Commentary

An abortion mystery

February 25, 2022 5:43 am

Mystery Woman by Quinn Dombrowski (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This is an old story and one I don’t like to tell. I have no hopes for catharsis. After 45 years, I know that grief is here to stay, that anger will continue to crack my aging teeth, and that my eyes will continue to look askance at men who claim to know what is best for women. Nevertheless, a story must be told.

It starts out happily enough. In 1977, I was a 25-year-old white woman with two years of college under my belt and four years of marriage. Five months into a much-anticipated pregnancy, I was healthy as a horse — nutritionally sound, drug and alcohol free, an avid bicyclist/walker/yoga practitioner, and covered by health insurance. My husband was gainfully employed and, except for a small car payment, we were debt-free.

We had rented a lovely little house with a fireplace and a yard, close to the chestnut trees and azalea laden campus of a small liberal arts college in Bexley (Columbus, Ohio). It was a beautiful neighborhood where colorful perennials and decorative vegetables adorned homes and walkways. The older adults and children living on either side of our house became friends and the Quaker group that met next door during the long Ohio growing season invited me to join their community garden and taught me to grow food. It seemed a good place to begin a life and I was happy, proud and excited.

I had been dutiful about my prenatal care. Nevertheless, well into my fifth month of pregnancy, I awoke in the night with mild uterine contractions which continued until morning. When I was able to reach my OB/GYN to report them, he was irritated and dismissed the contractions as morning sickness and abruptly hung up the phone. Never having suffered from morning sickness and not having reported any nausea, I was confused and concerned by his response. The next night, I was again woken with stronger contractions and lost another night of sleep. When I called the OB/GYN, he again dismissed it as morning sickness and told me to only call him if there was bleeding. The third night I was exhausted, scared, and subject to continuous rounds of strong contractions and, eventually, bleeding. Feverish and too weak to stand or walk, I struggled to stay conscious. My husband carried me to the car and drove us to get help.

When we arrived at the emergency room of University Hospital in Columbus, the hospital staff immediately assumed that I had attempted an abortion in my fifth month. Perhaps it was my husband’s longish hair or my choice of cotton over polyester — I never knew. But my medical experts never wavered from their initial assumption and that assumption spread throughout the staff.

Despite my fever, I was stripped naked, roughly dropped onto a bare metal gurney, and covered with a thin sheet to await care in a cold hallway. Care came in the form of a middle-aged nurse who was short, stout, full of piss and vinegar and openly incensed by my supposed abortion attempt. Spewing venom the whole time, she road-raged me to a patient room occupied by a young man being visited by several of his family members. There, she deliberately smashed the gurney into the vacant bed and had me — literally — thrown onto it, naked before a roomful of horrified and embarrassed faces.

When I started to shake uncontrollably from the fever, she viciously hissed, “Knock it off!” Then, with a parting shot of righteous contempt, she stormed out of the room without closing the privacy curtain and abandoned me to the future humiliations she gleefully anticipated I would endure. Later, however, she must have had a second thought, because she eventually returned to take my temperature. Realizing that it was 105, she became alarmed and scurried off like a frightened bug.

Shortly after, I found myself again naked and feverishly cold in a hallway. I was eventually rolled to another room for an ultrasound, which was conducted by two technicians who happily chatted about their social lives while I watched my gray-scale child for the first and last time. After more cold, naked hallway time, I was inexplicably wheeled to a janitorial closet full of cleaning equipment and supplies. The door was shut and I was left in the dark. I remember being frightened when the door opened and four or five white-coated men crowded into the tiny space and peered down at me with hostile faces. The oldest man introduced himself as the head of the department and indicated that the others were doctors and residents. In a hard voice like some “copper” in a bad film noir, he began to ask me questions in rapid succession — “Did you want to be a mother? Did you want this baby? How did you do this? Did you use a coat hanger? Why did you try to kill your baby?” Horrified and unable to get a word in, I began to sob. He straightened up, eyed me coldly from above, and ordered me to “Shut up.” The men quickly filed out of the interrogation room, turned off the light, and shut the door.

