MORE

No Choice

Juliette Borda

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.

She has lived in this mid-century rambler with the indoor pool and the sprawling gardens dotted with red and white magnolias, tea roses, tomatoes, rhubarb, lilacs, and tulips for 25 years. It's illegal to picket private homes here in Edina, so it's been awhile since protestors showed up at her door. For the most part, the house has been a peaceful place where Hanson feels safe. Family gatherings are held here. Children and grandchildren are always coming by to visit.

At a time when many doctors who do abortions are hiding in fear, Hanson remains the state's most visible provider. Her office bears her name and is listed in the phone book, as is her telephone number. She urges patients to call her at home if they need help.

It isn't as if she has no concern for her safety. The staff person who checks patients in at her clinic sits behind bulletproof glass. The door leading back to the examination rooms is always locked. A woman is admitted only after her name has been called.

Hanson herself wears a bulletproof vest and at one time considered putting bulletproof glass in her car. "You know it can cost around $70,000 to have that glass installed so I thought, 'forget it'," she says. "I try to be careful. That's all I can do."

For reasons she can't explain, Hanson grew up knowing she wanted to be a doctor. "I just always knew," she shrugs. She entered River Falls State University right after high school at the age of 16. But her college career ended after only one year with the start of World War II. She took a job at a defense plant to help pay to keep an older brother in college so he could avoid the draft. Five years later she enrolled at the University of Minnesota where, for a brief time, she studied journalism. "I thought I wasn't smart enough to go to med school," she says. "All those big city kids intimidated me." She decided to try anyhow and immediately began getting straight As. "I thought 'Well, what the heck, I can do this.'"

In 1950 Hanson married a fellow med student. Two years later she graduated with honors and the two of them moved to Two Harbors, where they set up a practice. A few years later they returned to Minneapolis and divorced, and Hanson completed her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at what is now Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC). In 1965 she opened her own practice in a poor neighborhood in south Minneapolis. She began offering abortions as soon as Roe v. Wade legalized them in 1973. A year later, Hanson became medical director of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota/South Dakota, overseeing as many as 26 of the organization's clinics while continuing to see patients at her private practice.

From the beginning, Hanson and others who provided abortions endured picket lines and threats from late-night callers asking to speak to "the baby-killer." After awhile these tactics became predictable, as routine as any other part of the workday. But the creation of the New York-based anti-abortion group Operation Rescue in 1986 ushered in a new era of protests that were much more combative and threatening. Not content to simply shout at women entering clinics, Operation Rescue members actually blocked doors in the name of "saving babies." Though the group was never directly linked with any of the killings of doctors and clinic workers in the years following its inception, members' angry rhetoric was often blamed for inciting violence.

In the summer of 1993, Operation Rescue came to town and set its sights on Hanson's clinic and several others. But Minneapolis was prepared. Shortly before the group's arrival, Hennepin County District Court judges restricted protestors' activities at clinics, including Hanson's. The court orders prohibited such things as harassing patients or staff, vandalizing clinic property, or carrying firearms or explosives near the clinics. Carloads of protestors did go to Hanson's home to pray, sing, and march, but she wasn't there at the time.

 

Two years ago Hanson retired from her Planned Parenthood post to devote more energy to her practice and to have time to garden and see her family. She and her grandchildren recently went to Antarctica to see penguins; friends and patients assumed this means Hanson loves the awkward creatures, and now penguin tchotchkes line one wall of her dining room.

Aside from that trip, however, Hanson's partial retirement hasn't meant much free time. In the far corner of her yard is a greenhouse, which she laments not visiting much anymore. The magnolias in her front yard are new and she's got other plans for sprucing up the place, but who knows when she'll get to them. She tries to take one day a week off, but often there are emergencies to take care of. A woman who fears her baby will be born with Down's Syndrome needs to talk about her options. A girl from Wisconsin is in town and must get back before anyone realizes she's gone.

