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A long-ago abortion anecdote still relevant today

This week’s abortion ruling out of Texas brings back an awkward personal memory from the early days of the Roe v. Wade era.

Anti-abortion protesters gathered on Oct. 3 outside W.G. Thomas Coliseum in Haltom City, Tex., where state Sen. Wendy Davis announced that she would run for governor of the state.
REUTERS/Darrell Byers

This week’s news out of Texas, that a federal judge had struck down a Texas law requiring any doctor performing an abortion to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, brought back an awkward personal memory from the early days of the Roe v. Wade era.

Acknowledging that my memory may be imperfect, and with your indulgence for telling a personal anecdote:

I spent the first four (very happy) years of my journalism career (1973-77) in Arkansas, which was one of many states that outlawed abortions before the 1973 Roe ruling. After Roe, anti-abortion sentiment in the state was still so powerful that no Arkansas doctors offered abortion services.

In about 1976, when I was reporting for the (now extinct) Arkansas Gazette, a Florida doctor started flying into Little Rock (he was also a pilot) one day a month to perform abortions. Because of Roe, the state medical board granted the Floridian medical privileges to perform the newly legal procedure.

Pressure from activists

Anti-abortion activists pressured the state to ban the practice on the grounds (similar but even more dramatic than the grounds used to justify the recent Texas law) that a woman suffering complications after an abortion couldn’t get care. In the Arkansas instance, it wasn’t just that the doctor wouldn’t have privileges at the nearest hospital, but that the doctor himself might be on his plane back to Florida.

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Pro-abortion activists replied that a woman who suffered complications could get treatment from any nearby doctor. The other side argued that, because of the environment of strong disapproval of the whole procedure, no Arkansas doctor would agree to help in such a case.

The Gazette sent me to cover the state medical board meeting at which this would be discussed. At the meeting, a Little Rock doctor told the board that he had agreed to treat any complications that arose when the Floridian was away. He wouldn’t perform any abortions, the Little Rock doctor assured the board, but he wouldn’t allow any woman to bleed to death for lack of treatment. The board took the matter under advisement.

As the meeting broke up, I approached the doctor to ask a couple of questions. As soon as I identified myself as a reporter, the doctor paled and nearly went into shock. You don’t have my permission to put my name in the paper, he said.

Well, I said, you just spoke at a public meeting about a newsworthy matter and I really don’t need your permission to quote what you said, especially since what you said is extremely germane to the story I will be writing.

On his knees

Maybe my memory has hyped the drama of what happened next, but I recall the doctor literally got on his knees and grabbed my sport coat. If I put his name in the paper, he said, he would lose his practice. Pro-lifers would make sure of it and most of his patients, who shared the anti-abortion sentiment, would drop him.

(I’m not sure this made sense. If the medical board accept the doctor’s offer, surely the pro-lifers would find out about it even if I left his name out of my story and, if they were really able to get his patients to drop him, it would happen anyway.)

I told the doctor to please get up off his knees and I would talk to my editor. (My editor was the famous — in Arkansas journalistic circles — Bill Shelton, whose leadership during the 1957 Little Rock Central High school integration crisis had made him a legend. Shelton died in 2005.)

Shelton asked me what I wanted to do. I said if it was really up to me, I would accede to the doctor’s request. Shelton said OK. We publicly reported only that a local doctor had agreed to handle complications. My recollection fades from there, but I believe the arrangement with the pilot doctor performing abortions proceeded from there.

Now that I’ve gone this far, I’m not all that sure why I thought you might find any of this interesting. It’s a reminder that as recently as the mid-’70s, abortions were largely unavailable in many southern states and that the opposition was nearly unanimous. It connects the tactic that pro-lifers used then to the one still being used, to try to find ways to undermine the guarantee that the Roe decision had tried to make available to women who sought abortions.

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The anecdote also brings up an awkward point about the objectivity paradigm of mainstream journalism. Bill Shelton never confided in me any of his personal politics. But I do believe that if either of us had been a personal sympathizer with the anti-abortion position, the anecdote would have turned out differently. Leaving out that doctor’s name is hard to square with the old-time religion of journalistic objectivity. But I don’t regret it, and that is no longer my religion anyway.