Talk to me

I must have an invisible sign taped to my forehead, or some code encrypted in my voice, that says, "Hey! If you want to talk about abortion, come talk to me!"

Some back story. A couple of weeks ago, I developed a weird, very painful sensation in my neck, near where I'd had a surgery several years ago. Being mildly obsessed with my own medical history, and also prone to worry, I called my old doctor many states away, who had presided over that surgery. I left a message. No one called back.

Until today. The phone rang. It was the doctor's nurse, returning my call. The pain disappeared a few days after it started, but I explained the situation anyway and asked a few questions. She said she'd consult with the doctor and call me back. Then, as we were saying goodbye, she said, "Where do you live now, by the way?"

"Madison, Wisconsin," I said.

She grew up in nearby Chicago. "I remember Wisconsin being a very free-thinking state," she said. I tried to ramble something about how yes, it's free-thinking, anything-goes, not Alabama, very refreshing, yadda yadda yadda.

But she kept talking.

"This was back in the 1970s," she said. "You know, there was a time before abortion was legal across the country. It was left up to each state, and some states had laws that outlawed abortion, and other states had laws making it legal."

"Mmhmm, I know," I said.

"But Wisconsin didn't have a law either way. And this was really important to a lot of the women I went to school with. We were college students then, and we talked to our mothers, and none of them had had access to laws that allowed them to control how many kids they had. And if you looked at how many children they thought they wanted before they started a family, and compared that to the actual number, you'd see a big difference."

I asked her whether the lack of a law in Wisconsin had made abortion either more or less available.

"What it did," she said, "was it made it less shameful. And it made the women who needed it feel less like it was the disgraceful thing to do. The state said, 'We're not going to make a statement about this.' So it wasn't political. It was just a fact. If a doctor wanted to provide abortions, they could; and if they didn't, they didn't."

I don't know anything about the history of abortion law in Wisconsin, but I thought this woman's take on things was really interesting. It really was unlike any other conversation I've had with a health care provider. Most fascinating of all was how close to the surface this was for her. I mention I live in Wisconsin, and she launches into a five-minute monologue on how Wisconsin's approach to reproductive laws affected her 30 years ago. She could have simply made a joke about cheese.

So I told her a little about the clinic in Alabama; and the women who called there all the time, asking whether abortion was actually legal; and the men who smoked cigarettes in the parking lot while their daughters went inside, who nodded at the volunteer escorts and told us things like, "I think this is wrong, but my kid's situation is different. She's not a welfare queen or a whore," expecting us to understand their point.

"I know," she said, "I know." I could almost hear her shaking her head. Then she said she'd call me back.

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