It's the "genius personality" that keeps her going, says Sue Osborne, a registered nurse who, like most of Hanson's office staff, has worked for the doctor for nearly 20 years. "She can just go and go," Osborne says. "She's very focused on what she does and sometimes that can be really hard to be around and we have to just say, 'Hey--cut it out. You're driving us crazy.' She'll stay here as late as she has to. If there's someone out there in that waiting room at 9:00 at night, we'll be here until she's been taken care of."

In recent years Hanson has turned her focus to birth-control issues on a worldwide scale, attending conferences and offering her skills in far-flung places where legalized abortion isn't even on the radar screen. "In Third World countries women don't have the right to end a pregnancy," she says. "So they do what women here did three decades ago and they're dying of septic abortions because of it."

It's midnight by the time Hanson has finished her muffin, her fruit salad, and her life story, but she's still determined to get some paperwork done before going to bed. She heads for the kitchen to rinse her dishes in the sink, but gets distracted by a pile of envelopes on a table. "I like to write to legislators in all 50 states to ask them what they're doing about the abortion issue," she says. "They need to stay focused. They need to be held accountable."

That's all it takes to set her off on a new tangent: the proposal now before the Minnesota Legislature calling for a 24-hour waiting period between the time a woman visits a clinic and gets an abortion. She calls it the "Women are Stupid Bill."

"The thing is, by the time women come in they have already gone through a different waiting period while they struggled over whether to have an abortion," she says. "Having them wait more is a traumatic experience to put women through when they are already emotional. It just doesn't make sense. It's just another way anti-choicers try to make it hard for women."

 

Just six months after it became legal to end a pregnancy in the United States, Congress struck the first blow against Roe v. Wade. The Church Amendment created a federal law exempting individuals and institutions with religious or moral objections from performing abortions or sterilizations. Later, states began enacting their own versions of the Church Amendment, paving the way for hospitals, insurers, employers, HMOs, and pharmacists to refuse to provide women with everything from abortion counseling to prescriptions and health insurance coverage for common procedures. Access to abortion has been shrinking ever since.

By far the biggest decline has been in hospital-based abortion services. According to a recent study by the Minnesota affiliate of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), in 1973 more than half of all abortions performed in the U.S. were done in hospitals. Back then, hospitals in 17 Minnesota counties offered the procedure, the study found. No record of the number of doctors performing abortions in the 1970s could be found, but NARAL says 20 were known to be doing them in 1982 in Minnesota.

By contrast, today only seven percent of U.S. abortions are done in hospitals. There are 140 hospitals in the state, but just one, Regions Hospital in St. Paul, still offers abortions. Only 12 doctors here currently perform the procedure, only half of them on a regular basis.

In trying to find out the reasons for the dramatic decline, NARAL did extensive surveys and interviews with health providers around the state. Three things were most often mentioned: the failure of medical schools to provide training; the sharp decline in the number of hospitals offering abortion; and the fact that many doctors don't do abortions because they are afraid for themselves and their families.

 

The NARAL survey also found that only 43 Minnesota hospitals offer emergency contraception, better known as the morning-after pill, to any woman who wants it. Basically a high dose of ordinary birth control pills, the morning-after pill is given to women within 72 hours of unprotected sex and prevents pregnancy by interfering with the process of fertilization and implantation of the egg in the uterine wall. Though the drug has long been hailed as a way to reduce the number of abortions by preventing unwanted pregnancies, 34 Minnesota hospitals offer this form of emergency contraception only to those who have been raped.

Jessica Jerney is one of the NARAL staffers who did research for the survey. Part of her job was to call hospitals anonymously asking for abortion services. If none were available, she would ask where else she might go for help. "It's become such a politicized issue that we couldn't even get a reliable referral for services from some of the hospitals we called," Jerney explains. "People would tell us to look in the Yellow Pages or that they didn't know where we could go to get an abortion. Some even went so far as to say that they wouldn't tell us because they didn't believe in it. That shouldn't be happening within our health care system and it wouldn't happen if a patient called about any other elective procedure."

