Critical choice

Thursday, October 28th, 2004

“He had been watching me through the window to see if I was being followed.”

This was 1962. Joyce Koenig was scared and alone — and four weeks pregnant. And she was about to put her life on the line by getting an illegal abortion. At least this was in the penicillin era. In the ’40s and earlier, the annual death toll from botched abortions was well into the thousands: an extraordinary carnage at the altar of choice.

Joyce, a friend of mine who lives in the Chicago area, is going public with her 42-year-old secret because she fears that, if George Bush wins “re-election” and gets another crack at making Supreme Court appointments, the religious right could seize control at long last and condemn American women once more to the back-alley hack, to shame, fear and makeshift surgical procedures. Young people today “don’t know what an illegal abortion is,” she said.

The first choice people must make on Nov. 2 is to vote at all. If you are floundering about this, please, I urge you, find the resolve to participate in the country’s, and your own, future. Make a choice for choice. John Kerry has bucked the ecclesiastical bullies and stood firm for a woman’s right to decide what happens to her own body.

In the bad old days, when women didn’t have that right, they claimed it anyway. They claimed it, often enough, the way Joyce did, by “frantically asking around for help” and ultimately getting a referral to some stranger with dubious credentials. In Joyce’s case, it was a “nurse” who was said to perform “natural abortions.” She was given an address.

And there was that guy in the window, eyeing her so intently. Had she been followed? “It was so spooky, like film noir.” This is life on the other side of the law, where paranoia abounds, where you can’t trust the shadows. You pay your money and you take your chances. A young woman who walks into this world — Joyce was 23 — has no one on her side. “You’re so alone,” she said.

The guy let her in and the nurse, if that’s what she really was, entered the room. Joyce was told to lie down on the dining-room table. “It took about an hour. (There was) a lot of poking and pain,” but then it was over. “She put some sort of packing into me, popped two penicillin pills in my mouth, called a cab and sent me out the door.”

Joyce went home and went to bed, but that night she realized the ordeal wasn’t over at all; it was just starting. “That night I went into contractions — I started bleeding heavily. I was in a great deal of discomfort and pain.” It finally subsided after several hours and she went back to sleep.

The next morning she stayed home from work — with the “flu” — and that night the contractions and the hemorrhaging started up again. “By that time, the stuff the nurse had packed into me was out.” This is how it went for six nights. “It was like going into labor every night,” she said.

On the sixth day, she thought it was all over, but fainted at the supermarket. Her boyfriend took her home, and there she fainted again, so weak was she from the blood loss.

But the seventh night was contraction-free and Joyce slowly recovered, regaining her strength, returning to work, getting on with her life and keeping her secret. Now, after four decades, the secret is out. Now it’s part of the culture wars.

This is illegal abortion — when all goes well. Joyce knows it could have been worse. By the ’60s, the number of women dying from hack jobs was maybe a few hundred a year, but the trauma and desperation were widespread. “I think I was one of the luckier ones — horror stories abound.”

This is what the culture warriors of the right, if their man wins the election, might be able to bring back.

I stand with my friend Joyce; I stand with the pro-choice majority of this country (who demonstrated their strength six months ago when they marched a million strong on the nation’s capital) and take back the moral high ground of this divisive issue. To support choice is to support and honor individual women as they make a wrenching, terrifying decision in a dark hour.

The zealots of doctrine and dogma must not be allowed to preempt this decision, dictate what a woman must do and condemn the ones who don’t do it to surgery on the dining-room table.