Friends, family members, and former colleagues gathered in Minnesota Monday to celebrate the life of Dr. Mildred Hanson, the chapel filled with flowers sent by well-wishers from across the country.
A pioneering abortion provider and gynecologist, Dr. Hanson died last week at the age of 91.
When she graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School in the 1950s, she was one of only three women in her class. At that time, the only way to get a legal abortion was to threaten suicide. Like many pre-Roe physicians, she witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of illegal abortion on the wards.
“I was frustrated that there was such an easy thing to do that was within our grasp technically, and yet we were denying it to women, and women were dying because of it,” she told an interviewer in 2003.
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The moment Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, Dr. Hanson began openly providing the service. In 1974, she became the medical director of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, serving there for nearly three decades while also running her own clinic, where she continued to provide abortion care until she retired from practice at the age of 90. When Planned Parenthood was firebombed in 1977, she simply relocated patients to her private clinic while the building was repaired.
Later, she would wear a bulletproof vest and install bulletproof glass in her clinic, but she remained undaunted.
“If Roe v. Wade were repealed, I think I’d go right on doing abortions,” she said in the same 2003 interview. “And I would frankly just wait for them to come and get me, because I would want to demonstrate that this is a detriment to the health of women.”
She was outspoken and politically involved, unafraid of the prospect that her views might alienate anyone as she fiercely defended abortion rights and supported pro-choice legislators. In other words, she was truly the model of a physician activist. “The three greatest life-saving medical innovations of the 20th century,” she would tell groups of medical students and politicians alike, “were vaccines, penicillin, and legal abortion.”
It is no exaggeration to say that Dr. Hanson personally inspired thousands of activists over the years, including many who went on to become abortion providers themselves. In addition to speaking to groups of reproductive rights advocates, writing blistering letters to the editor of the local paper, and attending pro-choice lobby day events, she mentored hundreds of medical students and residents, opening her clinic for valuable observation opportunities. She had a reputation for kindness.
“This was the first time in my medical education where one doctor or teacher took time to quiz me alone or explain things to me in a setting other than a lecture hall. I have learned a tremendous amount from this experience about the medicine behind abortion provision and the art of being a caring physician,” reported one second-year University of Minnesota medical student in the local chapter of the Medical Students for Choice annual newsletter after shadowing Dr. Hanson during a day at her practice. Such a sentiment was far from uncommon.
Elegant, feisty, whip-smart, compassionate, and unfailingly generous, Dr. Millie Hanson leaves behind a truly monumental legacy.
Fans and admirers can honor that legacy by volunteering as a clinic escort, donating to an abortion fund, or writing a blistering letter to the editor about why politicians should not dictate medical decisions. As abortion restrictions intensify across the country, work and advocacy like Dr. Hanson’s—and work and advocacy carried out in her name—is more important than ever.