Invagination requires Write to Life

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submittted by Arlen Austin

PDF of this text here: Interview-Abortion.

Cathy Morrow:  Is a family doctor focusing on women’s health who currently teaches at Dartmouth Medical School.  For a number of years Cathy was one of a very few doctors to provide abortion in Maine. (she is also my mom)

Oasa Sun DuVerney: Is an artist and lifetime New Yorker currently based in Brooklyn.  She is starting a project providing post-termination care for women in the New York area: Soups, teas, scented pillows, visits, etc.  She is developing a series of videos addressing race and gender dynamics around domestic work. Her work is awesome in general:

Russ Dejong:  Russ is an Ob-Gyn who for many years the only doctor who provided abortions in Maine.  He trained at Columbia in New York in the late 60s, early 70s when abortion was illegal and cared for many women who suffered from illegal and botched abortions. He speaks about this experience rarely, but with great intensity, and it solidified his lifetime commitment to making the procedure available.

Patricia Glowa:  Works at the Concord Feminist Health Center and has been a long time women’s health advocate and abortion provider who has also done a lot of work around childhood sexual abuse.  She graduated from Harvard’s medical school in 1977 and was one of the first women to train in providing abortion.

Pat, Russ and Cathy you came of age at a time when abortion was illegal in the United States.  What was your experience of the cultural shift in attitudes toward abortion and the accessibility of the procedure that came with Roe vs. Wade? Did you care for people or have friends who had illegal abortions before the decision or, for Cathy and Pat, did either of you seek abortion yourself before the practice was legal?  Regardless of legality, there is the crucial question of access and all three of you have worked in undeserved areas.  Do you see the infrastructure for providing abortion today being built-up or dismantled where you work?

Russ: The culture around abortion was really a generational one I think.  The leading edge of the baby boomers became 15 in 1961 and 25 in 1971.  They (I missed it by 3 months) embraced sexuality, contraception and pregnancy termination as part of a social-political force.  The 1960’s changed people’s lives.  As with many things, the East and West Coasts were first, with liberal pockets at universities and colleges throughout the Midwest.  Roe v. Wade came along after most of the large states had changed their laws.

I had a lover who has an abortion in 1965 or so.   She went to a black doctor in Flint MI who had trained in the Caribbean.  She had a good experience and even went back to him for her hemorrhoids.  She ended up being a conduit for coeds from U. of Michigan to him.   I never heard of complications, but then one wouldn’t.

In New York it was different.  One thinks of instantaneous change when the laws changed, but it was more gradual.  Before legalization there were lots of illegal procedures performed by legitimate docs who bent the rules.  Once legalization took place, there were no facilities, so women kept going to the illegal providers and coming in late.  And they were probably cheaper as well as more available.  So we saw the terrible results of complications.  The numbers were huge.  We had one ward at Columbia which was just infected abortion patients.  The “septic tank. ”  More to follow.

Within a medical system, the tendency is to group patients with similar conditions, and especially to isolate the sickest..  There is also a tendency to marginalize those with undesirable conditions.  The most feared complication was a septic abortion. As the women with septic abortions were put together, and separated from others, and smelled really bad, medical shorthand and gallows humor came into play.  Hence “septic tank.” Complications include failed procedures, incomplete procedures and uterine perforations.  Because of the stigma and illegal nature of abortion, women avoided standard medical care if possible.  That meant that they would not go to the hospital unless they were really sick.  Once a procedure has begun, and instruments placed through the cervix, bacteria are introduced into the uterus, mostly the really bad bacteria.  If there was an incomplete or unsuccessful procedure (think knitting needle), the bugs feed on the fetal tissue. The further along a woman is, the more tissue to supply growth to the bacteria. The delays, compounded by a huge food source resulted in a uterus full of bad (anaerobic or non-oxygen needing) bacteria.

