Tom Allen, MD, was a staff member of Magee Women’s Hospital and a consulting staff member of University Presbyterian Hospital. Dr. Allen performed abortions within the hospital system before abortion was legalized. He passed away on January 26, 2013.
I was on gynecology service for my first part of residency, and at that time the ward was pretty packed. A lot of women died because of infection and blood loss. Some of those people were there for weeks being treated. If they didn’t die from gas gangrene or something else, they ended up as gynecological cripples.
They sought abortions that weren’t safe or they did it themselves or their grandmother did it or something. They used coat hangers because they could straighten out the wire and get into the cervix. They would use knitting needles. Sometimes they could use a rubber catheter and safely pass that up because it was malleable and bent and didn’t force a hole in the uterus.
I had a call from a distraught mother whose 17-year-old daughter was pregnant. And the mother told me that it was her son who had impregnated her daughter. I arranged to see her at the office and checked to see what was going on and she was pregnant. So I arranged to pick up some sterile supplies and take them out to the woman’s home and perform as aseptically as possible mid-dilatation and then a packing of the uterus with some sterile gauze and with just a wick left in the external loss of the cervix. And in doing this, the membranes ruptured, so I knew that it would transpire on its own.
Later, she was married and had six children and they were all delivered by me or my practice and the mother was eternally grateful. It was the only abortion that I did prior to when we established the Therapeutic Abortion and Tubal Ligation Committee at Magee.
Everybody was in on it. The patients knew what was going on. We all knew that we were flaunting the law but doing it in the safest way from prosecution that we could. The Committee consisted of medical staff members in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology who were supportive of the need for abortion. All the members of the Committee were sympathetic to the need for modification of the laws. It was an understanding among the members of the Committee and the Chairman that this was a form of making it more safe for the medical staff to do abortions in a safe hospital setting, and safe from prosecution for doing so. We felt that we were doing a service for women and we were preventing a lot of the morbidity and mortality associated with abortions done by untrained people under septic conditions.
Before Roe v. Wade, I had no guilt feelings about what I was doing. I was proud of being able to help the women that I was taking care of. It didn’t interfere with my beliefs in any way. It didn’t bother me morally or ethically. I was an activist not only in my professional life but also political life. Having five daughters had an influence on me too. They were going to grow up and possibly face the dilemma of many of the women I’d seen.
I started to take a public stand on abortion when I joined the Abortion Justice Association here in Pittsburgh. We signed letters to legislators. A couple of times, I was invited to go and be interviewed on the local television stations. I wasn’t going to go out there and beat drums and make speeches in the park, but I was going to try to do something about it.
I firmly believe that the woman should have control of her body and her reproductive life. And that’s the essence of Roe v. Wade. The essence of the whole debate is that women should have control over their bodies and their reproductive rights without interference of the state.
Women need to know the contrast between how safe it is today to have an abortion and how dangerous it was before Roe v. Wade. A lot more women died before Roe v. Wade from the complications of abortion than presently. It’s the safest surgical procedure that’s performed in the United States today.
History is wonderful because it teaches us not only what to do but what not to do. American people, if they get the full story of what happened to so many women in the days before Roe v. Wade and how safe the procedure is today, they won’t let it happen. They won’t let Roe v. Wade be reversed in this country.
—Edited transcript from Voices of Choice