Alone in the waiting room of a women's health clinic at the corner of 73rd street and Lexington Avenue on the upper east side of Manhattan, a seventeen-year old girl sat quietly. She was shivering, riddled with fear about the reason for her visit and freezing cold in the air conditioned office. She had never felt so scared in her life and had told no one what she was doing, not even her twin sister. Having sex at seventeen was one thing, but doing it with a man thirteen years her senior was another entirely. Having sex with a man thirteen years her senior who told her the day after their first encounter that oh, by the way, he was married, was also another thing entirely, so she'd kept what was going on inside her broken teenaged heart a secret from everyone. When she skipped a period she withdrew into a state of silent panic rather than seek counsel from her mother, who would never have understood, or her sister, who she worried would spill the beans unintentionally if she knew. So she told no one, and there she sat in the clinic, feeling alone and abandoned, waiting to find out if her own barely nascent adult life was about to be turned upside down by an unintended pregnancy, absolutely unsure of what to do next.
Three years before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, New York State passed a law allowing abortion even for non-residents, making it the go-to place for out-of-towners who preferred terminating a pregnancy in a clean, well-lit doctor's office to a back alley butcher's block. Women's health clinics proliferated as Manhattan became a hub for abortion providers, and women of all child-bearing ages flocked to the city to have the procedure done affordably and safely. It was a remarkable time in history as social influences drawn from the drug and rock cultures of the swingin' sixties exerted themselves on a generation of baby boomers just beginning to enter adulthood and explore sexual hyperactivity. The relatively new freedoms of sex-without-worry (as a result of Griswold v. Connecticut, which conferred upon women the legal right to use contraceptives, and a pre-AIDS sensibility, or lack thereof, about having sex in the first place, all kinds of sex with all kinds of people) led to a lot of confusion about exactly how to not get pregnant. The result was a steady stream of women crossing into New York to have an abortion, return home, and get on with their lives. Back then, even though abortion was far from controversy-free, it seemed that no matter where anyone stood religiously or morally on the issue, almost everyone could agree that access to safe and sanitary abortion saved women's lives, which was a good thing.
Two women walked in and arranged themselves in chairs across the room from the young girl. One of them had long, bleached-blonde hair and chattered nervously in a pronounced southern drawl while the friend cooed back at her comfortingly. The girl stared at them anxiously, wondering if the one doing all the talking was as frightened as she was. The disjointed dialogue between the two women scarcely penetrated her consciousness as she tried to steady herself with slow, rhythmic breathing that did little to quell her mounting apprehension.
A nurse garbed in traditional white entered the waiting room and approached the two women. "Miss O'Daniel*?" she asked politely, not a trace of judgment or disapproval in her voice. Her expression was neutral and unthreatening, her tone calming, which surprised the young girl. She hadn't known at all what to expect, but she hadn't pictured outright kindness. A certain cold professionalism was more along the lines of what she had envisioned, but this nurse was warm, almost maternal as she asked the blonde with the twang how she was feeling. "Are you ready for your procedure?" she inquired gently. "Did you use the betadine the way we instructed you?"
Betadine, betadine... the young girl recognized it as the name of an iodine solution sometimes used as a douche. Its antimicrobial properties apparently made it an ideal pre-surgical rinse, but it had to be diluted with water to keep it from burning delicate tissues down there. Those were the instructions the nurse had given Miss O'Daniel during her previous consultation: to douche with a solution of diluted betadine in order to ward off any potential post-procedure infections.
"Did you use the betadine the way we told you to?" the nurse repeated, studying the blonde impassively. She'd probably asked that question a thousand times and always gotten the same answer.
A look passed between the two women. The friend rolled her eyes and nodded encouragingly. "Ah tried...." stammered the blonde, grimacing at the recollection. "Ah really tried.... Ah tried so hard, but ah just couldn't finish drinkin' the whole thang."
The young girl's head swiveled slowly and her eyes widened in slack-jawed disbelief. Without missing a beat, the nurse crooked an index finger at the blonde and said, "Come with me." No alarm, no condemnation, no how-could-you-do-something-so-stupid-you-dumb-hillbilly tone to her command; just a matter-of-fact "Come with me." There was concern in her voice, but no panic, no recrimination.
I never found out what happened to the blonde, if she was okay after swallowing the equivalent of enough iodine to make the entire population of New York glow, but at least for me the news was all good. I got my results and the rabbit lived, so I went home with a weight lifted off my shoulders and promptly made an appointment with a gynecologist to see about a prescription for birth control pills, vowing from that day forward never to entrust my reproductive destiny to anyone but myself. But the care and concern I witnessed that long-ago day from the providers who put their lives on the line to help women navigate one of the most difficult and painful decisions they will ever make has stuck with me all these decades. The doctors, nurses, and support personnel committed to honoring those decisions deserve our thanks as well as our pledge to keep them safe from harm while they press on.
*Ms. O'Daniel's name has been altered, not to protect the innocent but because I can't remember the real one.