Coat hangers and crochet hooks

A physician with experience of pre-Roe days details the horrors of illegal abortion.


Tracy Clark-Flory
June 3, 2008 11:15PM (UTC)

In today's New York Times, retired gynecologist Waldo L. Fielding addresses the current threat to women's right to choose and details what pre-Roe days were really like. Fielding, now in his mid-80s, is one of the few doctors today who personally experienced those days. During his medical training in New York City, from 1948 to 1953 in New York City, he says he "saw and treated almost every complication of illegal abortion that one could conjure, done either by the patient herself or by an abortionist -- often unknowing, unskilled and probably uncaring." I give you fair warning that Fieldings' tale is sickening, but it should be required reading:

The familiar symbol of illegal abortion is the infamous "coat hanger" -- which may be the symbol, but is in no way a myth. In my years in New York, several women arrived with a hanger still in place. …

We did not have ultrasound, CT scans or any of the now accepted radiology techniques. The woman was placed under anesthesia, and as we removed the metal piece we held our breath, because we could not tell whether the hanger had gone through the uterus into the abdominal cavity … However, not simply coat hangers were used.

Almost any implement you can imagine had been and was used to start an abortion -- darning needles, crochet hooks, cut-glass salt shakers, soda bottles, sometimes intact, sometimes with the top broken off. …

The worst case I saw, and one I hope no one else will ever have to face, was that of a nurse who was admitted with what looked like a partly delivered umbilical cord. Yet as soon as we examined her, we realized that what we thought was the cord was in fact part of her intestine, which had been hooked and torn by whatever implement had been used in the abortion. It took six hours of surgery to remove the infected uterus and ovaries and repair the part of the bowel that was still functional.

Fielding ends his essay with what should be an obvious statement, but one that can't be repeated enough: Roe didn't mean abortions could suddenly be performed; even the ancient Greeks performed abortions. It meant medical professionals could legally and safely perform them.

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