FORMERLY PHYSICIANS FOR REPRODUCTIVE CHOICE AND HEALTH

Voices Of Choice

In honor of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in 2013, we made our documentary Voices of Choice: Physicians Who Provided Abortions Before Roe v. Wade, available online, in full, for the first time.

A 25-minute film created by Physicians for Reproductive Health in 2003, Voices of Choice documents the experiences of physicians involved in abortion care and reform prior to the landmark Supreme Court Roe decision in 1973. Their stories remain fascinating, moving, and profound—a record of the horror of illegal abortion and the social and historical ramifications of a time when health care providers worked to save the lives of women who suffered needlessly.

Voices of Choice preserves the legacy of older physicians and figures in the reproductive rights movement who witnessed the effects of illegal abortion, including:

  • Curtis Boyd, MD, who has provided abortions since 1965
  • Bylle Avery, founder of the National Black Women’s Health Project, who prior to Roe was a leader in the underground abortion referral network
  • Mildred Hanson, MD, who saw the tragic results of illegal abortion as a young gynecologist in the years before Roe
  • The late Reverend Howard Moody, who helped found the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion in 1967, an extensive network of clergy members and abortion providers
  • The late George Tiller, MD, who was murdered in 2009 for providing abortions

Watch the full video, and follow the links below to read transcripts from individual interviews. To request an interview with one of the physicians featured in the Voices of Choice video, please call 646-649-9935 or email dana@prh.org.

Transcripts:

Before Roe v. Wade

Forty years ago, the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the United States. Some of our physicians witnessed firsthand the horror and tragic consequences of illegal abortion, and the suffering they saw moved these men and women to push for safe, legal abortion for anyone who needs that care. Their experiences inspire us to keep going until abortion is truly accessible throughout the nation, without restrictions that hurt women and their families. We honor their stories by sharing them here: with Voices of Choice, a 24-minute documentary created in 2003, and with profiles of doctors who were involved in abortion care and reform prior to the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.  Read More

William K. Rashbaum, MD

William K. Rashbaum, MD, was a founding member and served on the Board of Directors until 2004. He was associate professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. He was also on the faculty of Cornell University School of Medicine. He was an attending obstetrician at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx and Beth Israel Medical Center and New York Hospital in Manhattan. As a young physician, Dr. Rashbaum was regularly called upon to attend to women who had been seriously injured by illegal abortions. Dr. Rashbaum died May 2, 2005, at the age of 79.

There was a pediatrician from Jersey—he did illegal, criminal abortions. He was a nice man—very empathetic. Once he had a school principal he tried to abort, but he couldn’t complete the procedure so he sent her to me. When I examined her, I found that she had a large ovarian cyst that had been confusing him—he had been trying to abort her by doing a dilation and curettage on the ovarian cyst.

She had insurance so I tried to get her into the hospital. But in those days Blue Cross would only pay such benefits to the spouse of the contract holder. Actuarially speaking, Blue Cross maintained, only the spouse of a contract holder could get pregnant. Single women could not get pregnant—still speaking actuarially. This was the official basis for decisions.

But this woman was single. We admitted her to the hospital with the diagnosis of a twisted ovarian cyst, which wasn’t really twisted, but we were able to remove the cyst and complete the abortion.

A year or two later, the same doctor called me and said, "Dr. Rashbaum, I have a problem. I think I removed a bit of small intestine."

"What did you do with it?" I asked.

"It’s in the bucket, doc," he said. "I think I may give her a shot of Demerol and tell her to come back this afternoon."

I told him to put the specimen in something and send it and the patient to my office. A few hours later I was busy in my office when the bell rang. At the door was a uniformed chauffer.

"Can I help you?" I asked.

"I’m from Dr. So and So’s office in New Jersey." 

"Where’s the patient?"

"She’s in the car, doc."

Outside I found a seven-passenger Cadillac with the hood up on a hot, humid day. A middle-aged woman was sitting in the back. 

Again, I asked where the patient was. The chauffer opened the door with a flourish, and there lying on the floor of the car where the jump seats were folded was the patient. I took her pulse; it was strong. Next to her was a paper bag. I left her in the car and went to my office to examine the bag. Inside was her small intestine. This guy from New Jersey—usually a competent and experienced man—had panicked. He had perforated the uterus and pulled down bowel, thinking it was the umbilical cord.  Read More

Wendy Chavkin, MD, MPH

Wendy Chavkin, MD, MPH, is a founding member and former board chair of PRCH. She is a professor of clinical public health and obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.  She served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, director of the Soros Reproductive Rights and Health Fellowship, and director of the New York City Health Department’s Bureau of Maternity Services and Family Planning. As an undergraduate in Chicago, Dr. Chavkin was supportive of the Jane Collective, an underground abortion group.