Things are especially bad in rural areas, abortion-rights advocates say, because nothing has replaced the services that were lost when hospitals stopped providing abortions. "Planned Parenthood has tried to open a couple of clinics to provide abortions in rural Minnesota but there were so many threats coming in right away that they didn't even open them," Jerney says. "Say what you want about anti-choice groups but one thing is certain, they are very good at intimidating people into doing what they want. Their tactics work."

Jane Ransom, president of the Minneapolis-based Women's Foundation of Minnesota, is in the process of touring the state in an effort to find out what issues are of greatest concern to women and girls. One of the largest women's foundations in the country, WFM gives over $250,000 a year to grassroots organizations advocating for change for women and girls. For the most part, she says, women and girls want to talk about one thing--access to abortion. Of Minnesota's 87 counties, only three have at least one abortion provider: Hennepin, Ramsey, and St. Louis.

"Living in the metro area we just don't experience what women in greater Minnesota have to go through," says Ransom. "No doctors will perform abortions in these small towns for fear of being harassed. So women can't get one without driving 50, 100, maybe 200 or more miles.

"All kinds of people told us how they were basically blackballed in their communities after they made their pro-choice views on abortion known," she continues. "It's hard to live in small towns under conditions like that when there's only one grocery store, only one movie theater. There's no place for people to go and be left alone."

By way of example, Ransom repeats a story she heard from a nurse in Marshall who spoke openly where she works about her views on abortion rights. The mailman forgot where her mailbox was for about a year, "except for when she got letters addressed to 'baby killer'," Ransom says. "Then the mail got through just fine."

Mifepristone, more commonly known as RU-486 or the "abortion pill," was supposed to make it easier for women to end unwanted pregnancies no matter where they lived. Not only was RU-486 supposed to give women--especially those outside of cities--an option to the current surgical procedure, it was also supposed to provide privacy and safety to women who fear harassment. But much to the disappointment of pro-choice activists, RU-486 has done little to change the landscape since its approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last September.

The drug's troubles, they say, have a lot to do with severe restrictions placed on its distribution by the FDA. The federal agency requires that a so-called medical abortion involve three office visits: On the first visit a woman receives counseling and takes the first pill, which stops fetal development; two days later she returns and takes a different pill that empties her uterus (some doctors do allow women to take the second pill at home where they will be more comfortable); the third visit, about two weeks later, is for an ultrasound to make sure the pills worked. If they didn't, a surgical abortion must be done.

 

"Three visits is too many to a doctor's office in a small town. It's too easy for people to catch on to what the woman is doing there. And if someone has had to travel a long way to get to a doctor to get the pills, it won't be easy to get back there three times," Jerney says. "RU-486 was supposed to make the whole process more anonymous so more doctors would feel comfortable offering abortions. That just hasn't happened."

The failure, so far, of RU-486 to increase access to abortion in rural areas has only fueled the belief by choice advocates that there is much more to fear when it comes to abortion rights than the reversal of Roe v. Wade. "Everyone focuses their attention on the national level," Ransom warns. "But watching the Supreme Court lulls people, especially in the cities, into complacency that we're all okay as long as Roe v. Wade stays intact. But that's not true. These women and girls are living in little towns where huge pro-life billboards are towering over them and whole coalitions of pharmacies are getting together and refusing to fill prescriptions for the morning-after pill and sometimes even birth control because they're morally opposed to them.

"For them the right to abortion is just an abstraction," she adds. "Basically, you get pregnant out there and you're going to live a life of dead-end jobs with all of what the future had to offer for you shut off at a very early age. It's really sad."

 

Tom Webber recently retired after spending 30 years as president of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota/South Dakota. It's true that the politics and violence surrounding both medical and surgical abortions have frightened most doctors, he says. But the advent of corporate medicine has also contributed dramatically to the shortage. Managed care companies, especially those affiliated with religious organizations, have acquired many hospitals and clinics and made policies that limit women's access to reproductive health care, Webber explains. Many even prohibit employees from performing abortions on their own time.

