“We didn’t finish our discussion from last week,” said Vic, as they settled down in the sun. “I want to hear you talk about one other thing.”

   “I feel like a trap is about to be sprung. And that thing is…?”


   “Abortion! Talk about taking me out of my comfort zone! You know that abortions are completely illegal in most states, including Idaho?”

   “Of course, I know it. That doesn’t mean they don’t occur. It doesn’t mean that high school girls don’t talk about them, and – I suspect in a couple weeks - I will learn that college women talk about them, too. So, talk.”

   “Wow!” Greg just shook his head. “Look, Vic, this really is way beyond me.”

   “Greg, you are a compassionate man, whose opinions I respect, and I want you to try.”

   “Okay.” He still hesitated.

  “Greg, talk!” 

  “Okay, but reluctantly…”

  “But you love me, and would do anything for me, including taIking about abortion.” 

  He sighed, theatrically. “Okay, you’ve browbeaten me into it.  Actually, Vic, this is a subject that I know a little bit about, thanks to a class I took almost by mistake in college.” 

   “How did you take a class ‘almost by mistake?’”

   “I needed one more elective, and a friend told me that there was a sociology course that was a lot different than most sociology courses, and that I would probably find it interesting.”

   “A friend, like your girlfriend?”

   “No, a friend of hers. Well, a friend of ours. Anyway, I enrolled, and when I got there the first day, I found there was only one other guy besides me in the class. The rest were women. I thought about leaving, but I didn’t.”

   “Because the rest were women?”

   He laughed. “No, of course not.”

   “Because the teacher came in, and you saw that she was a real babe, with legs almost as long and as well-formed as mine?”

   “My, what you must think of me! No, I stayed because I was curious. You being the poster girl for curiosity, you must know what I mean. Anyway, I soon discovered that she was going to spend much of the term talking about abortion, something I really didn’t know anything about.

    “You know that some colleges have started teaching a curriculum they call ‘women’s studies.’ We didn’t have anything like that at my school then, but that course would probably fit into that category. I really did find it fascinating and, before it was over, I was sorry that a lot of men weren’t there to hear what she had to say.

   “So, anyway, with that lead in, I shall begin with a question for you. Did you know that there were no abortion laws in the United States from our founding until the 1850s?”

   “No. Is that true?”

   “Yes… No, not quite true. I forgot that a couple states  - Connecticut, for sure, and maybe New York - enacted abortion laws in the 1830s. They weren’t very strong, and didn’t really deviate much from general acceptance up to that point. With those few exceptions, there was only one rule – abortion was legally ignored for about the first four months of a woman’s pregnancy. During that time, abortions were common, and by then-current medical standards, fairly safe. Childbirth was probably more dangerous than was abortion, and many women died during delivery.”

   “I didn’t know that. Why was it so dangerous, and why was four months chosen as a legal date?”

   “To take the last question first, four months wasn’t named as such. Our law was based on English common law, which we brought with us to this country, and which allowed abortions without limit up to what was called ‘quickening’ – the first indication that a fetus was moving around. That normally comes at about four months, I think, but of course it varies with each pregnancy.

   “There was a very practical reason for choosing ‘quickening’ as a measure of how far along a pregnancy was. Even into the early 20th century, there were no  medical tests that could confirm an early pregnancy. A woman might know pretty early, but there was no way that a medical doctor or a court of law could rule that she either was or wasn’t pregnant. If she chose to have an abortion before ‘quickening,’ no one could positively say that she was aborting. The midwives and others who assisted with abortions got very good at not using the word, but referring to blockage, or flowage, or some other woman’s ‘problem’  that they could help ‘correct’.”

   “So, what you’re saying is that, if I thought I was pregnant and didn’t want to be, I would find a friendly midwife who would help me ‘realign’ my bodily functions?”

   “That’s pretty much it. And these ‘helpers’ advertised very openly, so you didn’t have to look too hard to find one. I should also say something about how abortions were performed, because those opposing the practice have filled the conversations with graphic descriptions of ‘butchers’ cutting up young women. Attempting to end a pregnancy might involve some vigorous physical activity, but the treatments were almost all herbal – various plants that were known  - or suspected - to upset the system enough to expel the fetus.”

   “Were they poisonous?”

