What It Was Like to Be an Abortion Provider in the U.S. Before Roe v. Wade

What It Was Like to Be an Abortion Provider in the U.S. Before Roe v. Wade
From TIME - July 27, 2017

Dr. David Grimes performed his first abortion in 1972 as a medical student at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. Five years before, North Carolina had joined Colorado and California in becoming the first states to legalize abortions in a few select scenarios: rape, incest, physical or mental defects in the child, and threats to the health or life of the mother.

The Supreme Courts 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, upon the mothers request, across the nation. The decision came shortly before Grimes graduated from medical school, and he would go on to perform the procedure many times in his 42-year OB-GYN career. Now retired, he is an author of Every Third Woman in America: How Legal Abortion Transformed Our Nation.

These days, the number of abortion clinics has been dwindling at a record pace, according to a Bloomberg Business report, as a result of better access to birth control as well as increasingly strict regulations on the procedure. Some states are down to just one, including Kentucky, where activists announced this week their goal of shutting down the states last clinic. TIME spoke with Grimes about his experience as an abortion provider and the differences before and after Roe v. Wade.

What made you want to get into this area of womens health?

North Carolina was ahead of the curve. It was quite a progressive state back then, and North Carolina laws were liberalized several years before Roe v. Wade. So I became interested as a both social issue as well as a medical issue. And I began providing abortions as a fourth-year medical student in 1972 and continued throughout my career. It was very apparent to anybody with an open eye and an open mind that this is just a fundamental part of womens health care and couldnt just be avoided.

What was the medical atmosphere nationally regarding abortion prior to its legalization, when the procedure was often performed underground?

Frustration would be the best word, and physicians just could not accept the carnage that we witnessed. Its important to remember that there were two groups that fundamentally drove the legislative process in the 1960s and early 1970s toward liberalization. One was the clergy, because they had to deal with these women in crisis and oftentimes would assist with referrals to safe providers, and then physicians [who] were left to deal with the women who were damaged or killed by [illegal] abortion.

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Did you ever see or treat women who were in that situation?

Yes, I did, as well as seeing them internationally. I describe two cases [in Every Third Woman] that I still remember vividly decades later. One was a woman who came in with a temperature of 106, 107 degrees. Ive never seen anyone that hot before except for with heat stroke. On examination, it turned out she had a red rubber catheter protruding from her cervix that had been put in place by a dietician in the next town over. This is a standard, old illegal abortion technique, quite effective but also quite dangerous. We saved her life.

[In the second instance] I got called down to the emergency department to a see a young woman, a coed from on campus, who was in septic shock. She had virtually no blood pressure. And on examination, I found a dead fetal foot protruding through her cervix at about 17 weeks of pregnancy and [under] suspicious circumstances. We saved her life, as well.


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