Today I think of a compassionate man who risked his freedom to save my life. I was a Virginia girl of the sixties, a college freshman at a Northeastern. My boyfriend, Michael, was the recipient of a fellowship at a Southern university known for its rigid standards of behavior and its student-run board of overseers who enforced those standards.
We were in love and overcome by feelings of loss and separation, living and studying hundreds of miles from the comfort of each other’s company and home. Although I was using the sixties version of the pill and using condoms, I became pregnant. We would eventually be married, but pregnancy left us vulnerable to disciplinary consequences at this stage. We were, essentially, still considered children.
Michael would have lost his fellowship if we had acknowledged our indiscretions to those who made the rules governing our academic environments. I very likely would have been deemed morally unfit for essential financial assistance. I might never have finished college, and he would probably not have reached his level of academic success.
So, we turned to a dear friend in New York City and asked for the name of a “safe” abortion provider. The man used a hotel bureau as a surgical table, offered no anesthesia (only Valium), and sliced my womb making unstitched wounds in my uterus.
Early Saturday afternoon, as I felt my fever rise, we went to the same friend’s family doctor. Obligated by law to call the police, he sent us scurrying out of the city. Saturday was nearly over, and Michael had to begin his return drive. He drove me back to my school, where the girls’ dorm was empty, and I was alone.
Blood came all day on Sunday in massive clots; I was too ill-informed to understand that this abortion continued as I lay in bed. By the end of the day, I realized I soaked my mattress. I ran out of menstrual pads, overflowing the white metal can which I’d pulled up beside my bed, having lost the capacity to walk to the girls’ room.
On Sunday evening, I called my big sister. She suggested taking me to a doctor in upstate Pennsylvania whose name and reputation was well-known. We drove to Philadelphia, pondering the prediction given by the doctor who had rescued me that I would probably never have children. After that, I remember very little—a sun-brightened room, a man in a doorway wearing a surgical mask talking about medications.
My uterus was beyond repair. I believed that all I took with me that day was my life.
The man about whom I think today was not so fortunate. Within a few months of saving my life, he was found guilty of a felony for practicing abortion. He spent several years in prison, where he died of cardiac arrest.
*Photo: IStock image to preserve anonymity.