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Lindsay Pyfer

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The Women Who Paved the Way for Abortions

Posted: 03/08/2013 8:10 am

Every year on March 8, International Women's Day, we celebrate advancements for women. We also honor our foremothers, the women who fought the battles that paved the way for the life we too often take for granted.

This year, I'm honoring a wise friend and foremother, Cecilie Scott, the author of the memoir Knowing Bodies, who passed away last New Year's Eve. In mid-December, confined to a hospital bed and barely able to eat, Cecilie called me to her bedside. In a hoarse voice, she recounted a story she hoped to write before she died about the lengths to which women were forced to go to end their pregnancies before Roe v. Wade became the law of the land in 1973.

As she spoke, I remembered incidents from my own youth: whispers on the school bus about a girl who tried to abort herself with a knitting needle; high school kids who held a car wash to raise money to send a pregnant classmate to Japan for an abortion; and a harrowing photo in Ms. Magazine of a young woman who bled out, naked and alone, on the floor of a motel room after an illegal abortion. But the history -- herstory -- that Cecilie shared was one I knew nothing about.

In the late 1950s, abortion was illegal all up and down the West Coast, including in British Columbia. A woman could obtain a legal abortion from a physician in Oregon for the astronomical sum of $1,000 if she swore she was mentally incompetent or that she'd go crazy if she didn't get one. Women who claimed to be mentally incompetent sometimes got more than they bargained for; they were sterilized, too.

Then, a female doctor in Vancouver, British Columbia, worked out a method of abortion that could be performed by nurses, whom she trained. These abortions cost roughly $200. The procedure involved inserting a small catheter into the pregnant woman's cervix and leaving it in place so the cervix would stay open. This would get the process started.

The doctor worked out a code name for each nurse she trained -- the name of a jewel or a flower. Each city had one or two women who knew what number to call to locate these nurses. Pregnant women took a circuitous route, by bus or by car, never traveling directly to Vancouver, for fear of being tracked by an angry husband or jealous boyfriend who would blow the cover of this "underground railroad."

Like Cecilie, most of the women who sought abortions in those years already had children that they needed to care for and jobs to get back to. Statistics suggested that 1 in 4 women had an abortion and that Catholics were having as many as non-Catholics.

Upon arrival in Vancouver, the woman would check into a hotel where no one knew her. "Iris," one of the nurses, would perform the abortion at the hotel. After the procedure, a "friend of a friend" would take in the patient while she recovered. Another nurse, "Ruby," performed abortions in her home while her children were at school.

Ruby, Iris, and their colleagues were compassionate professionals. They wouldn't agree to take a patient unless she had a gynecologist lined up in her home city. After the abortion, they'd call the friend of a friend and ask, "How's that knitting pattern coming along?" or a similar coded question to double check that the patient was recovering well. The network of "friends" was organized by various women's political groups.

Women who experienced complications after their abortions might be admitted to a hospital maternity ward in their hometown. But if their doctors didn't want to risk their reputation or license by performing a D&C, the women could go on bleeding for weeks.

The Canadian doctor who trained the nurses with the flower and jewel code names retired and went underground when things became too dangerous. In the early 1960s, Iris was arrested, likely busted in a sting by someone who wasn't actually pregnant. She was taken to jail, isolated, and committed suicide in prison.

Cecilie became an abortion rights activist after hearing a male Washington State legislator say, "The decision to have an abortion can't be left to the whim of a pregnant woman." She was outraged by the suggestion that women who grow, birth, nurture, and shoulder the responsibility for children every day don't know their own minds.

She drove women to Vancouver, arranged housing, and transported them home after their abortions. Later, she drove women to the office of Franz Koomey, an M.D. in Renton, Washington. Dr. Koomey, who performed safe abortions before they became legal in Washington in 1970, publicly announced he was performing them, saying "Who am I to tell a woman that she can't have an abortion?"

The day Cecilie told me this story, she lamented a proposed law requiring that a woman have a picture of the mandatory ultrasound propped up on her belly while having her abortion. Fortunately, she didn't know about the states where providers are required to tell women who want to terminate their pregnancies that abortion is linked with breast cancer or suicide (neither has been proven to be true). She didn't live long enough to see the North Dakota Senate pass a bill granting "personhood" status to fertilized eggs. But she wouldn't have been surprised.

Shortly after Cecilie passed away, Speaker John Boehner announced that he planned to "help make abortion a relic of the past." Based on the story Cecilie told me, I don't think abortion will ever be a thing of the past. But it could be forced underground again.

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