Seymour L. Romney, MD

Dr. Romney died in August 2010.

In the early 1950s, Dr. Seymour L. Romney, chair of the Board of Directors and cofounder of Physicians for Reproductive Health, saw something he’ll never forget. “A doctor who was working at a hospital in the South Bronx called me because he had a young patient who had been the victim of a botched abortion,” he says. “Apparently she had come to New York from Pennsylvania because she heard she could get an abortion in New York. Someone had put darning needles through her uterus in an attempt to end the pregnancy. She was 16 years old and was about six months pregnant. We were confronted with how to terminate the pregnancy and prevent this woman from going into shock and dying. Ultimately, we had to remove her uterus in order to save her life,” he recalls. “Doing a hysterectomy on a 16-year-old woman because of a primitive, botched, criminal abortion is an unforgettable experience.”

Cases such as this were not uncommon in the years prior to Roe v. Wade. “We were frequently confronted with severe consequences of self-induced or bungled abortions,” says Dr. Romney. “We were seeing women with the complications of hemorrhage, septic shock and renal shutdown on a regular basis, almost in epidemic proportions.”

Dr. Romney’s medical career has spanned nearly 60 years. Currently Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, Dr. Romney was the founding chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He received his medical degree at New York University in 1942 and did his residency at the Boston Beth Israel Hospital, the Boston Lying-In and Free Hospital for Women and Harvard Medical School.

It was shortly after his experience with the 16-year-old girl that Dr. Romney and some of his peers recognized a responsibility to organize. “A group of us felt we had to do something about getting abortion legalized,” he says. “We started to educate and pressure the New York State legislature.” In 1970, Dr. Romney saw Governor Nelson Rockefeller sign the bill making abortion legal in New York.

That was not the end of the early fight, however. “Ultimately, legalized abortion in New York meant that women throughout the country began to travel to New York to obtain abortions, making the demand for this service nearly insurmountable,” he says. “We knew then that it wouldn’t be over until abortion was legalized throughout the country.” The night the Supreme Court affirmed Roe v. Wade in January 1973, Dr. Romney was at a meeting of reproductive health physicians in Boston. “None of us will ever forget that night,” he says. “It was a landmark victory for public health, for women and for a compassionate, confidential patient-physician responsibility.”

Despite the Roe v. Wade victory, increasing regulatory, political and legislative restrictions continue to constrain reproductive healthcare. Some of these consequences can be seen in the training—and lack of training—of medical students: currently, 88% of ob/gyn residencies do not routinely provide abortion training as part of their programs. Ironically, Dr. Romney was exposed to safe abortion training early in his medical education. “It was standard. A qualified, competent physician must know how to do what is necessary if a female patient who is early in her pregnancy is bleeding,” he says. “When I was in medical school, it was necessary to learn safe abortion techniques as a response to spontaneous miscarriages as well as self-induced abortions. This is a healthcare professional’s responsibility to a patient’s health and well-being.”

Dr. Romney thinks the medical profession has a commitment to women, who make thoughtful and personal decisions about unwanted pregnancies. “The consequences of unwanted pregnancy are linked to child abuse, sexual abuse, limitations in education and family and social and community development, among other personal aspirations,” he says. “Understanding and exercising the fundamental responsibilities of human sexuality and human reproduction are normal, healthy rights of every man, woman and child.”

Today, abortion services are almost as scarce as in the days before legalization. Currently, 87% of the counties in the United States are without an abortion provider, and all signs indicate that the future is not promising. Dr. Romney cannot stress the need for abortion training strongly enough: “The people who were trained in my generation, who know what it was like before Roe v. Wade, are getting older. Young physicians must support and learn this skill. Congress and state legislatures must ensure that physicians will not be returned to the environment that existed before abortion was legal. Unfortunately, the word abortion is associated with a negative emotional response. However, more tragically, unwanted pregnancy is associated with profound emotional consequences for the individual or individuals involved, as well as community public health throughout the country.”