Six months after John Salvi murdered two women and wounded five at a Planned Parenthood facility and a Preterm clinic, I witnessed an abortion at Preterm, the second clinic attacked, then located about three miles from Boston’s Fenway Park.
Clinic operators had sought both to reassure women about their safety and to demonstrate the quick, safe abortion procedure to a reporter. Laurie was the first woman who volunteered that June day in 1995; in the story I wrote at the time for the Boston Herald, I identified her only by her first name. She was 30, the mother of a 12-year-old and a three-year-old. She was also seven weeks pregnant. Here is the story of her abortion.
“This definitely wasn’t supposed to happen,” she said in a small counseling room about an hour before her abortion. “I can’t afford this (third baby). I had my first baby at 18 and I haven’t been able to do anything. I want to become somebody. I want to go to school. I want to get a job that I am proud of. I want to start over.
“My boyfriend was so worried about financial pressure, how with another baby he’d need another job. I know men can’t feel what we feel. His reaction is that after today it’ll be all over. It’s not over. I’m gonna see a little baby and get upset. I’m gonna wonder what it was. I will feel sad.”
Laurie had passed by several male protestors, two armed guards, and a metal detector to reach the third floor Preterm office and pay $360 for an abortion. She mistakenly believed an intravenous pain medication would cost another $90. In fact, it cost just $35 more, but she misunderstood, declined it, and was administered only a local anesthetic.
Before the abortion, she told a clinic counselor that she did not have questions, but admitted feeling sad and afraid, particularly that she would “hear the sound of a life being ripped out of me … the suction sound.”
The abortion room itself was small and clean with creamy, pale pink walls and yellow linoleum floors. Laurie lay on a stainless steel examining table with stirrups covered by flowered oven mitts. On one side of the room were what looked like oversized glass mayonnaise jars covered with blue paper and connected to a hose. Into these would go “the products of conception,” one of many terms clinics use, then and now, to euphemize more graphic and upsetting terms.
At 10:56 a.m., a female physician entered and told a nervous Laurie, worried about throwing up, to relax. At 10:59, another staffer massaged Laurie’s upper chest and said softly, “Breathe in, breathe out.” At 11:04, Laurie heard the low suction sound she feared. At 11:09, the abortion was complete. Laurie cried.
I retell this story today for many reasons. The firestorm surrounding three undercover videos of Planned Parenthood physicians negotiating the cost of fetal body parts shows no sign of abating. The focus has centered more on the legal question — was Planned Parenthood donating these parts (legal) or selling them (illegal) — and less on the moral and ethical one. That is, what respect should be demanded in the business of abortion, which ends a life, however you define that life?
The answer is far more than we saw from Planned Parenthood‘s senior director of medical services, Deborah Nucatola. She drank wine and ate salad with gusto while simultaneously detailing crushing techniques she’s employed to best preserve an intact fetal lung or liver or heart. There really is no defending it.
Having reported on abortion now for 30 years, I believe most physicians who perform abortions are very different from Dr. Nucatola. They are deeply committed to women’s reproductive rights. They’re also heroic, considering the online and in-person harassment and significant danger they face from fanatics on the anti-abortion side.
Dr. Nucatola, however, has clearly grown numb. She needs to find another medical specialty. Arguments in her defense — that medical professionals routinely talk irreverently and even joke about gruesome operating room tasks — just do not cut it. Operating to help or try to save a sick person, who consented to that help, is one thing. An abortion is a different kind of operation. There is no happy ending.
I retell this story today as well because I’d expected a more thoughtful response to Planned Parenthood from Catholics for Choice, the national pro-choice group that wants support from the pews. So far, there’s been none.
But I tell it mainly because Laurie, two decades ago, solidified what I had long thought about abortion. It’s a tragedy. I hate it. The waiting room that day at Preterm could not have been more grim, filled with mostly young and often poor, desperate women who saw no other way out. But to paraphrase the novelist (and lapsed Catholic) Anna Quindlen, what I hate even more is the idea of the government outlawing abortion. It did not work. It never could. Women should never go back to where they were pre-1973, and Roe v. Wade.
After her abortion, Laurie sat in a recovery room on a thickly cushioned reclining chair. She held a heating pad to her belly. She said she felt empty.
“All this started so far back. I should’ve stayed in school. I shouldn’t have gotten pregnant so young. My husband left when the baby was nine months old,” she said. “Sometimes I wish I could go to school and tell girls, ‘Wait. Wait.’ But this baby was conceived out of love. It’s hard not to be able to afford a baby. But that’s how it is.”
Then it was noon. Laurie’s ibuprofen had kicked it. She felt well enough to leave the Preterm clinic with her girlfriend, back past the metal detectors and the armed guards and the protesting men. She went home to take care of her children.