Steven Sondheimer, MD, is professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist with a subspecialty in reproductive endocrinology and infertility. On the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, Dr. Sondheimer spoke to a group of pro-choice physicians, medical students, and supporters about the dangers of illegal abortion he witnessed as a medical student.
“Legally induced abortion is a common event in the lives of women and families in the United States. Abortion has always been common but not always legal and not always safe. Prior to 1974, every large city had a hospital with a ward that was occupied with women who were bleeding or infected from unsafe abortions.
“I remember as a medical student at Penn accompanying my resident on the ob/gyn service to the ER. They were all he’s at that time; there were very few women in ob/gyn. He said to me there are certain things you need to know when seeing a reproductive age woman who is bleeding. He told me that you need to do a history; histories are not always accurate, so you also need to look for evidence of trauma, of burning of the vagina, injury to the vagina or a foreign, sharp object within the vagina.
“He told me that you need to start a large bore IV. You don’t know if the woman may go into septic shock, and the large IV allows for a rapid infusion of blood. Then you need to cross match her blood type against blood available in the hospital’s blood bank. Four units would need to be available in an emergency. You also need to get an X ray, both a flat plate and an erect abdominal film to look for a possible foreign object in the uterus or gas gangrene or air under the diaphragm, which can represent a uterine perforation. It was common in those days to do this workup for every patient in the ER with vaginal bleeding.
“Ward K on the first floor of the Dulles building had many beds occupied with women who were bleeding or infected from unsafe abortion.
“Two years after Roe v. Wade, by the time I was a resident, there were no women in ward K who were the victims of unsafe, infected abortion. That had completely disappeared. These changes occurred in a very short time between my transition from pre-Roe to post Roe v. Wade.
“These events made an impression on me and stayed with me, but I was a kid at the time, and I never questioned the appropriateness of safe and legal abortion. I wasn’t a political person and don’t remember fighting for legal abortion, but I was—and am—grateful for those who did.”