“If you had been a boy, we planned to name you Lazarus.”
My mother told me that story over and over. I was never sure whether I believed her. Would she really have dared to give me such an unconventional name, a name with such a specific Biblical story associated with it? I was a serious Sunday School student and understood the weight that name would have carried. Thank goodness I was a girl.
“The doctors told me you were dead,” my mother would continue, usually after my unrelenting energy and general rambunctiousness had worn her down. While pregnant with me, my mother had been advised that she was carrying a dead fetus in her womb. That presented enormous risk for her, and her physicians felt they had to take extraordinary steps to save her life.
But it was 1959. And a doctor could not legally “take” a baby before birth. So a courageous and determined Dr. George Heels admitted my mother to Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass.—for an appendectomy.
My mother was never convinced that any of this was necessary. Although the doctor had not been able to detect a fetal heartbeat during her recent appointments, she knew I was kicking and moving around. She knew she wasn’t carrying dead weight. She protested vehemently when he tried to tell her otherwise.
My mother had already successfully carried one baby to term. She had experienced the stillbirth of another, and the agonizing death of yet another shortly after his birth. Her life had hung in the balance both times. She was no novice.
“When they wheeled me into the surgery prep room before my appendectomy,” my mother would explain to me yet again, “Dr. Heels gently laid his stethoscope on my abdomen one last time. This time you kicked the stethoscope out of his hand. You finally proved to him that I was right. I knew you were fine all along.”
I expect that nearly every adult woman has a story of a doctor who didn’t believe her, who minimized her complaints, who explained impatiently, in a condescending manner, why he (in that era they were usually men) was right and she was mistaken about her own body and the symptoms she was experiencing. It still happens today, of course. It is at the root of our ongoing discussions about whether women should retain control over their own health and their own bodies.
In January 1973, when Roe v. Wade changed the law of this land, I was 13 years old. I had heard my mother’s personal story many times by this point. I had heard her share details of the suffering and the horror and the deaths of women who had sought “back-alley” abortions, or who had tried some granny’s remedy to terminate a pregnancy. She was a fierce supporter of legal abortion. She was a fierce supporter of women knowing their own bodies and making their own decisions.
Sadly, it’s time for all of us once again to drag these stories back out in the open. Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan recognized that. This week, he shared the painful story of his first wife’s abortion, a procedure that probably saved her life. As Peters said, “It's a story of how gut-wrenching and complicated decisions can be related to reproductive health." Many women, many families know the importance of having this procedure available when needed.
My mother’s story ended with an unexpected twist. She and my dad became close friends of Dr. Heels and his wife, Vera. They socialized and traveled together. It was as if helping my parents through a series of traumas connected the two families emotionally.
And that’s what we need to do again now. We need to recognize the shared humanity in all of our stories. The shared pain. The shared hope. We need to ensure that hope is available for women who find themselves in life-threatening or life-altering situations that they cannot endure. We need to trust the women when they know it is so.