A History Lesson
Update: I need to add a Warning about the graphic nature (description of cases) of this post. [I didn't even realize it, sorry about that, and thank you to Prof. Myers for pointing it out.]
Two reproductive health icons, Drs. Elizabeth Connell and Louise Tyrer, recall what it was like to be an Ob/Gyn before Roe v. Wade, and express fear and rage about the current state of reproductive rights and family planning in this country and what the future may hold.
Dr. Elizabeth Connell:
"It's hard to conceptualize what it was like before Roe v. Wade unless you were actually there," Connell says, barely containing her anger. "In the large hospitals, ward after ward was filled with women suffering and dying from botched abortions. In some hospitals, it was the job of the first-year resident to sleep all day, because he would be up all night scraping out the remains of illegal abortions, giving blood to the women who were bleeding, trying desperately to keep them out of shock and treating their infections. This was the norm until we got Roe v. Wade and the New York law that preceded it. I'm very much afraid that the way things are going now, we could go right back to that again."
One woman made a particular impression.
"She was not able to get a sterilization procedure done by anyone," Connell remembers. "She never wanted to have children, and she'd had several abortions. There wasn't a doctor in New York City she could find who would do a tubal ligation, which is what she wanted, because she was young and had no children. She happened to be a lab technician, so she took cultures home, looked in a mirror and found her cervix and squirted these cultures of live organisms up through her cervix trying to block off her uterus and tubes with scar tissue. This just goes to show how desperate women were during those times. They resorted to very desperate means to control their fertility. She nearly died. She finally pulled through but not without some very hair-raising moments."
Dr. Louise Tyrer:
"These women came in dying from botched abortions and infections. It was just such a waste of human life," says Tyrer.
The first deaths "sear the soul," says Tyrer, and they remain fresh memories for her, as do images of women lined up on gurneys outside the operating room 18 hours a day, "waiting for doctors to take them in and scrape out the remnants of what was causing the hemorrhaging and infection."
"One woman came in already in shock, she was hemorrhaging so much. The first thing we did was to give her blood to rebuild her strength so she could go through the surgical procedure to remove leftover tissue from the partial abortion. Despite getting a transfusion, she continued to bleed," says Tyrer, who then discovered that the abortionist had torn the cervix and the uterine artery. Tyrer had to cut through the abdomen and tie off the uterine artery to stop the bleeding.
The woman survived the botched abortion, but two days later she came down with gangrene, "obviously through the use of unclean instruments during the abortion. We couldn't give her penicillin, because it had all gone to war. We gave her a sulfa drug, but it didn't work. We put her in the private room reserved for women who were dying." An autopsy revealed she had gangrene extensively throughout her body.
Tyrer tells another story that underscores the importance of women having the right to reproductive options. A gypsy woman, pregnant for the 13th time, had been in labor for three days. Tyrer discovered that the fetus was already dead and lying cross-wise in the woman's worn-out uterus. At 3 am, Tyrer telephoned her female supervisor at home - most of the male doctors had gone to war - who advised Tyrer to give the woman ether until she stopped breathing to relax the uterus, so that Tyrer could manually turn and extract the fetus. However, the turn ruptured the uterus and the uterine artery, and the woman started hemorrhaging. In a second call, the doctor suggested a hysterectomy to control the bleeding, but it was too late, and the woman died.