There were limited options for these women.  The bacteria and necrotic tissue could often be removed with suction machine through the cervix.  They needed antibiotics, and there was only one that worked, choramphenicol, a particularly nasty drug.  If the women were very sick, or they did not respond well to evacuation of the uterus, they went to surgery for removal of at least the uterus, if not all reproductive organs.  A tragedy for most women, but especially the 14 year old ones. And, of course, some died, either before hospitalization or due to failure of medical and or surgical therapy.

As far as the numbers, I don’t really have handle on that.  Those numbers are available for other countries in which abortion is illegal.  You can contact the Guttmacher institute in NYC for better data than I can give.  Every woman who was bleeding and might be pregnant was asked if she might have had an abortion, as the consequences were significant and nobody wanted to miss one.  We had three large ward for GYN at Columbia-Presbyterian.  One of the three was the designated ward for septic abortions, although the volume waxed and waned.  Some were in and out quickly, others had a prolonged course. It a clear to me that this was signification problem with a clear answer.  So I stated to do abortions, starting in my third year of medical school.

Cathy: I came of age just as abortion was legalized – I was in prep school in Great Barrington, MA, age 16, working as a volunteer counselor at a women’s health resource center when the first legal clinics opened in NY state. It was a really positive time from where I sat – suddenly we could send women who came to us down to the city knowing they could get a legal (and we presumed safe) abortion- We were probably naïve, nonetheless it was exciting, and we felt like the world was changing. This must have been 71-72? When NYstate became the first state to make legal abortions available just after Roe v Wade? I got pregnant at some point thereafter and went to somewhere in Westchester for an abortion- I remember very little about it, except it was a ‘clinic’ in a big old warm, comfy house, and friendly cool women were everywhere, and we felt taken care of. Little did I know that it would only get worse, over time, and the enormous sense of optimism and headway we felt like we were part of would erode so dramatically. This was, of course, long before the right wing started their campaign of terror.

In terms of infrastructure, access remains an issue, especially for women in rural areas. I think here in New England it is not that it is being dismantled, but rather that the limited resources remain limited, and the sense of threat to the fundamental right seems to be ever present, and in some election cycles, even more so. A great deal hinges on this election- If Romney wins, the risks that he will get to appoint one or two anti-abortion supreme court judges is so high – Fascinating how he has managed to sideline this issue and pretend he is more moderate than he is.

Can you reflect briefly on the language and tactics used by the anti-choice movement?  We know that pro-life propaganda runs the spectrum from violent images of mutilated fetuses and hate speech equating abortion providers with Nazis to positioning the women seeking abortion as victims and offering counseling and adoption alternatives or, alternately, vilifying woman as immoral, often with racist and classist overtones.  What seems relatively consistent is that women seeking to end a pregnancy is stripped of agency and portrayed either as victim or villain. All of it seems to express a culture that cannot imagine women as consciously and productively choosing not to be a mother.  What have you seen as the most effective resistance to the violence of this imaginary?    

(Also, a side question for Russ: I remember you being targeted by weekly protests in front of the local hospital and am wondering how you dealt personally with being the object of this sort of hate speech.)

Cathy: I have little to say about this- It is hate speech, pure and simple, and though sometimes disguised, has misogyny at its core. Always fascinating that the folks with the gory posters outside the hospital who were targeting Russ were almost always men, that they managed to leave women feeling ashamed and doctors and other providers fearful. I have always admired Russ for his stance during all this- ignore them, and keep doing your work- it was the most effective and powerful strategy I have seen.

What have you seen as the most effective resistance to the violence of this imagery?  Keep on doing the work, in the myriad ways that you can. Create safe, secure spaces for women to get care; work to make medical and surgical abortion procedures so available and accessible that the right can’t target the spaces anymore. Bring abortion services back into the mainstream; work toward a culture where they don’t have to hide in separate physical buildings.

Oasa: you are developing a project to provide post-termination care for women in the New York area.  When we talked about it you mentioned immediately the rituals of support and celebration that surrounded you as a young mother and the total lack of such support and care around the decision and process of terminating a pregnancy.  I am wondering if Oasa, you can describe the genisis of the project briefly and if the rest of you can reflect on the sorts of rituals have you seen people develop to care for themselves or others around the process of ending a pregnancy?   