One vivid example of a community where this has caused problems is Duluth. No Duluth hospital provides elective abortion, but critics are worried that infertility treatments, emergency contraception, tubal ligations, vasectomies, and other family planning services are in danger of disappearing. Earlier this year, negotiations were underway for two corporate mergers that would have put the area's two remaining secular hospitals under the control of corporate health care systems affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.

One of the mergers occurred. But the other one--between St. Luke's Hospital and Regional Trauma Center and a Catholic organization called the Ministry of Health Care--was called off, much to the relief of many women's advocates and area residents. During the talks, representatives from St. Luke's and Ministry Health Care had told the press that a merger would not necessarily mean that the hospital would operate in accordance with Catholic beliefs. But experience suggests it would have: Family planning services were available at the Duluth Clinic until the mid-1990s when it merged with St. Mary's Medical Center. Duluth Clinic doctors were required to sign statements saying that they would abide by church directives. One refused and he was told he could no longer practice there.

Closer to home, abortion-rights activists are concerned that the mergers may eliminate one of the state's few remaining avenues for teaching doctors to perform abortions, Regions Hospital. Regions, which was the quasi-public, nonprofit St. Paul Ramsey Medical Center until it was sold to Health Partners in 1994, has a long history as the place where Minnesota doctors learn how to do abortions. But Webber and others say they aren't sure that will continue. "The hospital's position has changed dramatically for the worse since Health Partners took over in my view," says Webber. "Many of us worry that they will cease to provide training in the next few years.

"These mergers and buyouts, religious or not, are such a behind-the-scenes kind of chipping away at abortion rights that people don't realize it's happening until it's too late," Webber continues. "A lot of physicians are employed by corporations now," he says. "They don't have their own private practices. These corporations tell their physicians what to do."

Women may not be surprised to hear that their family doctor won't perform an abortion, but Webber and others say corporate restrictions don't stop there. Last year, shortly after the FDA approved RU-486, the state's largest managed-care organizations--now the owners of hundreds of clinics across the state--barred their doctors from prescribing the drug. Citing moral issues and "divisiveness among staff," Park Nicollet and Allina Medical Clinic decided not to dispense the drug. Health Partners has so far made no formal policy, but refers anyone asking for the abortion pill to a private clinic, just as it does those seeking surgical abortions.

 

It's not just corporate America that's shying away from the controversy. Within a month of Roe v. Wade, Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis began offering abortions. However, the practice lasted a mere four years. In 1977, Congress cut off public funding of abortions for low-income women. Immediately afterward, a vote led by the pro-life majority on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners banned the use of property taxes to pay for abortions. Although the board stopped short of telling the hospital it could no longer provide abortions, the change effectively curtailed the practice. HCMC stopped offering the procedure.

The issue has continued to be a political hot potato for the board, which acts as trustee for the county-owned hospital. In 1989 a contingent of pro-life commissioners tried unsuccessfully to strip county employees of insurance coverage for elective abortion. In 1992 the board voted to curtail county contracts with family planning organizations that provided abortion services. The groups, including Planned Parenthood, sued, but a newly elected pro-choice board majority reinstated the contracts.

In February of 1994 county board members voted 4-3 to provide abortion training to medical school residents and to offer abortion services to patients at HCMC. But to date, neither of those things has happened.

Dr. Michael Belzer, HCMC's medical director, says that's because abortions are performed next door to the hospital at Meadowbrook Women's Clinic, which has been providing reproductive health services since 1973. "Since they were right here and already set up to do abortions, it just seemed logical to let them continue doing them and refer patients there," says Belzer.

Women who request RU-486 are also referred to Meadowbrook, he adds, because hospital administrators decided not to dispense the abortion pill after numerous meetings on the subject drummed up little physician interest. "We plan to have more discussions about the issue," he says. "If doctors want to do it, then we'll do it."

