By Merle Hoffman
Special the Eagle
"Patient #4 in recovery was moved by your work and wants to see you."
When my assistant's email came through, I was in the middle of a meeting in my office. Excusing myself, I put on the white coat I always keep hanging on the back of my chair and went up to the recovery room.
In the fourth bed, I met the wide dark eyes of the woman who wanted to see me. When introduced myself, she reached out her arms, and as I drew her close to me her words spilled out: "You saved my life. I was 18 weeks — the baby was dead — they should have told me weeks ago. The doc — she didn't want to help. I found you on the Internet — read all about you. Why didn't they tell me earlier? You saved me — thank you. Thank you."
As we embraced, I thanked her for reminding me why I have spent the last 41 years of my life doing this work. When I left her bedside, I grabbed her chart to get the whole story from the counselor's notes:
“Caucasian patient was 19 weeks pregnant with a planned pregnancy,” the note read. “While receiving prenatal care she was informed, two weeks ago, about fetal abnormalities indicating severe developmental issues. Patient told to return in two weeks and seek an abortion independently. No assistance was offered. Patient was severely upset because the same abnormality had been confirmed with a prior pregnancy of nine weeks gestation leading to a much easier termination process. Patient became familiar with Merle Hoffman and her activism on the Internet and became teary eyed during session when describing what Ms. Hoffman's work meant to her, and later inquired about the possibility of meeting Ms. Hoffman personally.”
The power of the act itself
Reading this, my mind flew back to the first patient I had counseled in 1971. She had come to us from New Jersey because abortion was still illegal in that state. She came without her husband, but she had a supportive friend with her whose face betrayed a well of empathetic anxiety.
I was nervous. In this, as in all of my other tasks at the clinic, no one had trained me. What could I say to her? What would she say to me? All my psychology courses flooded into my brain: theories, theories and more theories.
This woman was terrified. She was pregnant and did not want to be. Coming to the clinic had required an enormous amount of courage, and now she was in my hands. I was to guide her way. I was to be her bridge, her midwife into the realms of power and responsibility that are so much a part of the abortion decision.
I held her hand tightly in mine as I listened to her nervous staccato breath. I kept her talking to help ease the discomfort of the dilators. I locked her eyes in mine, breathed in rhythm with her, joined with her to the point of personal discomfort.
In the end, I do not remember a word of what passed between us. It was strangely irrelevant. But I do remember her face. And I remember her hand, the hand that came to symbolize the intimate, personal connection of one woman helping another, the gravity of forging a natural alliance with that woman and the thousands who followed her.
And then I learned my own lessons in power and loss, and reached out for another's hand to hold.
For one night I was a mother
I had returned to New York that summer of 1982 for a nationally televised debate with a prominent anti-choice leader. I was anxious and tremendously concerned that I should win. I understood that one could never really convert the other side. Debates merely served to rearticulate the issues on an ever higher and more conscious level so that the converted became disciples.
My debate was taped on a Friday. I had taken a pregnancy test that morning, leaving my urine at Choices. My period was a couple of weeks late, and I was worried. I was always so careful, almost obsessive, but no method of birth control is perfect.
As the debate progressed, I experienced an odd sort of splitting off. I responded to the gibes and questions of my opponent, all the while thinking that I could be pregnant. I felt removed enough to appreciate the irony of the situation, a battle being waged on multiple tracks. I was performing politically for the cameras and debating emotionally with myself. My opponent asked me how I could call myself a feminist and support abortion rights when half the fetuses being aborted were female. It was not a new argument. None of it was, but this time it made me think of my mother. My mother, with dreams deferred and denied.
In the closing argument I made a passionate plea for the importance of women's lives, for remembering that the abortion "issue" was ultimately about that. Thousands of individual stories, thousands of different reasons, all culminating in one shared ambiguous reality — a reality I was beginning to enter.
I finished the taping and asked to use the studio phone to call my office. The assistant stood next to me, engaging me in conversation; I was talking, laughing. Then I got on the phone, spoke to my secretary, and found out that the pregnancy test was positive. It took my breath away.
Sweating profusely, I wondered whether I had stained the outfit I was wearing for the debate. I called a cab, flattened my back against the seat, and took slow, deep breaths, trying to keep from feeling suffocated. The idea of abortion was a valve, an opening, a way to breathe. There was no question of whether I would have one. As we crossed the 59th Street bridge, I held my stomach and said aloud, "Sorry little one, it's just not time."
My diary entry from that night reads, "For one night I am a mother." I don't remember whether or not I slept. I only remember my exhaustion and an overriding sense of inevitability. The next morning I dressed carefully in a red and white suit. What does one wear to an abortion? There are no traditional costumes like those for funerals or weddings. There is no ritual from one generation of women to another to look to as a guide. There are only functional considerations; you wear something that comes on and off quickly and easily.
At Choices, the steps of the familiar process were played out in a surreal reversal. The blood tests, the images of the sonogram, the table, the stirrups-they were all for me. Now I was joined to the common experience of my sex. But as I lay on the table I had stood beside to support so many others, I felt irrevocably alone. The hands that touched and caressed my hair felt as if they moved through a dark porous divide that separated me from everything that I knew or had been before. As I spread my legs like all my sisters, I thought of the child whose time was not now. Strange how I thought of the fetus as a female, as if that shared gender gave me a more special connection.
Yet despite that connection — the recognition of the fetus's potential to become my child — I knew that I could not allow this pregnancy to come to term. My sense of self, my sense of time, the flow of my movement towards goals that I had created had been interrupted the moment my test came back positive. The fetus was an invader, a separate force growing inside me, demanding and creating potentially unalterable realities. I couldn't let my life become someone else's.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that each individual operates by the "law of self-preservation," the instinctive tendency we have to survive at all costs. The Catholic Church's just war doctrine accepts the taking of human life if one's life or that of another is directly threatened, in keeping with Aquinas's "natural law." Does the fetus not impede a woman's tendency to maintain her own existence? Is it not an unjust aggressor, threatening the survival of the mother? Is not a woman's choice of abortion an act of self-defense? With my choice I was fighting for the right of all women to define abortion as an act of love: love for the family one already has, and, just as important, love for oneself. I was fighting to reclaim abortion as a mother's act. It was an act of solidarity as significant as any other I had committed.
After my abortion, as I slowly awoke from the anesthesia, I became conscious of immense and overwhelming feelings: non-specific, non-directed. Love, relief — then sadness.
A few days later, walking down the hallway in Choices, I heard loud, wrenching sobs coming from the recovery room. A woman was waking from anesthesia and crying for her mother. I went to her bed, lowered the side rails, and gently tried to soothe her. As I bent down to her face she whispered in a halting Russian accent, "You're the only one I have now, I'm all alone. You've saved my life by being here." I held the woman close, enormously moved, savoring our connection. There was no good or bad, no issue of choice. There was nothing more than the pure energy of survival, and women doing what they had been doing for centuries throughout history, what they will do forever.
And now all these years later, after so many battles, so much struggle, so many women and girls who have come through my hands, I spent the anniversary of Roe v. Wade the only way I know how — with my patients.
Merle Hoffman is the Founder/President of Choices Women's Medical Center and Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of On The Issues Magazine.