Will Maternal Morbidity and Mortality Rise in the Near Future?
When I was seventeen, I left my school, walked to Planned Parenthood a few blocks away and after discussing all my options, left with a safe and inexpensive method of birth control. I walked back to school confident that I would not add my story to the many accounts of Delfen Contraceptive Foam pregnancies. Babies spawned by the mighty sperm that swam bravely through the toxic sea, resulting in the victorious zygote. My classmates and I were not of the abstinence-only crowd. Our school had a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves. Many of us has our own copies.
More than a decade later, I worked every-other Saturday at the same Planned Parenthood while my husband stayed home with our two-year-old. Most Saturday mornings there were protesters on the sidewalk. Sometimes they would say vile things or spit at us as they tried to block our path, knowing nothing about why these women were coming to Planned Parenthood. Not caring about their stories, but feeling great compassion for the clump of cells hidden in their uteri, protesters would attempt to dissuade women from entering the building, offering their prayers and their alternatives. Fueled by righteous indignation, the protesters were willing to fight for the rights of the unborn but not for the women who would bear them.
There are more than a hundred documented ways to induce an unsafe abortion. Methods are categorized by route of administration.
In the category of Taken by mouth: turpentine, bleach, acid, laundry bluing, anti-malarial drugs.
In the time I worked at Planned Parenthood, I never met a woman who wanted an abortion. This is just not something one wants. But I did meet women who needed an abortion. Shall I tell you their stories? Will you care?
Do you want to know about the 40-year-old who lived in her car with her young son and needed money for food? The man said he’d pay her extra if he didn’t have to use a condom. She decided to risk it. There were many others, but not a single death. Not one of those women left with a punctured uterus or bowel or an untreated infection that would leave them sweating and damaged.
There were the high-school girls who drove to Planned Parenthood with a trusted friend in nice cars their parents bought them. They had manicured nails and good haircuts and they cried like babies. I suspect they carry this still, this thing they can never talk about. This This act of desperation, this truth buried because no one must ever know. But the procedure was clean, and safe and they are alive now and taking their own daughters to their doctors for access to responsible, safe birth control paid for by their health insurance. Should the contraceptives fail, these girls will not need to swallow bleach. They can pay for the right to own their bodies.
Still, desperate women, facing the financial burdens and social stigma of unintended pregnancy will continue to risk their lives by undergoing unsafe abortions.
In the category of Foreign Bodies inserted in the Cervix: stick, wire, knitting needle, coat hanger, bicycle spoke, chicken bone, ballpoint pen.
I resigned from Planned Parenthood when my second pregnancy became apparent. I thought it would be cruel to wear maternity clothes there. But also, I quit to protect myself from the feeling I might have, already protective of the cells growing and replicating inside me. Already in love with who those cells would become.
Many of us who are pro-choice like to think we’re different from those women who seek abortions. I often hear such condescending statements as, “I could never have an abortion but I think it’s up to the woman to decide.”
Can you really say that? That you could never have an abortion? Have you ever been raped by an uncle, a brother, a father, five frat boys at a party? Have you ever been told that the baby you planned, the one for whom you’ve converted your home office to a nursery, bought tiny socks and t-shirts, poured over books of baby names, has a genetic anomaly with no chance of survival? Or that your pregnancy will put your life at risk, possibly orphan your two other children? Have you ever thought that under certain circumstances you might consider an abortion? Did you ever think that no matter your reason, that decision might not be yours to make?
In the category of Enemas: Soap, hot oil, laundry detergent, vinegar, coffee.
Beginning in 1973, following the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize abortion, researchers demonstrated a dramatic decline in the number of deaths related to illegal abortion.
When denied access to safe abortion, women and adolescent girls with unwanted pregnancies will, as they always have, resort to unsafe, illegal means to terminate the pregnancy.
There is no way to tell how many girls and women died of sepsis, shaking with fever, afraid to tell of what they’d done. Or how many suicides resulted from failure to abort. A fact sheet published in September 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO) lists barriers to accessing safe abortion as restrictive laws, high cost, poor availability of services, stigma, and unnecessary mandatory waiting periods. That fact sheet tells us that estimates from 2010 to 2014 showed that around 45% of all abortions were unsafe and that almost all of these unsafe abortions took place in developing countries. Here in America with access to safe abortion, we had no need for bicycle spokes or chicken bones.
Texas lawmakers smiled and made heart symbols with their hands as they signed what they call the Fetal Heartbeat Law. Legislation that will put the lives of girls and women, whose hearts also beat, in danger. Texas took us back to a dark time in history as governors in a half-dozen other states, emboldened by the inaction of the Supreme Court, nodded their approval and planned their next move.
Today, we’ve returned to 1972. We may be on a path to align our maternal morbidity and mortality statistics with those of Africa and Asia as we deny women access to safe, legal abortion.
Eileen Vorbach Collins is an RN and award-winning essayist. She has been both a client and employee of Planned Parenthood. She’s glad she’s old, but is very worried about the health and safety of girls and women. Eileen’s work has been published in SFWP, Barren Magazine, The Columbia Journal and a number of other literary magazines as well as Shondaland, Next Avenue and the NYT Tiny Love Stories.
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