Voices of Choice