Forty years ago today, the Supreme Court ruled that women had a constitutional right to abortion based on the right to privacy. But — judging from the 30 states that passed 135 new laws restricting access to abortion during the past two years alone — it increasingly seems that privacy has not served the cause. That's why both abortion recipients and providers are growing more adamant about sharing their experiences to ensure that all women make their own reproductive health decisions. In honor of Roe v. Wade's 40th anniversary, we interviewed outspoken abortion providers about why they refuse to hide behind surgical masks and office doors.
Last week, I attended an event hosted by Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health in honor of Roe v. Wade's big 4-0. The organization invited three prominent abortion providers to talk about abortion's history and future. But only two doctors were actually listed on the event invitation: Dr. Linda Prine, medical director and founder of the Reproductive Health Access Project, and Dr. Willie Parker, an obstetrician gynecologist who is one of the plaintiffs in the Center for Reproductive Rights case opposing a law that would shut down Mississippi's sole abortion clinic.
The third doctor, Dr. Curtis Boyd, has been administering abortions since the pre-Roe '60s and describes himself as a "very active" speaker who travels around the country advocating for the cause. He's commonly advertised as a "special guest," because the FBI fears for his safety and doesn't want too many people to know his whereabouts.
"I've become accustomed to it," Boyd told me. "This is the life I have chosen. I want to make a political difference, so I'm willing to take the risk that comes with speaking out."
The concept of the doctor-advocate is unnerving to some. But Boyd said he would never identify a patient or her family, therefore separating his advocacy from his individual patients. "I advocate because I believe in the issue as a cause, but I'm not advocating for women to have abortions," he said. "I'm advocating that the pregnant woman be allowed to decide for herself."
The only way to stop legislators from enacting laws restricting abortion rights is to vote them out of office, and more people will show up on election day if they feel the weight of their personal stake. That's why Planned Parenthood recently launched a "Not In Her Shoes" campaign that drops vague "pro-choice" and "pro-life" rhetoric and stresses that nobody knows a woman's specific situation. But these providers feel it's equally important for doctors to tell their own stories, too.
"We've got to talk to people, because if you just think in abstracts, you focus on the fetus," Boyd said. "The fetus has value, but not equal value to the woman who must make her own decisions."
Dr. Parker agreed; he pointed out that policy is often as driven by anecdote as it is by data and said storytelling is crucial because individual stories "are what make generalities real." Dr. Prine noted that it's hardly just abortion providers who use medical knowledge to campaign for better health; she advocates for safe streets with Transportation Alternatives and a "more sane" health care system with Physicians for a National Health Program. She said she questions how so many doctors can stay silent.
"Just as physicians joined activists in speaking out to get equal access to high quality medical care for people with HIV, just as we should speak out to get universal health coverage, so should we speak out to give women access to abortion without judgement, without shame, and without waiting periods," she said. "Respectful, caring, patient-centered abortion care should be readily available to any woman who wants it, and I don't think it is enough to just provide it; I think I need to speak out about it as well."
Below are the reasons the three providers said they decided to start providing abortion services when they spoke at last week's PRCH's event, slightly edited for clarity. Commemorate Roe's 40th anniversary by sharing their stories.
Dr. Curtis Boyd:
Certainly, I did not plan to do abortions; abortions were illegal. I wasn't taught to do abortions. Doing that, you could lose your medical license and go to prison. [You could] lose everything that you worked to attain. Nevertheless, I found myself making that very choice. I saw women in hospitals, in the emergency room, bleeding, infected, and sometimes dying. We thought there was a really high rate of spontaneous abortions in those days. I had compassion for those women, but that was not what drove me to do this work. It was the certain knowledge that an unwanted pregnancy could ruin a woman's life; I knew that with a certainty from high school. I thought that was not fair. Women were at a significant disadvantage.
So how did I get to my realization of this? I grew up on a farm, went to a little country school [with] twelve people in my class. When our school burned down between my junior and sophomore year I transferred to the big city school of Athens, population 5,000. There were 400 students in the high school, my god. It was actually a great opportunity for me. I went from being the smartest boy in my class to being the smartest student in the whole high school-I was smarter than the girls, too. I was a good athlete; I played point guard, was captain of the basketball team. Further in front of me in algebra class was a young woman. She was a freshman-a beautiful young woman- and she needed help with her algebra. I was more than glad to help her. I developed a crush on her. I hardly knew what was happening.
I was naïve about these things, but I did go to my boy friend and [I] told him that I really liked her and was going to ask her for a date. He said, "What? You can't ask her for a date." I said, "Why not?" He said, "Don't you know? She has a baby at home." Well, being a proper boy and well thought of, I had my reputation to maintain and I did not date her. I found out who was the boy that had gotten her pregnant. He was a senior, a quarterback of the football team. [He was] handsome, intelligent, [had] great social skills and people thought he was a real stud- then further thought he was a stud because he had made it with this very beautiful young girl. But she was allowed on campus only for class and could not participate in any extracurricular activities. And that was liberal in those days, where I was-to be allowed on campus, even for class.
