A review of the book “This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor”

Eleanor J. Bader Feb 9, 2008

This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor by Susan Wicklund, with Alan Kesselheim, Public Affairs Books, 2007.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the number of U.S. abortion providers fell from 1,819 in 2000 to 1,787 in 2005. Worse, they’re clustered in cities, leaving 87 percent of all counties with no one to perform this common procedure. The upshot is that more than 25 percent of women who want to end a pregnancy have to travel 50 or more miles—each way—for their care.

If they’re lucky, they’ll encounter Dr. Susan Wicklund.

Compassionate and astute, Wicklund became a provider in the 1980s. At some points she’s been a “circuit rider,” traveling from city to city and performing abortions in places as disparate as Fargo, North Dakota; Appleton and Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Duluth, Minneapolis, and St. Paul, Minnesota. Eventually, she bought a clinic in Bozeman, Montana and spent five years offering gynecological services to area women.

Throughout, her goal has been simple: to provide high-quality reproductive health care. This mission rests on the memory of her own 1976 abortion. “The doctor came toward me,” she recalls. “I remember looking down at him, aware of how exposed I was. He said nothing, didn’t even tell me his name, asked no questions, but abruptly started to work…

‘What are you doing?’ I asked.

‘Shut up and lie still.’ His voice was rough, angry, as if I had no right to intrude.” Within minutes a nurse was told to hold Wicklund down. Next thing she knew, she was in the Recovery Room.

In retrospect, the experience was instructive, teaching Wicklund the importance of pre-operative counseling and good communication. “My biggest fear,” she confesses, “has always been to do an abortion on someone who will come to regret it.”

You’d think that would make Wicklund a hero to anti-choicers, but it hasn’t. Instead, she’s been on the receiving end of an array of anti-abortion tactics—from clinic blockades to the invasion of her home. She’s also been assaulted. In one incident, a man grabbed her, slammed her against a van, and screamed, “You killer. You deserve to die.”

October 3, 1991 was particularly awful. On that day, Wicklund awakened to people bellowing “Susan kills babies” outside her rural home. That day, and for a while thereafter, Wicklund’s teenaged daughter needed a police escort to get to and from school. For most of the next year the town was bombarded by leaflets: “Your neighbor, Susan Wicklund, is a terrorist to the unborn,” signed the Lambs of Christ.

Although many of Wicklund’s neighbors were outraged, law enforcement did little to curtail the Lambs’ activities. Emboldened, they blocked Wicklund’s driveway with cement-filled barrels. When she called to report the trespassers, police told her they could do nothing before day-break since there were more protesters than the night crew could handle. This left Wicklund, her daughter and husband prisoners in their home. Seventeen years later, she remains incredulous: “These people were allowed to hold us hostage because it was dark outside and they outnumbered the police!”

While Wicklund outsmarted the antis and boasts of never missing a day of work because of them, the victory took its toll. Her marriage ended and Wicklund became depressed, anxious and weary.

Then, doctor David Gunn was murdered near his clinic in Pensacola, Florida. Wicklund’s account of what it was like to attend patients while simultaneously being on red-alert is gripping. At the same time, she barely mentions other providers and I wondered if professional groups like the National Coalition of Abortion Providers were of any help to her.

That aside, the book lambastes anti-abortion rhetoric by zooming in on one provider and the patients she treats. The end result is a snapshot of contemporary abortion provision.

In a perfect world, this would not be a glimpse into the remarkable. That it is reflects the fact that we’re a long way from treating abortion as routine surgery and even farther from seeing abortionists as run-of-the-mill physicians. However reluctantly, their valorous work sets them apart and breathes life into a tired pro-choice slogan. Indeed, without providers there really is no choice.

–Eleanor J. Bader