I went to the University of Chicago at the very end of the sixties. It was a time of great political activity and great political despair. I mean, it was the Vietnam War.

The Jane Collective was a group of women who became trained by a physician to provide abortions themselves. I was not part of the Jane Collective, but I was involved in the next tier out, the people who would lend their apartments to Jane. Somebody would appear at your door and say, “Jane would like to see you next Thursday. She’ll be here at 7:30 in the morning.” And that meant you should leave. And so you would leave your apartment at 7:30 in the morning and you would only know the one person who approached you. And at the time of your departure, the person would say something like, “Jane will be here until 7:30 tonight. So that meant don’t come back until after that time.

They had this really extraordinary safety record and people didn’t get into trouble. I’ve read that the Chicago police decided pretty much to leave them alone. Part of the way in which my experience with Jane pushed me towards becoming a doctor was that even though Jane’s reputation was exemplary—their reputation was one of providing very sensitive, thoughtful and good care for people—I did come home sometimes after Jane visited and find blood spatters. And even in my unsophisticated state, I thought, “Nobody should be subjected to having an abortion in my apartment and have blood spatters on the wall, and nobody should be in the position of trying to provide an urgently needed service without all the right equipment and training.” It was very important personally in helping me decide to go to medical school and be in a position to provide those services properly myself.

I guess it must be about 15 years ago, I was the director of New York City’s Bureau of Maternity Services and Family Planning. I knew all the chiefs of ob/gyn departments around town. And I remember having conversations with two in particular, each of whom was an older, very religiously conservative man, neither of whom were themselves abortion providers. Both came from orthodox religious traditions that didn’t approve of abortion. And they both said to me, “Wendy, if you’ve seen a 13-year-old dying of gas gangrene, you can never really be opposed to abortion after that.”

People who are learning to become doctors now are growing up in an era where they are not seeing the direct suffering caused by illegal abortion or by forced childbearing from the lack of options.  Read More

Tom Allen, MD

Tom Allen, MD, was a staff member of Magee Women’s Hospital and a consulting staff member of University Presbyterian Hospital. Dr. Allen performed abortions within the hospital system before abortion was legalized. He passed away on January 26, 2013.

I was on gynecology service for my first part of residency, and at that time the ward was pretty packed. A lot of women died because of infection and blood loss. Some of those people were there for weeks being treated. If they didn’t die from gas gangrene or something else, they ended up as gynecological cripples.

They sought abortions that weren’t safe or they did it themselves or their grandmother did it or something. They used coat hangers because they could straighten out the wire and get into the cervix. They would use knitting needles. Sometimes they could use a rubber catheter and safely pass that up because it was malleable and bent and didn’t force a hole in the uterus.

I had a call from a distraught mother whose 17-year-old daughter was pregnant. And the mother told me that it was her son who had impregnated her daughter. I arranged to see her at the office and checked to see what was going on and she was pregnant. So I arranged to pick up some sterile supplies and take them out to the woman’s home and perform as aseptically as possible mid-dilatation and then a packing of the uterus with some sterile gauze and with just a wick left in the external loss of the cervix. And in doing this, the membranes ruptured, so I knew that it would transpire on its own.

Later, she was married and had six children and they were all delivered by me or my practice and the mother was eternally grateful. It was the only abortion that I did prior to when we established the Therapeutic Abortion and Tubal Ligation Committee at Magee.

Everybody was in on it. The patients knew what was going on. We all knew that we were flaunting the law but doing it in the safest way from prosecution that we could. The Committee consisted of medical staff members in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology who were supportive of the need for abortion. All the members of the Committee were sympathetic to the need for modification of the laws. It was an understanding among the members of the Committee and the Chairman that this was a form of making it more safe for the medical staff to do abortions in a safe hospital setting, and safe from prosecution for doing so. We felt that we were doing a service for women and we were preventing a lot of the morbidity and mortality associated with abortions done by untrained people under septic conditions.

Before Roe v. Wade, I had no guilt feelings about what I was doing. I was proud of being able to help the women that I was taking care of. It didn’t interfere with my beliefs in any way.  Read More