The young man went on to West Point, appointed by Representative John Dowdy. He became a general and had a nice career. By that time I had become a family practitioner in Athens. Her father had a mild cardio infarction-I was his family doctor-so she called me. She wanted to come down and talk to me about her father. I was actually very excited. I hadn't seen her since high school. So she came in the door and the person I saw was a bitter, angry young woman. Life had not been good to her and it showed. And again, this slapped me in the face [that] this world is not fair to women. So I went on, I had work to do. The next day I was seeing patients.
Then the 60s were coming. Ah, this was a great time for me. I became very involved in the social movement. I was involved with integration, with the peace movement. I loved the flower power; love and peace seemed a great way to have this world. But in the midst of this I met some feminists and they were talking about, "We have our own issues." What issues? What issues do you have that are different than issues that men have? "Oh, let me tell you!" So then you hear, "We would like to be able to control our bodies and our lives. And we'd like to not have to continue a pregnancy we don't want." Up until that time the church dealt with this issue. Politicians dealt with it, and judges. But it hadn't really occurred to anyone at that point that the pregnant woman should be involved in developing rules about this. For the first time they thought, "Hey, how about the pregnant woman?" And I thought, that's a good idea.
By that time I had become a Unitarian. This is significant as I had grown up in the preemptive Baptist church of predestination on faith and order-a foot-washing order, if you know that much about religion. In medical school I had joined the Unitarian church, opened a Unitarian fellowship. They [Unitarians] were working on a lot of social issues, and one of the issues they were working on was women's reproductive rights-abortion-and they asked me if I would help. And I said yes. They wanted me to help get referral sources. The feminist groups, the churches were trying to change legislation. So I said, yes, I would. But it was very difficult to find referral sources, as I soon found. And ones we sometimes used in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico had a high complication rate. They were expensive. We didn't even know if they [abortion providers] were even doctors. It was hard to check. I began working with the clergy consultation for Problem Pregnancy-this was an underground railroad. Bob Cooper, who was a doctor of religion-theology-at the Southern Methodist School of Theology, said, "Would you consider doing abortions?" Well, by then I already knew the great need, but I also knew the great risk. And I said, "Oh, I'll need to think about that." Ultimately, I made the decision to take that risk and to do it.
Dr. Linda Prine:
There are sort of two parallel story lines that got me involved. One is that I got pregnant as a teenager. It was pre Roe v. Wade and I had to figure out how to get an abortion because there was no way I was going to tell my parents that I was pregnant. I saw an ad in the paper for a doctor on the south side of town, in Madison, Wisconsin, where I was. It was for free pregnancy testing. I went there and he [the doctor] was very sweet and kind. He examined me, diagnosed my pregnancy and saw the look in my face when he told me I was pregnant. He gave me a name and a phone number and said, "If you don't want to continue to be pregnant call this number." So I called this number-it was for Marilyn. Somebody answered the phone and it was a law office. I freaked out and hung up because I thought that [it] was a mistake. But then I didn't know what else to do, so I called back again and asked for Marilyn. She was a secretary there. She got on the phone and she knew right away what I was calling about. She said, "I understand. I'm going to meet you and explain everything. You'll meet me on the corner of such-and-such-and-such-and-such and State Street, in Madison." I went and met her there, and she said, "This is what you need to do. You have to go to two psychiatrists." She gave me a list of names. [She said,] "tell them that you're suicidal. You need letters from them to confirm that you're suicidal," because the only way that you can get an abortion in the state of Wisconsin at that time was if it was a risk to your life.
These were supposed to be friendly psychiatrists. I took the list home with me and started calling. I took the first two appointments I could get. The first doctor was really nice, kind of got a quick background, and wrote the letter. Then the second doctor I had to go to started asking me all of these sort of intrusive questions, really scaring me. [The doctor] asked how I was going to kill myself. I said, "Well, I guess I'll swallow a bottle of aspirin." He said, "Well, that wouldn't work." I was terrified because I thought that I had to come up with the right answer. So I said, "I'll swallow everything in the medicine cabinet." He finally wrote the letter, but he really made me feel horrible. He asked me enough questions about my family to make me cry. I had no experience with psychiatrists; I didn't know anybody who'd ever been to a psychiatrist, so I thought that he was trying to prove to me that I was crazy. It was really, really scary. But anyway, I finally got out of there with a letter and then got back in touch with Marilyn. She told me to make an appointment with a Dr. Kennon at the university hospital.
I was actually able to get an abortion at the university hospital. But it was still a pretty awful, scary experience. They put us at the back of this ward-the labor ward. The nurses were taking care of the patients who wanted to have babies and we were back in, the corner, in this eight or ten-bedded room. The nurses were not happy about us. They were muttering very loudly under their breath, "Those sluts. Those whores," and they wouldn't come. There were girls in the room who were having this salting out procedure and they were laboring. They were in a lot of pain and were crying. They [the nurses] wouldn't give them [the girls] pain medication. Those of us who were waiting for early procedures stayed up all night holding these girls' hands, mopping their foreheads, and being really petrified about what was happening because we had no medical training or anything. We were all teenaged kids. Finally, the next morning they wheeled me out to the operating room and when I woke up, sent me home. That was that. But it was a very scary experience.
