No Choice

Dr. Mildred Hanson is one of the few Minnesota physicians who hasn't been bullied out of performing abortions. At 77, she's more afraid of what will happen when she retires.

ON THE TELEVISION SCREEN suspended from the ceiling in one corner of the waiting room, Martha Stewart is preparing Thai food. As she demonstrates how to cut a square of paper-thin dough into delicate, perfect noodles, her guest tells stories of his family's recent travels to the outskirts of China. One night, the man says, a curious water buffalo came into the room where his children were sleeping to have a look at them. Martha laughs at this and the two commence chatting about spices.

Up until now no one has so much as glanced at the screen. But the buffalo bit gets a raised eyebrow here and there and a few couples giggle or elbow one another, taking a short break from the forms that must be filled out before they can see the doctor.

It's Tuesday, one of the three days each week that Dr. Mildred Hanson performs abortions at her clinic in an office complex at 24th Street and Park Avenue in Minneapolis. As usual the place is packed, and a number of metal folding chairs have been set out around the small room. A few older women are here with friends, sisters, or mothers, but mostly it's young couples. Skinny young women dressed in chunky heels and flare-legged jeans lean forward, noses nearly to their knees, writing down their health histories while the boyish-looking men beside them rub sleep from their eyes, adjust baseball caps, and count wads of cash over and over again.

Getting through the paperwork is just the beginning. Most of these women will spend the day here having a physical exam, giving blood and urine samples, undergoing an ultrasound, and meeting with a counselor before the actual abortion, which usually takes less than 15 minutes. But a few, who are already into the second trimester of their pregnancies, will have to come back tomorrow after the sticks of sterile seaweed inserted into their vaginas this morning have had time to expand their cervixes enough to make it possible to perform the procedure.

This office is one of only seven places in Minnesota where women can have an elective abortion. And Hanson is one of only 12 doctors in the state who will perform them.

If those statistics don't immediately make clear that there is trouble when it comes to the future of abortion services in Minnesota, another, more dramatic fact, will: Mildred Hanson is 77 years old. Most of her 11 colleagues are nearing or past retirement age. All of them remember what it was like to be a doctor back when abortion was illegal and women resorted to desperate means to end an unwanted pregnancy. Terrified by what they saw, these doctors have devoted their lives to making sure women have access to a safe alternative.

Today those same memories keep Hanson and many of her colleagues from retiring. They know there is no new class of doctors waiting to replace them. And while it's true that in the last few years a handful of medical schools have begun offering abortion training to medical students, no one really knows whether those graduates will go out into the world and actually do them. And why should they? Lacking the historical context of their predecessors, these new doctors probably can't see much reward in a career at the center of emotional and political upheaval. It doesn't pay well. They will always have to fear for their safety. And even those who are ardently pro-choice may not be allowed to perform abortions--even in their spare time--if they go to work for a health care corporation, as most will.

So after nearly three decades, Hanson and her small cadre of colleagues go on. They're used to speaking out against legislative attempts to undermine Roe v. Wade and to living with the fear that someone who thinks abortion is wrong will harm or maybe even kill them, their staffs, or their families.

But right now none of those things are as daunting to Mildred Hanson as the ever-increasing possibility that abortion may remain legal, but become all but impossible to get. What good, she wants to know, will the legal right to an abortion really be if there are no longer any doctors who can or will perform one?

 

It's just past 8:00 p.m. and, as usual, Mildred Hanson is just getting home from work. Before she goes inside she takes a quick tour of inspection of her birdhouses and flowerbeds. "That branch fell off the tree over there in a storm the other night," she says, gesturing toward a limb that's crushing a bed of ferns. "Someone was supposed to come and clean that up, but I guess they didn't get to it." She seems to take the oversight in stride. After all, the bales of hay she didn't quite get to spreading over the garden last winter are still stacked in front of one garage door.

It's 9:00 before she gets around to the first course of her dinner: A cup of hot water and a blueberry muffin she picked up at a convenience store. Her second course, a fruit salad, is chilling in the refrigerator. The kitchen still smells of the rich vanilla she drizzled over the top, a treat she brought back from a recent trip to South America for a conference. Her youngest daughter, a gynecologist who provides abortions in Boston, accompanied her. A picture of the two of them looking tan and wearing nametags adorns the freezer door.

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