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An Abortion Doctor’s Story

Issue 273

Dr. Mac performed abortions in the South for 12 years before returning to public health in New York City.

Melanie MacLennan Aug 19

Click here to read “What I Learned at the Crisis Pregnancy Center.”

Abortion — like sex, and the pill and birth, and arthritis — is life.

My first abortion was in 1992, in my third year of medical school. I was seeing a remarkable therapist who put me in touch with a woman in Harlem who was part of a self-help group of women practicing menstrual extraction (a form of abortion that came about just before the Roe decision). Abortion was legal at the time but I wasn’t fond of the idea of going to the hospital for one and I liked the idea of women helping women. 

It took me a while to decide what to do, so I was about eight weeks along by the time we did the extraction at my apartment in the East Village. A couple of women came. One was a nurse; the rest were lay people who had all been practicing on each other — which was what self-help menstrual extraction  groups did. They regularly got together several times a month, examined their own and each others’ cervices and vaginas, noted the part of the cycle they were in, extracted menses only or perhaps it was also a very early pregnancy (less than two weeks or so). 

There are a lot of doctors and do-it-yourself-if-possible sorts of people in my family, so I liked this idea. My aunt drove ambulances for the socialists in England during WWII. My uncle was a doctor who did reconstructive cancer surgery in the outback of Australia. I had the pill years before I needed it because some of my friends found a doctor who would give it to us. They, all a few years older, took the risk of taking me around with them, and I went to all the marches and protests — sometimes out of state — antiwar, Earth Day and the burgeoning women’s movement. 

I had my second abortion at a clinic a year after the first, when I was interning in eastern North Carolina. My unintended pregnancy was causing me to fall asleep standing up while talking to the attending physicians. Finally, I had an emergency room patient who told me about the abortion clinic she had just been to. I made an appointment and made the four-hour drive each way. 

Abortion — like sex, and the pill and birth, and arthritis — is life.

After these experiences, I wanted to learn how to do an abortion. In residency in North Carolina, I learned about a doctor who was willing to teach me. Richard Manning, is on the hit list of abortion doctors to kill. He was a part of a group of OB GYNs in Knoxville. He traveled six days a week throughout the South and did abortions from Knoxville to Asheville to Charlotte to Charleston, and then Arkansas and Mississippi and then back home to Knoxville. He’s in his 70s  now and still doing abortions.

Dr. Manning was willing to teach me — a non OB. I went every Saturday that I wasn’t on call. There is no “certification” for abortion competency. He decided that I was to watch 50 he did and then I did 50 with him behind me and then he turned me loose! Fifty abortions is more than any OB GYN reisdent has usually done after four years of residency. 

Right before I graduated, Dr. Manning had a heart attack; he asked me to cover for him for a couple of months. I covered for him in Charleston and Charlotte and Asheville. When Dr. Manning returned, I officially became part of the schedule and ended up doing abortions with him for 12 years.

One of the first abortions I did was with a 15-year-old girl in Charlotte. One of the techs called me and said, “I can’t find the pregnancy.” Her blood pressure was very high — something like 200 over 100. I plunked the ultrasound on her belly and saw that there was a full-term infant, ready to be delivered. We called the ambulance right away. 

She didn’t know how pregnant she was nor did she want to know. She’d been wearing a loose basketball shirt and had been playing basketball the whole time. She was raped by a family member. 

I once did a nine-week abortion on a young woman who was very nervous. The woman who owned the clinic later told me that this woman was an anti-abortion protester, that she’d protested at the clinic. She also told me this woman had thrown herself down the stairs and swam into a cold pond. 

There are a lot of people who are organ­izing around this right now, and you should simply find them and hook up with them if you’re interested. There’s power in numbers.

In 2008, after 12 years, I stopped doing abortions. I’d been with the same group for over a decade and wanted a change. I moved back to New York, where abortion malpractice insurance is very expensive and I couldn’t afford it. But I didn’t think I was done performing abortions.  

For the past decade or so, I’ve been doing addiction medicine, working mostly with homeless people and other marginalized populations in shelters, safe havens and now a public hospital. I didn’t plan out a medical career for myself. I just thought that if I loved what I did, I would make enough money. Unfortunately, those days ended shortly after my medical school graduation with the advent of privatized insurance. 

Since the overturning of Roe, people have reached out to me asking if I’d be willing to do abortions again. At the hospital where I’m working, a surgeon and an OB GYN have inquired about my experience and what I’m capable of doing. I’m also a member of various doctors groups, mostly family practice who do reproductive health and abortions and other reproductive health organizations. There are many ways to help — many doctors are stretched very thin doing abortions in the states they are licensed in, others are helping train people to do them. There are funds to help support medical providers such as Dr. Caitlin Bernard in Indiana who did an abortion on a 10-year-old rape victim and has been targeted with death threats by “pro-life” zealots. One thing I am doing is mentoring medical students that are interested in reproductive health.

You can’t even see that it’s an embryo until you hit 10 weeks. Before that, it’s a tablespoon to two tablespoons of different colored tissues. The easiest way to do an at-home abortion is by taking a pill, but now states are regulating against that, too — and to such an extent that miscarriages are now potential crime scenes and the doctor and patient could end up in jail even if the pill is mailed to them.  

Right now, communities are organizing to provide abortions for people in need who live in the near-majority of states where it is now illegal — with travel routes, medication abortion by mail where legal, etc. There are a lot of people who are organ­izing around this right now, and you should simply find them and hook up with them if you’re interested. There’s power in numbers. There is also continued and renewed interest in the long history of contraception and abortion that is sometimes, in some places, still shared knowledge — and one can go out into their garden to pick their contraception and put it in their salad!

As told to Amba Guerguerian.

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