Belzer denies critics' claims that the hospital's policies are the outgrowth of the politics of its higher-ups. Many members of the hospital's board of directors are pro-life, as is the chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Dr. Virginia Lupo. "Yes, it's true Dr. Lupo has publicly opposed abortion in the past," says Belzer. "But she has been a physician with this hospital for over ten years and I believe she is balanced enough to do her job fairly. Still, it is fair to say she is not exactly moving things forward when it comes to abortion."

Besides, he adds, as far back as he can recall, ob-gyn department heads have all been pro-life. "So if there is an agenda, it didn't start with her."

 

When Stephanie Walters, 26, enrolled at the University of Minnesota Medical School two years ago, she knew she was interested in women's health and family planning. Like most of her classmates, she figured the curriculum would cover everything she needed to know. But looking over her class schedules and lecture agendas, she quickly realized she was wrong.

"Reading that stuff, it looked like we were going to graduate knowing more about how to do a hip replacement than how to perform an abortion," she recalls. "Only about five percent of us will ever replace a hip. But abortion is one of the most common medical procedures that doctors perform and here we were going to graduate and have no idea how to do it."

Walters set out to find out why. Her probing led her to Health Students for Choice (HSFC), the local affiliate of a national organization known as Medical Students for Choice (MSFC), which advocates for the return of abortion training to medical-school curriculums. Such training has been increasingly excluded from course work over the past three decades as universities seek to distance themselves from the controversy: In the mid-1990s, fewer than 12 percent of ob-gyn residents in the country were being trained in how to do an abortion. Founded in 1993 by medical students at the University of California, San Francisco, the group has 110 active chapters and 7,000 members in the U.S. and Canada.

Since its inception, the organization estimates that a third of all medical schools have put abortion training back on the agenda, a handful as a requirement, more as an optional course. But it hasn't been easy. Students have endured threats and taunts of "baby killer," as well as warnings from peers and teachers that they are cutting short their careers. Progress has been the slowest in the South and Midwest, where some school administrators have balked at the establishment of MSFC chapters on campus.

 

No one opposed the founding of Health Students for Choice at the University of Minnesota, where it has grown to include 90 mostly female members; about 30 of them attend meetings on a regular basis. But administrators and faculty haven't done much to accommodate the organization, either. "We really need a faculty member to publicly support us and so far no one has been willing to step forward and do that," says Walters. "Maybe they're afraid to identify themselves as pro-choice. The issue just isn't talked about here."

Currently, Walters says, instruction in abortion procedure is only offered as an option to medical residents doing rotations in women's health. Medical students do their book-learning in the classroom, but must spend time in hospitals and clinics in order to learn actual procedures. While most rotations include instruction in basic surgical techniques that all young doctors will need to know upon graduation, abortion is excluded from such training through the UM's medical school. Students who want to know how to do the procedure, Walters says, must struggle.

"It's not listed anywhere as something we can choose. And there are very few places where we do rotations that even offer the training," she says. "We would like to see our medical school make abortion training mandatory like they have at the University of California at San Francisco." (UCSF students who have moral objections can opt out of learning the procedure.)

Sarah Youngerman, a spokesperson for the UM medical school, was unable to find an administrator or faculty member willing to be interviewed for this article. Students are welcome to take up the issue of abortion training with the dean next fall, she says, but UM administrators are satisfied that such training is available to those who request it. "Clearly we disagree with those who say that the medical school is not interested in giving people a choice when it comes to getting training in abortion," Youngerman says. "Students receive information on abortion in some lectures and they can choose to do their rotations at a place that offers abortion just like they can choose to learn any other procedure."

Dr. Peter D'Ascoli, medical director of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota/South Dakota, fears that students looking to change the UM's curriculum are taking on a monumental task. "It will be difficult for them to mobilize the forces they need with everyone being so busy with their studies," says D'Ascoli. "And to really push the point they will need a faculty member willing to step forward on their behalf. So far I haven't seen anyone willing to really jump on that."