Upon learning that I was pregnant at 19 years old, my mother advised me to call Planned Parenthood immediately and through sobbing I scheduled an appointment for the very next day.

This next day was long.

I had to admit my mistake to strangers.

I had to let a stranger fix my mistake with strange tools.

After what must have been a full day I walked out of the clinic into the

waiting room and was greeted by my good and patient friend.

On the way home she talked about the people she met in the waiting room like the mother who brought her 14-year-old daughter in for an abortion because she had given birth to her at age 13 and didn’t want her daughter to make the same mistakes.

This friend of mine took me home, fed me, and made me tea, she sat and spoke to me without judgment. She asked me questions about

my future, and how I felt.

Roughly two years later I gave birth to my daughter. This experience was no less traumatizing but a hell of a lot more public.

Once my family got over the initial shock that I was having a baby with an asshole,

preparations began.

The discussion of the baby’s name and sex


A shower

A birth plan

Birthing classes



More sobbing

More wondering of what the hell I was going to do with a baby, alone. More questions about money Questions about my water breaking I pushed a baby girl out while Diana Ross reunited with the Supremes on television. My mother was overjoyed by both occasions.

I learned instantly on the job how to breastfeed.

My mother took us home

She fed me, she made me tea for breastfeeding mothers, she

bathed my new born.

She told me how to hold her and what to do with her when she cried.

When she left, her sister took over and did the same

And when she left, her cousin took over and did the same.

Eventually I kind of knew what to do.

The aim of the MYLFworks cares project is to provide the care that is necessary after termination of a pregnancy, without judgment. The project is influenced by the care that I received from a friend following a termination contrasted with the experience of receiving care after giving birth to my children. They are both traumatic experiences that are wrapped in shame. Terminations shame and secrecy being fully accepted in exchange for lack of care. And the shame of giving birth in an abusive, and imperfect financial situation is exchanged for a party, gifts and care.

Question 4:  Related to the previous question.  What do you think are the deficits in the left’s advocacy for abortion rights? Have we let our own position be defined too much by the vitriol, intensity and violence of the right?  It seems that there is an understandable reluctance to talk about the sadness and emotional and physical intensity of ending a pregnancy for fear of adding fuel to the right-wing propaganda machine which is so well-funded and effective.  Does this fear prevent the left from developing its own processes and rituals of support for women who choose to end a pregnancy?

Cathy: Yes, yes, yes! In this sense, the right has been brilliant and effective, because this is often a painful, deeply personal, often sad decision for women- this is where the scripts for the abortion monologues have really been powerful, because they illustrate that so well

These are among the better attempts I know to counter the vitriol of the right – to help real women, struggling with real painful decisions, talk about it without shame or fear. An inherent dilemma in this is that the right has taken what is a fundamentally private and personal decision and politicized it for their own aims – leaving women with the dilemma of confronting their ugly hate tactics or hiding – as, truthfully, most women want to do when they are choosing to end an unwanted pregnancy- to hunker down with people who love and support them. Perhaps it is this that is the most criminal about the rights behavior – and leads me, again, to conclude, that at its core, the anti-choice people are most invested in preventing women from controlling their bodies, destiny, lives.  Duh, I know, but really it is astonishing. So, yes, in the end, I do think the left has been stymied, because honestly, this is a private matter.

Oasa: YES. I think so much time and energy is wasted on arguing what constitutes a life, when “it” becomes a “baby” and what types of horrific situations are socially acceptable reasons for an abortion. I see that as a major distraction to what is really at stake and what the real issue is, which is Abortions Are Necessary. They are necessary because we live in a society where women are punished for having vagina’s. We are sexual objects to be utilized by men who prefer that our bodies remain available for their needs while resisting any transformation that might remind them of our humanity. Being a mother is recognized as a handicap in the professional world, and children as burdens. This alone makes abortions a necessity for selfpreservation.  Abortion is not a right. It is something that women are permitted to do to ease the burden of oppression and make us more complacent participants in this fucked society.