   “In later years, I think they found that some of them could be really poisonous, if not used properly. In most cases, ingesting the plant material just acted as a strong irritant to the system.  Some of them probably didn’t work at all, but the combination of violent exercise and herbs often did the trick. The result was probably much like a more natural miscarriage – the circumstances of the miscarriage usually being sadder, of course.”

   “That’s true, because the couple usually is looking forward to the baby in those cases. So, going back to my original questions, why did so many women die in childbirth?”

   “Usually it was due to infections, which often developed when the pregnant woman was confined for a long time without much medical care. One thing that the teacher said that really surprised me was that, although doctors were attending medical schools, there was very little teaching of women’s health. It was just kind of assumed that a woman producing babies was staying healthy, doing what God intended.”

   “What God intended? Are you kidding?”

   “I’ll get back to that in a bit. It all really was kind of bizarre. Did you know that doctors didn’t attend the actual birth of a baby? They didn’t because it was considered unseemly for a man to see those parts of a woman that needed to be seen in the process of delivering a baby.”

   “You’re kidding, right?”

   “Apparently not. Now, do you want to know how abortion went from pretty much legal to almost completely illegal?

    “Yes, please.”

   “Okay. Now, this was a real surprise to me. I thought that the drive to get abortion banned was for medical, or maybe religious, reasons. It turns out it wasn’t really about either of those things. Although, as I mentioned, there were a couple of earlier attempts to tighten up the abortion rules, there really wasn’t a big change until the American Medical Association was formed in 1850. Up to that time, the medical profession – if you can call it a profession – was a mix of trained doctors, and people who performed medical functions without formal credentials. The AMA wanted to get rid of the so-called non-professionals, and make medicine all about formal college training.”

   “Which you said was not a great measure of their actual abilities.”

   “It was not. Really, I guess there were two main factors involved in wanting to have a profession of medicine. One is what you might call the arrogance of education. If you have a doctorate – either medical or academic – you just automatically consider yourself smarter – and more professional – than anybody else, not matter how much you actually know. (Obviously, this isn’t true for everybody with an advanced degree, but it kind of generally is.)

   “The other part of wanting to make medicine professional is that there really were a lot of people advertising themselves as ‘doctors’ who had no business treating people. Some were what we still refer to as ‘snake oil salesmen,’ pushing worthless ‘remedies’ on the public, some of which over time have proven to be dangerous. Unfortunately, since the college-trained doctors didn’t recognize any traditional medical treatments – like the herbs that American Indians had used for centuries – a lot of useful people were considered in the same category as those selling their ‘snake oil’.

   “One of the big groups that the AMA was concerned about were midwives, women who assisted pregnant women, including helping with abortions. These women were not considered ‘professional,’ so they had to go. A less noble reason for doctors wanting them gone was a lot of women were going to them for general medical services, rather than coming to ‘real doctors.’ That amounted to a lot of potential clients, and a lot of potential fees, that weren’t coming to them.

   “Since doctors didn’t really concern themselves with women’s health, they probably had no idea about all the services that midwives performed. They just saw that they helped with abortions. If there were no legal abortions, then there would be no reason to have midwives, right?. And that’s why the AMA started to campaign really strongly for abortion bans.”

   “So, you’re saying that banning abortions had nothing to do with the safety of abortions? It was all about business?”

   “I’m saying it had very little to do with safety, or with medical practice. I said earlier that I was surprised it didn’t seem to have much to do with religion, either. Reconsidering, it sort of did, but it was a strange kind of religion.”

   “What do you mean?”

   “I should tell you about a little book that the instructor had us read.  It was called ‘Why Not? A Book for Every Woman,’ and had won the Gold Medal Prize at the 1865 AMA convention, for the best essay. The author, Horatio Storer, became the principal champion of anti-abortion in the years after that. As I recall, he presented himself as a professor of obstetrics, but considering how little the medical profession cared about women at the time, I don’t really know what his qualifications were. I know that the book was one pack of lies from beginning to end, claiming that no woman who had an abortion was ever really right after that, either physically or mentally. Whatever his level of knowledge, he must have been aware that wasn’t even close to the truth. He just made it up to justify the rest of his agenda. Apparently, most AMA members believed him.