In the fall, HSFC's members plan to approach the dean of the medical school about making abortion training routine. They will also ask medical school administrators to better advertise the fact that the instruction is available. In the meantime, though, members are concentrating on providing themselves with the education they say they're not getting. Last year, they held fundraisers to pay for a lecture series featuring activists and attorneys involved in the fight for reproductive choice, as well as abortion providers.

One of those speakers was Dr. Mildred Hanson, who spoke on abortion's past and present. "She was really inspiring to all of us," says Walters, who was stunned by Hanson's description of the days before abortion was legal. "You can really see why doctors felt they needed to offer abortion services. It's hard to relate to that now because it seems like a long time ago."

Still, Walters herself isn't sure whether ultimately she will provide abortions. "My parents and my boyfriend worry about me doing this," she says. "They know about the doctors getting shot. But they support me in what I want to do. Who knows, a lot of my classmates may turn out to just be pro-choice ophthalmologists. But we should be able to study abortion like any other procedure."

Outside Mildred Hanson's clinic, Jenny Anderson grabs a quick smoke and stares up into the gray sky. The doctor in Mankato who told Anderson (not her real name) she was pregnant doesn't do abortions and suggested she go to Planned Parenthood in Minneapolis or Sioux Falls to have the procedure. Her boyfriend drove her to Minneapolis, but she was too far along in her pregnancy for the one-day abortion procedure. Planned Parenthood had to refer her to Hanson, who is experienced in the more complicated second-trimester abortion.

"When I found out they couldn't do it I just sat down and cried," Jenny says. "I had to go all the way back home and then figure out how to get to the Cities again another time."

 

Anderson and her 16-year-old sister came here on the bus from Mankato last night and had planned on making it home today before it got too late. Tonight they will have to spend another night in a motel while the seaweed sticks nurses at Hanson's office gave Anderson this morning work to expand her cervix.

Having an abortion wasn't an easy decision for Anderson who, until recently, considered herself to be against the procedure. When the protestors outside asked her and her sister where they were going, the two women did as Hanson's staff had suggested and said they were getting eye exams. The Phillips Eye Institute is right next door, so the lie is a plausible one.

"They have no idea what I'm going through," she says. "You think you're against it and then it happens to you."

Mildred Hanson didn't believe in abortion either when she was Anderson's age. Growing up on a farm in Clayton, Wisconsin, in the 1930s, Hanson and her six siblings were taught by their religious parents that abortion was wrong, end of discussion. Hanson changed her mind, though, while doing her medical residency in the 1950s at what is now HCMC. "Women were coming into the emergency room bleeding with 107-degree fevers from botched abortions," she remembers. "We were allowed to help them since their lives were in danger, but we had to interrogate them first. 'Who did this? Who did this?' We would have to say.

"Here's a woman who is fighting for her life and we were putting her through that? It was horrible and it made me realize women had to have a right to this procedure."

Hanson figures that word got back to illegal abortionists that she was sympathetic, because more and more injured women began showing up in the emergency room asking for her. It was a frightening time for Hanson. She was a single mother with four young children and she couldn't afford to lose her license. Doctor and patients walked a thin line.

"We could only do abortions if the woman was bleeding from 'spontaneous' causes, like in the case of a miscarriage," Hanson explains. "Women put sticks and things in themselves, anything to start the bleeding so a doctor could intervene." She referred women she could not help to an underground network of doctors whom she trusted to perform safe abortions.

"Young doctors don't know what it was like to see a woman come into the emergency room dying from an illegal abortion," says Hanson. "We'd try to clean out their uteruses as best we could and give them penicillin around the clock. Thank God I never lost one. But those who escaped with their lives endured a lifetime of pelvic inflammatory disease and other complications."

Jenny Anderson's case is typical of the kinds of patients she sees, says Hanson. Young girls with few resources who know they can't offer a baby much of a life. Anderson and her sister had to make two exhausting trips to the Cities, says the doctor, but the important thing is that the girl had a choice.

"As far as I'm concerned, there's never been a greater threat to abortion rights than there is right now, and it just doesn't seem like people realize that," she adds. "Before long it's going to be too late."


Sponsor Content