I then began a five day stint in the ICU, where hospital staff kept me from dying; where, alone and in the dark, I gave painful birth to an ill-fated child; where his birth was later heralded by the screams of a night nurse who found us during her rounds; where, when my mother arrived from Wisconsin, she found him on the counter of the nurses’ station in an ice cream bucket; where he disappeared forever and without explanation; where, too close to death, I was never given anesthesia for anything; where I left my body during the D&C and watched my tormentor from above, safe from the brutality of his harried, impatient hands; where I listened to the screams of women throughout the night, screams that had nothing to do with the birth of children.

When I went for my follow-up visit, my doctor was angry. He thought I was trying to pull one over on him and that I hadn’t gotten my just desserts. He said I was stupid. He told me that the only way this could have happened is if I had attempted an abortion or if I had cervical cancer (a test the hospital had not bothered to administer).

I left his office thinking that I had cervical cancer and got tested. I did not have cervical cancer, so I decided to visit my old friend, the public library. I read every relevant book I could find, including medical texts. There, in the humble and democratic warmth of the Columbus Public Library, I learned about the somewhat rare, but not unheard of, occurrence of second trimester spontaneous abortions, something my male doctors had never bothered to learn or seriously consider. Soon after, I bought a copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and headed for the brave new world of women-centered health care and home birth, better equipped for the fight.

I did not end up in the hospital because of morning sickness or as a consequence of a botched home abortion. If my prenatal OB/GYN had not been so inept, arrogant, and dismissive, much of the ensuing trauma might have been minimized, if not completely averted. This is also true of the understaffed and male-centric hospital employees. As bad as all that was, it could have been worse. 

Without Roe v Wade, I could have easily ended up in prison. My doctors could have reported and testified against me in court. I could have been charged and prosecuted by a theocratic and politically motivated criminal justice system. I could have been convicted by a jury or judge unwilling to accept the testimony of a godless 25-year-old woman who didn’t know her place and who looked suspiciously counter-culture.

There were never any good ol’ days for women in this country, but the establishment of reproductive autonomy has been an improvement and a salvation for millions of women and children and — as in my case — in ways people can’t even imagine. I don’t want to see women lose something so precious and hard-won. We have important work to do and we need to get on with the complex and perilous realities of life.

It is clear to me that men, and the women who totter after them, have no business interfering in the reproductive choices of women. People are ignorant, flawed and limited beings. The ones who don’t understand that and who fail to take it into account are fools, and not to be trusted. They are dangerous. 

Despite the self-serving socio-economic motives that underlie this interference, the popular rationalization is largely religious. And there is no place for religious zealotry in a democratic country. I do not believe in male gods, divinely inspired social hierarchies, holy books, chosen people, embodied and disembodied souls, heaven and hell, whimsical timelines about life and death, or the primacy of a fertilized egg over the woman who produces it. 

What I do know is that, if there is a god and there is a plan, we are incapable of understanding it, because we are all a bunch of pea brains. When I attended Catholic elementary school, we would pepper Sister Mary Lorraine with smart-alecky questions that we imagined would challenge prevailing notions about life and religion. Our hubris rising, she would gently cut us off by reminding us that “life is a mystery.” We found this exasperating, but it is the best teaching I have ever received and it has served me well. I suggest we all acknowledge our limitations and hubris, respect the wondrous mystery that is a woman’s life, and step aside or listen up and lend a hand. Because we got this.

This essay was originally published in the Wisconsin Examiner, like the Nevada Current a part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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Gina Bertolini
Gina Bertolini

Gina Bertolini became active in the home birth movement, and — later — education for non-traditional women students, domestic violence/sexual assault prevention, and the establishment of a registry, educational curriculum, and statewide training to legitimize lay and Amish midwives for the State of Wisconsin. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and is a passionate gardener and lover of British mystery stories.

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