California Literary Review

The Common Secret by Susan Wicklund

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January 2nd, 2008 at 10:38 am

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This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor
by Susan Wicklund and Alan Kesselheim
PublicAffairs, 272 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★½

A Report From the Front Lines of the Abortion War

Susan Wicklund, M.D., states that one the best kept secrets in the nation is the fact that some 40% of women in this country have an abortion at some point. “Equally important and revealing,” says Wicklund,” is the fact that women who have abortions come from every level of education, every income bracket, and every age from puberty to menopause. They are Catholic and Jewish, Protestant and Buddhist, agnostic and atheists. They are, in truth, our sisters, aunts, grandmothers, music teacher, neighbors and best friends.” Some patients were also the young victims of rape or incest.

Women seeking an abortion may or may not be anti-abortion. Wicklund recounts performing an abortion on a woman she’d first seen among the protesters outside her clinic or in another case the terminating the pregnancy of a young woman who remained the president of her university’s student anti-abortion organization.

In enunciating her support for abortion, Wicklund notes that “before 1973 and the passage of Roe vs. Wade, an estimated 1.2 million women had illegal abortions in the United States yearly. As many as 5000 died each year as a result.” She states that she would give more credibility to opponents of abortion if they made meaningful efforts to help women avoid unwanted pregnancies, but that they are often also opposed to any form of birth control. She describes her interviews with each potential abortion patient. If she detects any suggestion of emotional ambivalence toward the procedure, she doesn’t proceed.

Her personal story is one of remarkable determination and is likely to have a particular human appeal for many. At age 20 she had an abortion in surroundings that were hostile and intimidating. She was moved by this emotionally rending experience to help other women and first became a midwife. After being inspired by an encouraging comment from a near stranger, she began the long and arduous journey through undergraduate and medical education. By then, she was a single mother. She prevailed, incorporating her daughter (who wrote a postlogue to the book) into the process.

While she believes late-term abortions should be legal, Wicklund restricts her practice to the termination of pregnancy in the first trimester. This means that in some cases she must turn desperate women away. In some instances, she says, patients face real danger because of the pregnancy. She feels “it is up to us to recognize their plight and provide resources.”

After completing her medical training, Wicklund traveled a circuit of abortion clinics in the Midwest, particularly relishing working in clinics, “owned and managed by women who understood that no one should be turned away because of financial constraints.” She recounts verbal, and on at least one occasion, physical abuse from protesters. She found it necessary to take remarkable security measures to protect herself. This included arriving at her clinic at different hours and by different routes, once sequestered in the trunk of a car, and even donned a variety of amusing disguises. On one occasion as she entered her clinic she was mistaken for a patient. Protesters converged on her taunting her with cries of, “Mommy, don’t kill your baby. Let us help you. You’ll die in there….You’ll bleed to death. You’ll never get pregnant again. Mommy, Mommy, don’t kill me.”

Dr. Wicklund characterizes such assaults as “insensitive actions and outright lies spewed by the protestors.” Some of her patients, particularly younger ones, were terrified by having to traverse such a gauntlet, one made up primarily of men.

Her home was invaded in her absence. Both muddy boot prints and anti-abortion pamphlets were left behind. Her driveway was barricaded with barrels of concrete to keep her from going to work. Threatening phone calls and letters arrived regularly. Her daughter’s school was invaded and the child harassed to tears. She endured the death of colleagues who were gunned down by anti-abortion zealots. On occasion local authorities were indifferent to her plight, so an armored vest and a .38 caliber revolver became part of her clinic attire.

Wicklund also comments on “Crisis Pregnancy Centers,” groups typically operated by one fundamentalist group or another. One of her patients recounted her experience as follows:

I thought I’d be able to get an abortion there….They looked like doctors and nurses with their white coats. They told me they were giving me a pregnancy test and put me in a room for two hours. There was a television playing an awful video in there. I couldn’t leave….They told me my test was positive, then started saying that there was a good chance I’d bleed to death (from an abortion)…That I ought to consider keeping the baby. That I’d regret this the rest of my life.” The CPC staff also told the young woman that she’d “probably never have children after having an abortion,” that Dr. Wicklund was “not a real doctor” that she could “Get AIDs from the other patients in the abortion clinic….

Breast cancer is also commonly, and falsely, associated with abortions by CPC personnel. CPC’s, Wicklund states, have received more than thirty million dollars from the federal government between 2001 and 2005. “It isn’t uncommon for me to have to disabuse patients (who’ve been to CPCs) of the notion that they will be ‘scraped with a razor.’” Dr. Wicklund notes that the complication rate for abortion is less than that of the extraction of a molar, and eleven times less dangerous to the mother than childbirth.

In recent years there have been numerous murders and attempted murders of abortion providers, dozens of bombings, arsons, acid attacks, anthrax threats, kidnappings, and burglaries as well as less lethal but still chilling forms of harassment by abortion protesters. The Common Secret indicates that while some protesters limit their actions to guilt-inducing misinformation and invective, some endorse—and commit—crimes up to and including homicide. As a quote from one anti-abortion group, “The Army of God” manual states:

We, the remnants of the God-fearing men and women of the United States of America, do officially declare war on the entire child-killing industry….Our Most Dread Sovereign Lord God requires that whosoever sheds man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed.

The Common Secret provides a summary of some of these occurrences that are justified by maintaining that a fetus is “an unborn child.”

Susan Wicklund has succeeded in putting a human face on a procedure that is controversial enough for some to provide a divisive and emotional political wedge issue. Riveted by the confirmation of what I had witnessed during my years as a family practitioner, this reviewer found it difficult to close Susan Wicklund’s The Common Secret until I’d read the final page. Aside from the central issue of abortion, for many this book is also likely to provoke a consideration of what constitutes our cherished right of legitimate protest and what crosses the line into disorderly conduct and more serious illegal behavior.

The back matter of the book provides contact information for a list of organizations such as Planned Parenthood for the interested reader. The Common Secret is coauthor Alan Kesselheim’s ninth book. He is a freelancer from Bozeman, Montana.

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  • http://www.feministreaction.blogspot.com your average girl

    reading this book now! Susan provides another side of the story that tugs at our compassion, empathy and understanding for women who are faced with this difficult choice.

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