Back Alley Abortions: Deja Vu All Over Again?

By Mary Roberts

Dr. Voss rolls his chair away from the examining table. “Yes, you’re pregnant.”

It is 1971. I am 20.

When the doctor examines me, he says it felt like the IUD had turned upside down, rendering it almost impossible to do its job — preventing a pregnancy. Even if motherhood was a consideration, the fetus had little chance of surviving. I had a high probability of an ectopic pregnancy but would likely miscarry.

Dr. Voss’ assistant, Julia, sits to my right and holds my hand while he probes. He is gentle but I am terrified and humiliated, uncomfortable with my body and sex or anything mildly erotic, having spent my childhood in the unforgiving and punishing bosom of the Catholic Church.

He said that he was unable to perform an abortion, or in my case, a D & C., explaining that he was being watched and he didn’t want me involved.

“Besides, you’ll abort on your own. I’m sorry, that’s all I can do. Call me when you start bleeding.” Julie, who I learned was his daughter, gave me a piece of paper with his home phone number on it ‘in case it happens after hours.’ The doctor hoped that manipulating the IUD would encourage it to perform its job — if belatedly.

Ten days later, I was back with a report of minor spotting and extreme stress. Once again, I lay there. Once again, his daughter held my hand. I noticed there was no one else in the waiting room and no phones were ringing. His daughter spoke quietly, telling me that they expected an arrest warrant any day now and they didn’t want anyone in the office when they finally came for him.

“But don’t worry, we have the names of other docs who can help.”

What? Who came for him? I still hadn’t understood that this doctor, this kind and solicitous man who warmed his hands with a heating pad before touching his patients and treated me with respect and concern, would soon be taken away in handcuffs, have his mug shot taken and be put in a holding cell for taking care of women like me.

I spent those two weeks before the D & C, terrified I was going to hemorrhage in Reporting 101 or in line at the student center bookstore. Or late at night, asleep, waking with stabbing pain and a bloody mattress. I told no one, only my boyfriend knew.

The bleeding started on a late Friday afternoon, after hours. I dialed his home number and we met at dusk in his office, his daughter handing him the instruments for the D & C while still reassuring me that everything was going well. I would feel a sharp pain and it would be over soon. I did and it was.

A few days later Dr. Voss (not his real name) was arrested. His case led to a change in Colorado abortion laws though the state had legalized it (with daunting restrictions) in 1967. To me, Dr. Voss was a savior — compassionate and without judgment. There have been few people in my life that I can recall with such gratitude.

In 1971, limited access to abortion was available in Colorado with three physicians approving it for the “right” reason. Was not wanting to be a mother a good reason? No. Was mental health a reason? Only if a psychiatrist would state that the woman was emotionally unstable and under a doctor’s care. How about rape and incest? Yes, but not if there was evidence of ‘inappropriate’ sexual conduct on the woman’s part.

Forty-six years later and I believe that this can happen again. I fear that women’s choices about their bodies will be, once again, determined by ignorant men.

I fear that low-cost access to birth control and sex education will be denied and we will, once again, whisper amongst ourselves, sharing the names and numbers of doctors who are sympathetic.

I fear that ‘back-alley’ abortions or recipes for DIY ‘miscarriages’ will appear on the Internet and more women will die. I fear that children will be born to households unable to care for another child. I fear that what we do with our bodies will be determined by old, white men, eager to get back their longed-for authority over women who have had generations of freedom to cast their own destiny and that of our country’s.

I was outraged 46 years ago when what happened inside my womb was someone else’s business. I am outraged now that the progeny of those men and women who struggled to wrest responsibility for my body away from me are back at it again.

It’s time they feared us. Because we are coming for them. Because now, we have generations of men and women who, like Dr. Voss, understand that an administration that imprisons a man (or woman) for helping the vulnerable is an administration that is destined to fall.