William K. Rashbaum, MD, was a founding member and served on the Board of Directors until 2004. He was associate professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. He was also on the faculty of Cornell University School of Medicine. He was an attending obstetrician at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx and Beth Israel Medical Center and New York Hospital in Manhattan. As a young physician, Dr. Rashbaum was regularly called upon to attend to women who had been seriously injured by illegal abortions. Dr. Rashbaum died May 2, 2005, at the age of 79.
There was a pediatrician from Jersey—he did illegal, criminal abortions. He was a nice man—very empathetic. Once he had a school principal he tried to abort, but he couldn’t complete the procedure so he sent her to me. When I examined her, I found that she had a large ovarian cyst that had been confusing him—he had been trying to abort her by doing a dilation and curettage on the ovarian cyst.
She had insurance so I tried to get her into the hospital. But in those days Blue Cross would only pay such benefits to the spouse of the contract holder. Actuarially speaking, Blue Cross maintained, only the spouse of a contract holder could get pregnant. Single women could not get pregnant—still speaking actuarially. This was the official basis for decisions.
But this woman was single. We admitted her to the hospital with the diagnosis of a twisted ovarian cyst, which wasn’t really twisted, but we were able to remove the cyst and complete the abortion.
A year or two later, the same doctor called me and said, "Dr. Rashbaum, I have a problem. I think I removed a bit of small intestine."
"What did you do with it?" I asked.
"It’s in the bucket, doc," he said. "I think I may give her a shot of Demerol and tell her to come back this afternoon."
I told him to put the specimen in something and send it and the patient to my office. A few hours later I was busy in my office when the bell rang. At the door was a uniformed chauffer.
"Can I help you?" I asked.
"I’m from Dr. So and So’s office in New Jersey."
"Where’s the patient?"
"She’s in the car, doc."
Outside I found a seven-passenger Cadillac with the hood up on a hot, humid day. A middle-aged woman was sitting in the back.
Again, I asked where the patient was. The chauffer opened the door with a flourish, and there lying on the floor of the car where the jump seats were folded was the patient. I took her pulse; it was strong. Next to her was a paper bag. I left her in the car and went to my office to examine the bag. Inside was her small intestine. This guy from New Jersey—usually a competent and experienced man—had panicked. He had perforated the uterus and pulled down bowel, thinking it was the umbilical cord. He had taken a pair of scissors and snipped. We saved her uterus and she survived.
The police later came looking for me. I hadn’t done anything illegal, but I wasn’t about to go to jail for this man. The lady in the car was the patient’s aunt, and she hired an attorney who had been an assistant D.A. and kept the police at bay. The young woman was very sick in the hospital for weeks before she went home.
There were two occasions where I initiated terminations. These were people who I was close to, who consulted with me and made it clear that their circumstances were such that pregnancy was an impossible situation. I did endometrial biopsies and told them that I was fairly certain that they had pregnancies that would not continue. I did not charge for those visits. The two are as clear in my mind today as they were 40 years ago. I did a perfectly acceptable procedure and I didn’t tell anybody what I was doing. I did it because they had so obviously, so carefully thought out this decision with their husbands. They both came to me with their partners, and there was complete autonomy of opinion with the couples. I was not making any decisions here. I was just implementing their decisions.
These two times that I did initiate a termination, I did it surreptitiously. I would have denied doing it. So obviously there was a lot of fear present. And if I did it for those two, how come I didn’t do it for others? I don’t know.
Today’s young women have never lived in a time when abortion wasn’t freely available and relatively inexpensive. I think that to go back to pre Roe v. Wade is, to a certain degree, to re-institute slavery. To go back to the pre-Roe v. Wade era would be to go back to treating women as a piece of property. With the advances that contraceptives and Roe represent to women, it would be unthinkable.
The anti-abortion movement has attacked and in some cases killed doctors. David Gunn was killed. Barnet Slepian was killed. George Tiller was shot in both arms. It is almost impossible to protect oneself from the fanatical crazies who declare war on human beings. Many of us have been forced to look into personal security. Some have been advised to wear a bulletproof vest. We are frightened, yes, and we try to keep a low profile.
We live with the hope that common sense and compassion will triumph in the abortion issue. Our goal is to provide the best medical care, respect individual freedom and protect physical and emotional health. That has always been our goal.
—Edited transcript from Voices of Choice