Little did I know that my last rotation, OB-GYN, in the spring of ’66 would change the course of my life. Our student group headed up to a little amphitheater above a GYN operating room on our first day of that rotation. On the table was a woman in her 20’s. She was having a hysterectomy with the removal of her ovaries. She had a high fever and shaking chills. She was on death’s door. Despite having perforated her own uterus by inserting a knitting needle into her cervix as instructed by a friend, she did survive.
In my four years, I had not even been aware until later that day when we made rounds that there was a whole ward of such patients. They were there because of complications from quacks, beatings, poisonings, and potions. Even more shocking was the realization that such “septic tank” wards existed throughout the city, the state, and the country. Most of these patients would be left sterile. Some would not survive. All survivors would be traumatized.
And when I asked some of them how and why they had taken such a risk, most replied they would do it again. The women were convinced that abortion was their best choice in a world that left them nothing but difficult choices. I resolved to learn to provide safe abortions. If women were determined to end pregnancies no matter what the law and the risk was, someone should make sure that they had it done safely. If I had to go to jail and test the law, so be it.
My first delivery was also shattering. I felt so triumphant to be showing off this slippery, squalling but beautiful baby girl to her exhausted mother after the long, painful hours of labor. The mother turned her face away. She showed no love or feeling. I asked the chief resident what was wrong. It turned out she lived with her large family in a single room with a husband with alcohol problems and no job. She would take the baby home, but there would be little love for this child.
Preventing such tragedies became my mission. So I spent my “free” Wednesday afternoons that spring of 1966, taking the subway and getting off at the Harlem stop. Wearing the white coat of a medical student on the streets of Harlem, despite being the only pale face in a sea of people of color, I felt conspicuous but safe. I was welcomed and treated with respect I hadn’t yet earned, and I looked forward to those clinics.
The new birth control pills and IUDs were just being evaluated there. A wonderful black physician taught me the ins and outs of fitting diaphragms, inserting IUDs, and dealing with pill side effects. He was happy to have help. We worked with very grateful patients who would hopefully avoid the terrible tragedies that had jolted me out of my confidence in the state of the world.
Those transformative experiences led to a multi-faceted journey. I became involved with sex education and political debate. There were successful (state) and unsuccessful (federal) court challenges to repressive abortion laws, public funding of contraception, and abortion for Connecticut’s poor. I helped pioneer changes in medical practices (laparoscopy, suction curettage RU486) and social policy (writing Roe v. Wade language into Connecticut’s laws in case Congress or the Supreme Court throws the issue back to the States). For 40 years, my office was picketed, with occasional bomb threats and confrontations.
Retired now, I no longer worry about whether or not I should wear a bullet-proof vest to work. I never did wear one, but the loss of some colleagues who also provided abortion services did make one think twice.
David Bingham, M.D. Salem, CT