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Roe v. Wade at 40: Carole Joffe looks back on "A New Day for Abortion Providers"

In honor of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, today's post is from Carole Joffe, author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us and Doctors of Conscience: The Struggle to Provide Abortion Before and After Roe V. Wade. Joffe is a professor in the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco (however, the views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Regents of the University of California, UCSF, or the UCSF Medical Center). This post originally appeared at RHRealityCheck.

“…the news came over the radio.  It was just an overwhelming feeling.  I got tears in my eyes…at last it was all over, finally…never again the fear, the threat of going to prison…the fear of the woman not being able to get service.  It was a new day.”

0128These words were spoken to me several years ago by a doctor I call David Bennett. I was interviewing Dr. Bennett for a book on abortion provision before Roe v Wade and had asked Bennett what his memories were of January 22, 1973. His thoughts were of particular interest to me. Unlike many of the other doctors active before Roe, who, understandably afraid of detection, quietly offered abortions only to a select few, Bennett had made the decision, as a matter of conscience, to offer abortions to all women who sought them.  

Dr. Bennett worked closely with the Clergy Consultation Services, an organization of ministers and rabbis started in 1967, which established a referral list of medically competent and ethical physicians to whom these clergy could send distraught women facing unwanted pregnancies. In the years leading up to Roe, thousands of women, either referred by the CCS or who had heard of him through word of mouth, came to his small Southwestern city for abortions. The flood of abortion patients soon overwhelmed the rest of his medical practice, brought considerable strain to his family life, and, as his quote above suggests, led to a constant worry about criminal charges.

Despite his elation upon hearing of the Roe v Wade decision, the decision, of course, did not prove to be a “new day” —or more precisely, a problem-free new era — for Bennett and his abortion providing colleagues at all. (In contrast, it was was a new day for American women, as the death and injury rate from abortions fell dramatically after legalization. Not all those seeking abortions before Roe had managed to find safe providers like Bennett; many women attempted self-abortion or fell into the hands of the notoriously inept “butchers” of pre-Roe days).

The rapid rise of an anti-abortion movement after the Roe decision, including the eventual development of a violent wing of this movement, meant that Bennett and others went from fearing legal authorities to fearing the actions of terrorists. In the 40 years since Roe, eight members of the abortion providing community have been brutally murdered — including Bennett’s close friend, George Tiller of Kansas — and thousands more have been stalked, seen their clinics firebombed and vandalized, and have experienced aggressive picketers showing up at their homes, places of worship, and their children’s schools as well as their workplaces. Bennett himself, over the years, has several times had to rebuild his offices because of the serious damage caused by arsonists.

It’s not just — or even, primarily — episodic violence, however, that has made abortion provision extremely difficult in many places in the years since Roe. Abortion has been regulated like no other branch of American medicine. Since legalization, state legislatures have passed hundreds of laws, with a record number of these occurring in 2011 and 2012.  Many of these laws, especially those dealing with the physical requirements of abortion providing facilities, are widely acknowledged to have nothing to do with patient safety and everything to do with making it financially impossible for these clinics to remain open. In more than 20 states, doctors are put in the ethically untenable position of being required by state mandate to impart to patients information that is scientifically invalid, such as the alleged links between abortion and breast cancer, infertility and suicide.

Today, in his seventies, David Bennett continues as an abortion provider, one of the last of the veterans of the pre-Roe era to do so. Encouragingly, a new generation of young physicians — mainly women — have sought training in abortion procedure, ready to carry on with this work. But in order for abortion access to be a reality anywhere other than the two coasts and a handful of other metropolitan areas, there have to exist the conditions under which this medical service can be delivered. Americans may be torn about abortion, but consistently, a majority have made clear their preference that abortion remains legal, as was strongly reaffirmed in the 2012 election. The “new day” that David Bennett dreamed of on January 22, 1973 can only happen if there is a forceful stand by this majority in support of these doctors and against both the violence and legislative persecution that has characterized abortion care in the United States.