Ben Celniker, MD
Before Roe v. Wade, my experience was seeing a lot of women with infection and hemorrhage from having botched-up abortions. The patients would never say where they went. I can picture in my mind cases that I attended that were so badly maimed, these patients that were injured so badly.
For a lot of them it ruined their reproductive life. A lot of them were young, young girls. They couldn't have any children, because the complication of infection very often caused them to have their tubes blocked and they couldn't reproduce. And that was devastating to a lot of these young women.
There might be the young teenager. There might be the woman who has a bunch of children that can't afford to take care of any more children, there might be patients that failed the method of contraception they were using. And they were just beside themselves.
These women were desperate to have this performed. And you knew because of their desperation that they were more than likely going to get it done someplace. And I felt that if they got it done in an inadequate facility and with inadequate medical care, I might end up taking care of their complications.
And that sort of tugs at your heartstrings knowing the desperate situation they were in. I felt it was my duty as a physician to treat them. Ethically I felt it was morally wrong to turn them away. I felt the moral obligation outweighed the legal problem.
I just felt that it was my duty as a physician to help these poor souls that came in with this problem. I just felt so strongly that this was in their best interest, and if I could provide them with that service, I felt satisfied in my own mind that I did the right thing. And these patients were very, very thankful.
The patient would come to me with the request for terminating her pregnancy, and then I would tell her that the way that we would take care of this is through the hospital. But first in order to get permission to do so, we would have to go before a committee that okays this, and unless you have some strong problem that is virtually life-threatening, the only way out would be for you to get a psychological evaluation by a psychiatrist stating how he felt that you were in such a desperate situation that you possibly might do something drastic and thereby recommend that termination be done.
And it usually required two psychiatric opinions, from two psychiatrists. And so there was a delay there, because they had to make appointments and go to two other doctors and that takes time. And then you get the written recommendations, and that's submitted to a committee. Fortunately, we could assemble the committee on fairly short notice or telephone around. And so then the permission was granted and you'd schedule it.
Then you also had to be careful as to who you chose for your anesthesiologist, because there might be those that were against the procedure being done. The nurses and the assistants that prepare the patient and so forth, they are not going to be against the procedure. So it took a little bit of doing of getting all those things set up.
It made me angry that the law was there. It was very hypocritical because you could get patients that could afford to go and get the consultations and have your committee, and then you have some poor soul that couldn't afford to do that or couldn't afford to be in a hospital where others might know what she was doing because it's impossible to hide. And you couldn't have that. So the law was obviously a poor law. There were other places in the world where this was very much legal. Why did we have to go through all these hoops to provide a needed service for these people?
It's taken as a given now, because it's available. But if that choice is taken away, we conceivably could go back to the days before Roe v. Wade, and we would be seeing a lot of horrible results of illegal abortions. I think people need to realize that the horrors of the old-time illegal abortions that were performed poorly are disastrous. I'd never want to see that again.
—Edited transcript from Voices of Choice
Help us recognize Eve Espey, MD, MPH, and Willie Parker, MD, MPH, MSc, at the 2013 Rashbaum-Tiller Abortion Provider Awards.
Video: Pre-Roe Doctors
The documentary Voices of Choice features physicians and advocates who witnessed women's suffering before Roe v. Wade. They helped as many women as they could obtain safe abortions.
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“Women do not enter into the decision to terminate a pregnancy lightly. Yes, there are women who use abortion as a method of birth control, and yes, they are rarer than hen’s teeth.”
William K. Rashbaum, MD, from “In His Own Words”