Dr. LeRoy Carhart, Medical Director of the Abortion and Contraception Clinic of Nebraska, presented this speech at the 2010 National Organization for Women Conference in Boston on July 3, 2010. NOW has posted a video recording of the speech here.
Who do you want to decide?
My former friend and colleague Dr. George Tiller used to say:
“Abortion is not a cerebral or a reproductive issue. Abortion is a matter of the heart. For until one understands the heart of a woman, nothing else about abortion makes any sense at all.”
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This statement rings true, so loud and clear that I want to shout it from the roof top. The legislative bodies in this country are out of control when it comes to decrying the need to create laws governing a woman’s body.
Here are some of the restrictions, which are you okay with? Near total bans on abortion, banning abortion at arbitrary gestations, mandating biased counseling, forcing women to wait 24-48 hours between their mandated counseling/ultrasound and their procedure, giving doctors the right to refuse to provide medical services (including refusing to provide emergency contraception in the emergency room for rape victims), restricting poor women from accessing abortion care through Medicaid, requiring young women to have their parents consent or forcing them to notify their parents, Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers or TRAP laws, fetal personhood, mandated ultrasound explanation and viewing, and on and on.
As a physician who has been providing abortions for decades, I can tell you that the issue of abortion doesn’t exist in black and white; it’s all shades of gray. When it comes to the issue of later abortion, arbitrary lines are just that, arbitrary. But not only are these limits irresponsible, they are dangerous. Restricting a woman’s right to obtain an abortion at any stage in her pregnancy is an outright siege of her body by the state.
The Hyde amendment in particular, puts women in the most dire of situations. They have to choose between paying their rent or being pregnant, feeding their children or being pregnant, pawning their car or being pregnant. The Hyde amendment has the ability to destroy lives, the lives of the women who it restricts from obtaining the abortions they need, the families of the women who it hurts, the spouses, children, sisters, parents and everyone’s lives who are touched by the women we know.
I trust women to make the best decisions regarding their bodies. I trust women to know when and if it is the right time to bring a child into the world. I trust women to know when abortion is the most moral, spiritual and maternal decision they can make. Until you know the stories of these women, this issue will never make sense in the abstract. Maybe it’s never crossed your mind as to why a woman would need to terminate a pregnancy at a later gestation. Let me share the words and stories of some of the women I’ve been able to help throughout the years.
Most recently, we had a patient who was in a difficult life situation. A former heroine addict, doing well to overcome her addiction, trying hard to get a stable job and get her life back together, this patient was determined to get the care she so desperately needed. We saw this patient after she had been sent hundreds of miles across 3 states to find an abortion provider that could take care of her. She and her partner had pawned their car and had to borrow one to make the trek to Bellevue. After being turned away from two previous clinics, their finances were nearly drained. The patient had also found out at her last clinic visit that the fetus had serious deformities. A devastating situation could have been taken care of so much sooner; with much more ease, if only she had been able to use her Medicaid to pay for the surgery she needed. The Hyde amendment hurts women.
Then there’s the story of “Nell.” Nell was a 16 year old girl living a few hundred miles away in a small town. Nell had been working for months trying to come up with the money, trying to find a clinic that could provide her with an ultrasound, she found herself swimming in a situation that was starting to envelope her life. Drowning in a mess of a pregnancy gone wrong, not being able to tell her parents, not having the money to pay for an abortion, she found herself in touch with my staff. Nell had been trying so hard for almost six months to obtain the abortion she so desperately needed, that now, it seemed she was out of options. Luckily, she wasn’t. With Nell’s determination and the assistance of my staff, Nell braved going to a so called “crisis pregnancy center” to get an ultrasound so we could determine her gestation. Then we found Nell some financial assistance. Nell also broke down and told her grandmother of her situation and ended up forming a bond so special that they helped each other through this situation hand in hand.
After Nell arrived at our clinic, it was determined that the fetus had large cysts on its brain and was hydrocephalic. Often times, these cases turn out to be a blessing in disguise for patients and for us as a staff. We are able to help women in the most horrible of situations to aid in a possible bright future, to see that bright light at the end of the tunnel. Nell was a strong young woman, and left our clinic with a new outlook on life and will hopefully value her experience for the rest of her life.
This spring we also saw two other young patients, two young women who traveled both thousands of miles to visit us. These women were in very dark places in their lives due to pregnancies that had led them to a cliff, which they almost jumped off. The first, “Jenny” stated:
“I have no attachment to the pregnancy. I’m mad at the pregnancy. I have crazy thoughts of killing myself. After looking at myself in the mirror I even punched myself in the stomach because I got mad. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see me. I see a girl who made a big mistake. I look at myself and start to cry. I can’t look at myself in the eyes for 2 seconds without crying. I see my belly and I don’t feel like myself. You can see it by the way I dress and walk around now. I keep to myself, I wear hoodies and big jeans and big tshirts.”
“When I was at school I walked by this ledge and I thought about falling off that ledge in my dorm. I thought about walking into the street and having a car hit me. I thought hitting my stomach would kill it and I thought about falling in the shower. I had baby oil ready but I didn’t go through with it.”
When asked “what would you do if you cannot have an abortion” Jenny replied:
“I am already over the edge, I would be over the edge even more if Nebraska won’t help me. I would kill myself. I can only take so much. This abortion is a need, not a want!”
I’ll ask you again, who do you want to decide?
The other young woman I wanted to mention, we’ll call her “Sarah,” traveled across the country to make it to our clinic. She had been referred to us by a provider in her home state, that wanted so much to help her, but due to these harmful and arbitrary laws regarding gestational limits, he couldn’t, so she started her journey to Nebraska. In one of her statements, Sarah said:
“I wish I would have told my mom and family earlier because they would have been able to help me. I was just scared and nervous and embarrassed. I was planning on having an abortion the entire time and the only thing that goes through my mind is that I can’t have a baby. I’m not ready. I just can’t. The thought of not having one isn’t okay to me and I have big plans for my future. I can’t think of anything or any other words than I can’t have a baby.”
This young woman suffered because of these laws, the actual devastation caused by these laws will never be truly known.
The last story I’ll share is from a young woman I just saw a few weeks ago, her name is “Samantha.” She is 18, and had just graduated high school. Samantha had irregular periods, had erratic responses to pregnancy tests. She like Nell, went to a “crisis pregnancy center” and found out her gestation and was shown pictures of adoptive families, told that abortion causes cancer, and that she really had no other option than to carry to term. In a statement Samantha stated:
“Yesterday I cried a whole lot and thought about committing suicide. I thought about shooting myself in the mouth with a gun and how I could get a gun. I thought I would use my graduation money to get a gun but I didn’t know where I could get it. I was really upset with myself. Then my mom happened to come into the room and talked to me, she said everything would be okay. I did feel like I wouldn’t go to heaven if I did this. My mom told me people make these kinds of mistakes and reassured me that everything would be okay.”
“I had thought about causing a miscarriage, I looked it up on the internet, about teas I could drink and stuff. I have hit myself in the stomach 4-6 times a day when I was at work.”
“I have been crying and crying…I just wanted to be in the dark. I now just feel numb. I feel like all my tears are gone.”
I just want to close with this, the women I see, the lives that I am able to change, are the reason that I do what I do. This right is under attack. I’ve asked you who you want deciding the laws that are attacking women’s rights. I’ll ask you to trust women. The women of this country need abortions, and as long as I can, I will do them.
Recently, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said “women deliver for the world; now the world needs to deliver for women.” Let’s repeal the Hyde amendment along with the litany of other harmful laws and help women control their own destinies.
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