   “He didn’t pull any punches in stating his real reasons for wanting abortion banned. First, he believed that women really had only one ‘God-given’ function – to give birth to babies. That’s what you were made for, and it was a crime against God if you resisted that in any way. I think I can remember his words almost verbatim, as he stated them twice. They were something like: marriage in which conception or birth is purposely prevented is just legalized prostitution – not a spiritual, but a sensual, union. It turns women into mere playthings.”

   “He didn’t really say that!”

   “Yes, he really did. He said he wasn’t against a little fun – in fact, the couple (at least the man) probably needed that for health reasons – but that ‘fun’ should just be the prelude to conception. Anything less was shirking their duties.”

   “I think that’s horrible.”

   “It is horrible, but in some ways his second reason to ban abortion was even worse. Have you ever heard the term ‘race suicide?’”

   “No, I don’t think so. What is it?”

   “One of Storer’s claims, and concerns, was that the birth rate and subsequent size of American families were going downward. This was true, but most of the decrease was in American Protestant families. Catholics (who mostly followed the Pope’s prohibition of any birth control) and foreign immigrants were still as prolific as ever. Storer surmised that this was because there was a lot more abortion going on in the Protestant community than elsewhere. He was no doubt correct. He had already declared that women were sinning against God when they had abortions. Now, he added by declaring that women were destroying society by letting ‘foreigners’ become more common than true White Americans. We were in danger of becoming a minority in our own country.”

   “That can’t be true!”

   “It was very true. By letting ‘foreigners’ outpace us in productivity, we were committing ‘race suicide,’ and abortion in the White Protestant ranks was the main culprit. In the years after the Civil War – the time when Storer put forth his ideas – ‘race suicide’ began to show up in every newspaper, and every conversation. Even our President, Teddy Roosevelt, was a strong believer in it, and gave public speeches, urging White women to have more babies to protect ‘American society.’ Our teacher read us one of his speeches, in which he said that intentional childlessness made women ‘criminals against the race.’ I remember one quote she read, something like, ‘I believe in children, and want to see enough of them, but of the right kind!”

   “That really is horrible. I can’t hardly believe it!”

   “The bad thing about it is that’s the part of his message that resonated with the states and the politicians. Whether or not the medical profession became more professional wasn’t of great interest to anybody but the doctors. Being overwhelmed by minorities was something else! The message caught on particularly in the former slave states, where the thought of more Negroes and less Whites must have driven people crazy with fear. Strong segregationists like the Klan added to the fear that ‘mixed marriages’ might increase, leading to ‘mongrelizing’ of the race.

   “One other thing that Storer claimed was that all medical doctors now agreed that life began at the very moment of conception. No more thinking about ‘quickening’ or any such things – any abortion at any stage was murder. I’m sure that ‘all’ doctors did not believe that, but just saying it brought a certain group of religious people into the discussion. One after another, states banned all abortions, until by the turn of the century there were almost no legal justifications for abortion in the United States. In a relatively few cases, a doctor could still say that a woman’s health could be jeopardized if a pregnancy wasn’t terminated. But it was still men - medical doctors - making the decisions for women, so you can be pretty sure they limited their exceptions to physical health, not mental health.”

   “So, we became baby-making machines to help save society!”

   “Yep,  the AMA won, but it was like that cartoon in which the satisfied surgeon comes out of the operating room, and declares ‘The operation was a success, but the patient died.’ There were no legal abortions, but there were thousands of illegal ones, often done by unqualified people, by outright charlatans, or by the pregnant women, themselves. Hospitals filled up with women having serious medical trouble after botched abortions, and many women died.

   “The many deaths did cause some people to be alarmed at what was going on, but not enough, and there wasn’t any change. Then, in the late 50s and early 60s, we had the thalidomide problems. Do you know about thalidomide?”

   “A little bit. That was the drug they gave to pregnant women that caused deformed babies.”

