In two separate diaries over the last several years, I've told the story of how my mother's life was saved by a "partial-birth abortion" carried out on the delivery table in the 1950s. Given the escalating GOP war on women, it seems like time to do it again.
I am going to mildly violate site rules to post her story in full, from two separate print sources. The first is a letter she wrote to the Boston Globe, published on November 15, 1995. The second is the full text of an interview she gave to her local newspaper, the Amherst "Daily Hampshire Gazette." Neither of these sources is online; I have transcribed the originals which are in my files.
The Boston Globe:continued below the flip...One memorable day in 1955 I went into labor in my eighth month of pregnancy. I was conscious throughout and watched in the mirror as the tiny, perfect feet emerged and wiggled (it was a breech birth), then the rest of the body, up to the shoulders. It hung there and turned blue. The head would not come out, however much the obstetrician twisted and turned it. The baby, he ascertained, was hydrocephalic - it had "water on the brain" and a grossly enlarged head.
"May I do a craniotomy?" he asked. Knowing that this meant the destruction of the baby's skull and the evacuation of its brain, I gave my permission. What else was there to do?
A decade later, my mom was interviewed as part of a long article profiling women who'd had abortions. Here is her story in full, as she told it to Gazette reporter Suzanne Wilson.Recently the US House passed a bill banning all "partial-birth abortions," as its detractors call them. If that law had been in effect when I went into labor, I would have died on the delivery table. Only by cutting my body apart could that seriously defective fetus have been delivered intact. The House bill makes no allowances for saving the mother's life or her health.
It is easy to be swayed by the gruesomeness of this operation into thinking that it should be outlawed. Ugly as they are, such procedures are sometimes necessary. The decision is not one to be made by lawmakers, but by physicians and their patients.
I am happy to report that I now have two healthy grown sons, one a composer creating world music and the other an anthropologist working on human rights and one beautiful grandson. I have even managed to do a bit of useful work in the intervening years. Think what the world and I would have missed.
Virginia L. Senders
Hampshire Daily Gazette, January 28-29, 2006My brother and his wife have two fabulous kids. My wife and I have a eight-year-old daughter who sings perfectly in tune and has just learned to hop on stilts.
Virginia Senders of Amherst is an artist and retired psychologist. Now in her 80s, she helped create the first continuing-education program for women in the U.S. and served on the education committee of President John F. Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women."Before I got married, I went to see a gynecologist, at my mother's behest, about getting fitted for a diaphragm. This was in 1945. This doctor, as far as I can remember, never told me to use a spermicide with the diaphragm. I instantly, but instantly, got pregnant.(Virginia Senders spoke with Gazette reporter Suzanne Wilson.)
"I was at Harvard, starting my Ph.D. program in experimental psychology. My husband was carrying a full-time job and also going to school at Harvard. So he was no more eager to have a baby than I was.
"My reaction was utter despair. My husband and I talked it over. I was so naive that I didn't know that I couldn't just go to a doctor and have it taken care of, in the same way that you'd have an appendix removed. So the first thing I had to do was digest that piece of information. I was surprised to find that the law had something to say.
"I was ready to do anything. We talked about methods of self-induction, which didn't seem reasonable. I had done some work in a mental hospital for a physician, so I called him to see if he would help, and he wouldn't.
"I think it must have been a friend who gave us the suggestion of going to a psychiatrist to get the foundation to get a therapeutic abortion. I don't think we would have thought of it ourselves. (At that time, therapeutic abortion was permissible, if, for example, it could be shown that the pregnancy posed a grave threat to the physical or mental health of the woman.)
"Then I started the rounds of the psychiatrists and that was eye-opening, and a very unpleasant experience. I can remember the interviews as being humiliating and degrading.
"One, in particular. He wanted to pick up information about sex and how some people had it - and it was all irrelevant because he'd made up his mind anyway. Then there was another one who was willing to help me arrange to have the baby and then give it up to somebody who would pay me for it. I didn't care for that.
"We went ahead and made an appointment with a back-alley type abortionist in Boston. A friend must have given me the name. He was said to be the safest of these dangerous people.
"But before the date came, we went to see another psychiatrist, a distinguished doctor who came from a family of physicians. He sat us both down and asked us a lot of questions about our lives, our plans. He got to know us. And then he said, 'I wouldn't do this if we hadn't talked at length. But I'll write you a letter. I'll have to say some things that are perhaps stretching the truth about how seriously ill you are.' He wrote a letter that would go to a hospital committee.
"I made an appointment with an OB who didn't want to do it, letter or no letter. It was finally done at Mount Auburn Hospital (in Boston) and everything was done properly. I didn't have to tell anybody in the psychology department about it. So that was that, and my husband and I went on...
"Of course, there were many times when I would think, now it would have been such-and-such an age. And that would have been very nice - except that I wouldn't have been the same person, either, doing what I was doing. Did I ever rue the day? No. Afterwards, I had a total of four miscarriages. Then, in 1956, I got pregnant and it seemed to be taking.
"I went into labor and the baby was hydrocephalic. It delivered by the breech, up to the shoulders, and stopped. It was horrifying. I remember the doctor saying, I'm going to have to destroy the baby's skull in order to deliver. This is what is called now a partial-birth abortion. (A federal ban on partial-birth abortion, passed by congress in 2003, was declared unconstitutional in 2004 because it contained no provision for allowing the procedure to protect the health of the mother).
"This fetus was 6 1/2 months along. We had hoped for it, wanted it. It was sad, devastating, the end of a long trail of having lost four.
"But if the doctor had said, I can't kill this baby - my mind boggles. If the baby had lived, chances are very good I wouldn't have. My husband would have had to put the baby in an institution, probably one of the hospitals for the retarded. Do you think that would have been a good solution?
(Senders went on to have two sons, who are now in their mid-40s.)
"I can understand the rationale of saying abortion is murder. But I think the story is bigger than that. I underwent a spiritual transformation later in life, and the nature of it was to understand that love is God.
"Now, everybody says 'God is love.' That didn't mean anything to me, because I didn't believe in God, but I did believe in love. To force women who don't want babies to bear babies is a very unloving thing to do. And I don't think a God who is love would work that way.
"Choice is a cause I would probably have been interested in anyhow, but my personal experiences absolutely propelled me in that direction."
Mom, me, my brother, his two kids, our kid. Six lives, made possible by an emergency surgical procedure on the delivery table.
My mother's life, made possible; her students, her patients, all those whom she has influenced and inspired in the course of a long, influential and inspiring career.
I'm glad my mother had her abortions.