SEVERAL YEARS AGO a mother of three young children had just returned to work when she discovered that she was pregnant. Neither she nor her husband felt capable, psychologically or financially, of raising a fourth child, and she chose to have an abortion.
Later, Linda Francke published an article describing the experience and the "small ghost" that haunted her for some time. "Though I would march myself into blisters for a woman's right to excercise the option of motherhood," she wrote, "I discovered . . .that I was not the modern woman I though I was."
Reaction to the article was enormous, and Francke determined to explore the subject in depth. This book - a truly comprehensive and balanced appraisal of the abortion experience - is the result. Abortion is not right or wrong, Francke and her subjects learned. It does not produce relief of guilt, pain or an escape from pain. It does all of these things. Abortion hurts, pyschologically and physically; and even under the best conditions it can lead to infection, hemorrhage, depression.
Francke interviewed women and girls of all ages who have had abortions. Legal and illegal, for every imaginable reason, from dire necessity to the making of a "lifestyle choice." She also interviewed husbands, boyfriends and parents of the women and abortion-clinic counselors and physicians. Whether the abortion is an early or late one (second trimester abortions are trauniatic indeed), Francke found that the experience causes anxiety and stress all around. It can wrench apart troubled relationships, damage good ones, and leave long-term psychic scars.
Repeatedly the statement is made by woman and by partners who agreed to, or insisted on, an abortion: "I felt like I'd killed something." Some women experienced grief and guilt as long as ten years after their abortions. To be sure, well-adjusted people had fewer difficulties than others, but very few couples escape at least temporary feelings of anger - both at themselves and their partners for letting the pregnancy happen - abd guilt. Among the women there is invariably resentment that the burden comes down so heavily on them: "I didn't like having the abortion one bit," said one woman. "There I was having an abortion and there was my husband not having one."
There is also a tendency among the couples, no matter how well educated or articulate, not to discuss their true feelings about this emotion-laden matter. In a number of cases recounted here, women proceeded with an abortion believing that their partners didn't want a child, only to discover the truth too late.
The interviews which comprise much of the book are frequently rambling and repetitive and there are occasional lapses in the writing: the repeated description of interviewees as "vibrantly attractive"; and metaphors such as, "Most clinics offer a smorgasbord of reproductive services." But these are small points. Every aspect of the subject is succinctly covered. The chapters on teenages, who obtain one-third of all abortions in this country, and the psychology of unwanted pregnancy are especially detailed.
Typically, it is the history of the subject - given cursory treatment by Francke - that proves most revealling: only 100 years ago abortion was declared illegal in this country. What happened in those 100 years totally to transform opinion and the law is examined at length by James Mohr, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, in Abortion in America. The picture that emerges is centuries of tolerance toward abortion with the harsh anti-abortion laws of the late 19th to mid-20th century as a brief aberration.
In 1800, abortion in this country was governed only by common law, which held that until "quickening" - the point at which fetal movement is first felt by the mother - abortion was not a crime. Home medical guides abounded with advice on cures for "obstructed menses" and newspapers carried advertisements for abortionists and their potions. At mid-century, abortion was big business.
Mohr describes an intricate web of circumstances leading to a shift in attitude. A major factor was the advance of medical knowledge and the understanding that pregnancy is a continuous process from conception to birth,; thus "quickening" came to be seen as an arbitrary designation and physicians began to oppose abortion for moral reasons. In addition, abortions were risky, and an obstetrical techniques developed, opposition to abortions further increased. There were also demographic forces at work - people were needed for the massive industrial and agricultural development that was taking place.
But Mohr believes that the prime force was a self-conscious drive, begun by physicians about mid-century, to improve and professionalize the practice of medicine and to impose a standard of ethics. When regular physicians to resist performing abortions, midwives, "irregular doctors" and quacks quickly filled the void.As a result, Mohr argues, physicians began to pressure for legislation making abortion a criminal offense.
Whether or not the physician factor was as significant as Mohr believes - I think he underestimates other pressures - strict anti-abortion laws were passed in almost every state between 1860 and 1880, and they remained nearly intact until the Supreme Court decision of 1973.
But whatever the laws or customs of the moment, one critical, indisputable fact remains - and it is well dramatized by these two books: No matter how dangerous to their health or odious to their instincts, women will continue, as they have through history, to obtain abortions, when they judge it vital to their own well-being or that of their families.