   “Yeah, it was supposed to help with morning sickness-type nausea. I guess it did, but it resulted in horrible deformed fetuses. Almost none lived after delivery. With almost no hope of your baby being normal, if you’d taken thalidomide, illegal abortions went up. It was out in the open again, and when one television newswoman ended up very publicly going all the way to Sweden before she was able to get an abortion, more people and lawmakers began to pay attention. Just a couple of years ago, a national group of lawyers, judges, and others developed a proposal for a legal code to abortions. It called for abortion to be legal when a pregnant woman’s life or health was at risk, but also when the pregnancy had occurred because of rape or incest, or if the fetus was known to be severely damaged. Nothing has changed, so far, but I guess a number of states are considering loosening their restrictions. I saw in the paper a couple days ago that Colorado may be one of the first to partially lift their ban.”

   “That would be a start.” Vic was pensive. “I don’t understand any of this. Well, I think I understand the male lawmakers a little better, after what you said. It’s despicable, but I can see it. What I can’t understand – even a little bit – are the women who are so vocal against abortion. Do they just think that it has nothing to do with them? Do they just forget their daughters, and the daughters of others? Do they not know that, for women – maybe especially women in my category, teens and 20s – rape isn’t some nightmare that pops up in a dream, sometime. In this greatest country in the world, it’s an ever-present possibility for us. Also, there are enough reports in the newspapers to make it clear that incest is not a rare happening, either. And the kids who make one mistake: are all those girls supposed to suffer in shame and sometimes revulsion for nine months, because… Well, because why? That’s what I don’t get!” 

   “No, I don’t, either. It seems like when people devote their whole life to a cause like stopping abortions – especially if they can make the cause seem like some kind of religious mandate – they lose all perspective. I don’t think Americans in general are opposed to abortion – polls consistently show that people want some restrictions, but they don’t want it banned. Anti-abortion is often made to sound like it’s a Christian cause but, again, many Christians are okay with abortion with restrictions, just like the rest of the country. The odd – and sad – thing about the really rabid anti-abortionists is that they are often the same people who are against birth control (which limits the need for abortions!), and often vote against government funding of prenatal or postnatal care, daycare services, and aid for poor and minority families with children. Their care for life seems to end as soon as a child is born, and actually starts living!”

   “So, Greg, what’s your opinion on abortion?”

   “Mine, personally? Well, I don’t think we need any laws; shouldn’t a woman and her doctor be able to make the appropriate decision? No legitimate doctor is going to do something that he thinks is unethical or ‘murder,’ and I can’t believe that many women would become pregnant just because they knew abortion was available. That seems unbelievably stupid to me – which I know women aren’t – particularly when safe forms of birth control are available. If there has to be a law, I think the proposal made by the attorney group is good, assuring that abortion is available in case of rape, incest, threats to the mother’s health – both physical and mental! – and fetuses that are not viable. The old ‘quickening’ concept of allowable abortions through about four months would probably be okay, but if I remember my biology correctly, a fetus can’t survive outside a woman’s body until about six months.”

   Greg ran out of steam, but he sensed Vic still had something on her mind. He asked. “I get the feeling that this topic wasn’t just some random discussion item to you. You have something in particular you want to talk about. Am I right?”

   “You’re right. I wanted to hear what you know, and what you think, and now I have a story to tell you. Do you want to hear it? It’s kind of long.”

   “Of course, I want to hear it. And you’re worried about taking too long after I have been blabbering away for over an hour? What’s this about.”

   She relaxed a little. “Okay, there’s a little background, first. As you probably know, there’s not a lot for high school kids to do out here in the sagebrush, so they do things that might get them in moderate trouble. I’m pretty sure there are drugs in the school, but I don’t think there are many. The kids drink too much beer but, other than being a danger on the highways, they aren’t into anything harder. That leaves one sure way for both boys and girls to get in trouble, and that’s sex. We hear mostly gossip and rumor, but there are enough facts to suggest that there’s a lot going on. Girl talk around the school is that there are more than a few pregnancies, and that there are abortions, too, even though they are illegal. One girl we know got pregnant, because she stayed in school, had the baby, and graduated. It’s hard to tell about the rest of the gossip, but I think some of it is true.

   “There’s a case that Mandy and I knew about personally, and that’s the one I wanted to talk to you about. The boy is my age, but this happened a year or so ago, so he was maybe seventeen, or maybe still sixteen. The girl is a year behind Mandy, so she was probably only fifteen, at most. They’d been going steady for several months, at least, but she said they had never had sex – that this was the first time for both of them. I believe her.

