In December 1968, when I was a nineteen-year old sophomore at the University of Texas, I found out that I was six weeks pregnant. My boyfriend and I were in love. It was the first sexual relationship for either of us. We had been faithfully using the only birth-control available to us, condoms. But this time we came up short. Maintaining the pregnancy was not an option: we were both serious students on career paths. Enlisting the assistance of our parents was not an option. So, we proceeded on our own. Through the local grapevine, we learned that with a lot more money than we had, we could fly to New York City, where licensed physicians were performing abortions illegally. Alternatively, we could go the “back alley” route, which involved undergraduate Biology majors performing abortions in their dorm rooms. Way too risky. But after days of digging around, we unearthed another option: a licensed physician with a family clinic in the border town of Piedras Negras, Mexico performed illegal abortions for $165. Word had it that his medical training was in the US, but that he had to return to Mexico to care for his mother when his father died prematurely. Piedras Negras is a gritty town just over the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. It’s just under 250 miles southwest of Austin. My boyfriend had a car. The drive would take about five hours.
The following morning we set out. Our informants told us that we should arrive at the clinic toward the end of the afternoon, where we would speak in code to the receptionist and then wait till the doctor had seen all his scheduled patients. The doctor could not be informed that we were coming. We were told that under no condition should we ask for directions to the clinic once we were in the town, because spies for “quack” abortion providers were abundant. A young Anglo couple asking for directions in broken Spanish would be easy pickings for a “back alley” provider. Through a sea of little kids trying to sell us Chiclets, we found the office and entered. We did as we had been told. Once all the scheduled patients had left, we were ushered into the doctor’s examining room. He was professional and polite, as was his female assistant. His English was impeccable. He performed an exam to make sure I was pregnant, told us that he would administer sodium pentathol in my arm and then perform a D and C, and then asked my boyfriend to leave. All I remember after that was an oxygen mask being placed over my face and a needle being injected into my left arm. An hour or so after that I regained consciousness. My boyfriend was by my side. I lay there for about half an hour. The doctor handed me antibiotics and told me I would bleed a little, but then that would be it. After my boyfriend paid him, my boyfriend drove the car around to the back of the clinic on the doctor’s instructions. The authorities were not to be tipped off. When I left the clinic, it was dark, and I was scared and sore. But I wasn’t pregnant any more.
We drive back to Austin that night. We were relieved. We could resume our lives. Two days passed. I started to bleed—profusely. I bled off and on for five days. But I didn’t dare seek medical assistance: what I had done was a crime. I was terrified. But the bleeding did stop finally. I did resume my life. I was one of the lucky ones: I had a partner for the ordeal, and not only did I not die, I suffered no longterm physical damage. I graduated from college. I married. After a few years I went to graduate school, where I received a Ph.D in Philosophy. I was a Philosophy professor for the better part of 30 years. Along the way, I became the mother of a daughter. She made me proud. She is an award-winning neuroscientist, and she gave me three precious grandchildren. The youngest is just three months old. Because of the trajectory of my life, I was sufficiently privileged to be able to retire at a relatively young age and throw myself into world travel, quality time with my family, and civic engagement in causes about which I am passionate. Had I not had that abortion, the trajectory would have been radically different: even trying to imagine it is painful.
The Trump administration is itching to do what it takes to overturn Roe vs. Wade. The Supreme Court is likely one vote short of making that a real possibility. We have heard rumblings from Anthony Kennedy’s corner that he would like to retire this summer. If he does, the door is wide open to realizing the administration’s goal. Meanwhile, women’s rights under Roe are being undermined. Just two weeks ago, the Trump administration announced its plan to institute a “domestic gag rule,” which, when implemented, will deny federal funds to clinics that provide abortions or even refer patients to facilities that do: this, despite the fact that well over 90% of the services Planned Parenthood offers are not abortions, but rather preventive health care, birth control, pregnancy tests, and STD testing, for men, as well as women. Just two days ago the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to an Arkansas law concerning early pregnancy medical abortion, thus paving the way for the shutdown of two of the three Arkansas clinics that offer abortions among their services. This is hauntingly reminiscent of “death by a thousand cuts.” We are not mindful of the current situation at our peril. If Roe is overturned, women will still receive abortions; the risk will just be dramatically higher. That is why I urge state legislators in RI to vote for the Reproductive Health Care Act of 2018. That way, regardless of what happens at the federal level, women in RI will still be able to receive abortions prior to fetal viability. This bill does not allow for late-term abortion. It does not prevent parental consent for minors seeking an abortion. It does not change RI Department of Health authority to oversee licensing of health care facilities and providers. It does not allow for the use of fetal material for experimentation without the mother’s consent. What it does do is safeguard the fundamental idea that medical decisions are between a patient, her family, and her medical provider.
As we know a January 2017 Pew Research poll revealed that RI residents support maintaining safe and legal abortion by a 2 to 1 margin. So, why should this be an issue? RI legislators are there to represent their constituents, and that means us.
I do not ask RI legislators to choose abortion for themselves. I do not ask them to recommend it to their families and loved ones. That’s their business. I simply ask them to trust women, in consultation with their families and doctors, to make responsible choices for their reproductive futures. I ask for this basic demonstration of respect.