Years later, when I became a physician, I really wanted to make sure that women didn't have to go through that again. I got myself the abortion training when I was a family medicine resident and as soon as I could get a job at a Planned Parenthood, I did. But I also wanted to do family medicine, so I was working as a family doctor and doing family medicine there [at a family health center] and abortion care there [at Planned Parenthood]. Sometimes, my patients at the family health center would have unintended pregnancies, of course, so then I would try to tell them to come see me at Planned Parenthood on the day I was there. But at one point a patient came in-I'll never forget because she's sort of the one that pushed me over the edge-her name was Samantha. She had a 1-year-old that I was worried about because the little kid had a rash on her body that looked suspiciously like burns to us, and I was really worried about child abuse. Sometimes the father would bring her in; sometimes the mother would bring her in. I was asking some of my colleagues to look at the little girl with me. We were trying to figure out what was what with her.
Long story short, what happened was that Samantha came out pregnant. One day she came in and said she was pregnant and wanted an abortion, which I was really relieved about because she'd lost her first two kids to child protective services, she had this one and was now pregnant. I was glad that she understood that pregnancy wasn't a good idea. But when she came to me in Planned Parenthood, she didn't show up. The next time I saw her she was six months pregnant. I asked her what had happened. She said, "I couldn't go there. I couldn't go to an abortion clinic. I couldn't cross the picket line. I just couldn't do it." So I talked to Lisa [Maldonado], who was the practice manager at the time, and she and I decided that we had to figure out a way to do abortions in our family health center because it just seemed ...That just wasn't right. It wasn't fair to say, "Oh, you're going to continue the pregnancy. I'm happy for you and I'll take care of you! But if you don't want to continue your pregnancy you have to go somewhere else." That just seemed so wrong. That wasn't what I believed in. Even if going somewhere else meant a safe, wonderful place to go, it still didn't seem right to me. Abortion is not such a complicated thing-it's certainly not as complicated as the diabetes and the HIV care or the other things that they do in my family medicine practice. Why couldn't I do it in my family medicine practice? And that's how our organization started.
Dr. Willie J. Parker:
For me, someone once said that when you struggle with your conscious and you lose, you actually win. I lost that wrestle with my conscious about providing abortion care for women about nine years ago when I decided to begin providing abortion care after twelve years of training as an OB-GYN doctor.
I grew up in the South. I had a traditional upbringing, and while I didn't receive any overt messages about abortion being wrong, it was just always implied that if someone came up being pregnant they were obligated to continue their pregnancy. So when I started medical school and became an OB-GYN I never questioned whether or not a woman had a right to make that very difficult decision. I just became conflicted about what it means to provide that service.
So, my first twelve years in practice as an OB-GYN, and even as a resident, I saw women who were presented with unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, or wanted-but lethal- pregnancies, and yet I felt helpless because could not overcome the hurdle about what it meant to my own personal morality to provide that care. However, in the same way that I felt encumbered by my particular religious understanding, it was also through that pathway, or deeper understanding of my religious tradition, that I was able to make the decision to become an abortion provider.
The actual breakthrough for me came while listening to a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King. In that sermon he used a story about a Good Samaritan. Basically, he broke down why the Good Samaritan was good; he basically says that the Samaritan that stopped to help the fallen traveler was good because he was able to reverse the question of concern. Whereas other people passed by the fallen traveler and asked, "What would happen to me if I stop to help this person," the Good Samaritan reversed the question and said, "What would happen to the person if I don't stop to help him?" I found strong parallels between that and the reality that, on a regular basis as an OB-GYN, I saw for women who came in with unplanned pregnancies who needed my help in that regard, and I could not help them because I felt that it was about my morality.
After I had that breakthrough I came to realize that it really wasn't about my personal morality at all. In fact, it came to feel quite immoral for me to be representing myself as a women's health provider and to be helpless to help women when they most needed me. So where many people have to become comfortable with the idea of providing abortions, I feel uncomfortable not providing abortions when I know what it means when women don't have access to safe, legal healthcare in the form of abortions.
So I was chillin' in Hawaii as a faculty member of the University of Hawaii and decided that if I were going to provide abortions, I wanted to be competent and capable; I decided to go back and pursue training. So I did a family planning fellowship which set me on this path where I now provide abortion care for women. So I became a changed agent and an advocate for women. I found providing abortion care for women to be very gratifying, in that it meant a whole lot to me to help women that nobody else would be willing to [help]. I felt like I found my sense of purpose and place by making the decision to provide abortion care, and it is very much consistent with my core values, in regards to my spirituality and my humanity. That's why I do this work.
Special thanks to Jezebel intern Tanisha Love Ramirez for transcribing the interviews.