   “My Mom says that getting pregnant the first time you have sex isn’t always easy. She said that, with both me and Mandy, it took quite a few tries after she and Daddy decided they wanted babies. (She also said that they weren’t unhappy it didn’t happen right away, because they had a lot of fun, trying. But I probably shouldn’t have told you that, because you might not concentrate on the rest of my story.)

   “I’m trying.”

   “Thank you. In the story I’m telling you, they tried it one time, and that’s all it took. She told her parents just as soon as she suspected. They were not supportive. The boy took responsibility for his part, but what could he do? Her parents wanted to throw him in jail, or something, but the school convinced them – for the sake of the kids – not to make it more public than it already was. Then, the parents talked about making her carry the baby the whole term, as ‘punishment.’ Can you believe that? Punishment! They reneged, but only after traumatizing her for a couple weeks. Then, her dad took her somewhere, and got an abortion. I think he went out of state, but of course it was still illegal. The girl is still in school, - and seems okay - and the boy graduated, so it’s kind of a non-story. But, of course, it isn’t. To put a couple of teens through all that for one lapse in judgment is inexcusable, as far as I’m concerned, and wouldn’t have been necessary if we had any kind of humane abortion law.”

   “As you said, it’s not a non-story. There were a number of ways it could have been lovingly handled, if not for the law.”

   “Situation ethics,” said Vic.


   She was quiet for a moment, but she had more on her mind. “What you hear all the time from people opposed to abortion is that it’s murder. Is it?”

   “I guess if you believe what Storer claimed that ‘all physicians’ believe – that life begins when a viable sperm meets a viable egg -  you’re not going to be convinced otherwise. I don’t think that’s a logical conclusion. As I said, a fetus may have life, but it can’t survive outside of a woman’s body until it’s five or six months old. I would hope that any woman who carries it beyond that to actual birth wants to have the baby. If she wants – or needs – to abort before then, I think it’s her body and her business.

   “As a biologist, I guess I’m pretty clear about this.  Of the hundred kazillion sperms and eggs  that humans produce every day, many have the potential to be part of the creation of a human being. That potential is seldom realized because most sperms never have a chance to meet most eggs, either because they are never in proximity to one another, or because steps have been taken to assure that their meetings will not be fruitful. (It’s called ‘birth control.’) Occasionally, sure-fire birth control turns out not to be sure-fire. Sometimes, passion trumps planning, and the unlikely becomes unplanned reality. Sometimes, birth control is not available, sometimes because the same religious people who don’t want abortions don’t want people to have ready access to birth control, either. And sometimes, the worst happens, when viable sperm meets viable egg as a result of sexual assault – rape. Pregnancy is not an expected, or hoped for, outcome in any of those cases. Where is the morality in punishing any of those individual events? For any ‘Christians’ against abortion in those cases, I suggest they re-read their New Testament, and ponder the words of Jesus.”

   She was still thinking. “What if I wanted to abort your baby?”

   Greg glanced at her. She was serious. “That’s getting a little ahead of ourselves, isn’t it – considering we haven’t even had the fun yet that your mother says precedes the conception that would give rise to your question?”

   “It will be fun, won’t it?”

   That stopped him for a moment. “Yes, I think we will have a lot of fun, conceiving or not conceiving, as we choose. But if that picture gets too clearly imbedded on my brain, I won’t be able to answer your question. So, first – the item in question wouldn’t  be mine; it would be ours. Because it would be ours, we would discuss the situation honestly, openly, and in detail. We would almost certainly come to an agreement on what should be done. If by any chance we couldn’t, you would be the one with the most to consider for the rest of the nine months, so your concerns should be the deciding ones. Because we love one another, there would be no second-guessing or recriminations. We would just go on to love and take care of the babies we already had, make new babies, or perhaps a combination of both.”

   She took hold of his arm. “That’s a very good answer,” she whispered.

  “Thank you. What seems to me so sad about all of this is that – between those who want to outlaw birth control, and those who seek to keep abortion illegal – some want to make sure that sex is just about making babies, and not about making love.”

   “Well, they can’t succeed, because you have made certain promises to me.”

   “What promises have I made?”

   “Well, you sort of just outlined them. However, I’ll remind you more specifically, when the time comes.”

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