Betty Gunz, 69, survived an illegal abortion and subsequent massive infection in 1965. Photo credit Rose Hoban
Betty Gunz, 69, survived an illegal abortion and subsequent massive infection in 1965. Photo credit Rose Hoban

In what was probably the largest Monday protest yet at the General Assembly, two thousand or more people gathered to express their grievances with the legislature. And many said they were there because of an abortion bill passed by the Senate last week.

By Rose Hoban

Less than a week after North Carolina senators hastily amended and passed a bill to include sweeping restrictions on access to abortion, what seems to have been the largest crowd yet showed up for the 10th week of Monday protests at the General Assembly.

Many of Monday’s protesters wore pink and carried signs opposing House Bill 695, which would make it harder for many of the state’s 36 abortion providers to continue performing abortions and restrict many health plans from covering the service.

Nancy Yudell of Charlotte came with several other school nurses to the legislature Monday. She said the abortion bill was what motivated her to come. Photo by Rose Hoban

Among the protesters were dozens of health care providers, many wearing white coats, and women who sought out reporters to tell stories of abortions from a time before the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, when the procedure was still illegal.

One of those was Durham resident Mary Walter, 57, who said her high school friend Madeline had an abortion in the 1960s and died.

“My mother, who never talked about birth control or sex or anything else, pulled me aside and said, ‘I have something terrible to tell you. Madeline died.’ And I said, ‘Why did Madeline die?’ And she said, ‘She was having an abortion and bled to death in the back of an ambulance.’”

“For the rest of my life, she’s been riding right on my shoulders saying don’t let this happen anymore,” Walter said.

Providers vocal, medical societies mum

Obstetrician and gynecologist Jessica Morse recently moved to North Carolina from California to follow her husband’s new job, and said she had no concept of how much the state’s policies on abortion would affect her Durham practice.

“I’m a surgeon, and I consult with women all the time for surgical procedures of all sorts,” Morse said. She said that having to read a script as she prepares a patient to have an abortion is an insult.

Wake County Human Services family doctor Marcella McCord (yellow shirt) came to the protest Monday with her friend Eva Melamed (sunglasses), Lynn Jacobs (white hat), their children and her daughter Ryan (pink hat). Photo by Rose Hoban

“I don’t have to read a script before a caesarian section; I consent my patients for the surgery,” Morse said. “There’s not another part of medicine where you have a script. Find an orthopedist and ask them if the last time they set a broken ankle, they had to read from a piece of paper to explain the risks of the surgery. It doesn’t happen.”

Morse said most of her patients who come to her for late pregnancy terminations are in an emotional situation with no good outcomes.

“Let’s say someone comes in and it’s a 38-year-old woman who’s been trying to get pregnant for three years, and she and her partner have had an early-screening ultrasound and they find out there’s an anomaly with the fetus.

“Then they have to go see a specialist and then they have to get other tests done. And so all of a sudden, they’re further along in this very desired pregnancy, with an anomalous fetus who will never make it to term,” Morse said.

She said patients such as this who run past the 20-week mark have to be referred out of state. “What other choice do they have? Stay pregnant with a baby that will never make it to term, and they know that? Or that will never live outside [the uterus]?”

Data courtesy the Guttmacher Institute

According to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks data about abortion and access to the procedure in the U.S., 88 percent of abortions in the country are done during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and 98.5 percent are performed before 20 weeks.

Wake County public health doctor Marcella McCord said her patients all either have Medicaid or no insurance at all. She said she sees people weekly who find out they’re pregnant and want to know about their choices.

“A contraception failure will occur; it happens,” McCord said.

She said that in her practice she had seen two or three intrauterine device – a form of semi-permanent birth control – pregnancies in the past two months.

“So what do you do with that? Making all the right decisions, doing everything you’re supposed to, and you still get pregnant,” McCord said. “It’s more than they can handle”

She said many of her patients seek out abortion largely because of economics, because they already have children or have recently had a birth and it’s “too soon.”

When that happens, her clinic gives people information about all their choices, from adoption services to family-support services and abortion.

Family doctor Julie Lindsey. Photo by Rose Hoban

Family-medicine doctor Julie Lindsey said one part of the bill that disturbed her was the provision to allow family members to sue a doctor they believe should have known a woman was having an abortion for the purposes of sex selection.

“Sex-selection abortion has not been a problem in the U.S.,” said Lindsey, whose Cary-based practice sees teens and women for reproductive-health services but does not provide abortions.

“To put doctors in a situation where they’d be exposed to frivolous lawsuits is ridiculous,” she said. “Doctors have enough liability on our shoulders.”

Multiple calls to the North Carolina Medical Society and the state Obstetrical and Gynecological Society about their positions on HB 695 have not yielded any comment.

Lindsey said she’s not surprised.

“It takes a long time in the medical community to take an official stance, because the medical societies … carefully weigh things,” she said. “Just by virtue of how fast and reckless this is, I can’t imagine the medical societies have come up with a decision about this.”

Old stories surface

“I had an illegal abortion that nearly cost me my life,” said Raleigh resident Betty Gunz, 69.

“I want to tell you my story,” she said.

Gunz was a 20-year-old college student in 1965, and said she “couldn’t even take care of myself, and my boyfriend was clear he could not take care of anybody, including me, much less me and a child.”

He was later diagnosed with a mental health disorder, but Gunz said that at the time she had a sense he would not be an adequate parent.

“It was a chaotic time, and I was not very wise; otherwise, I would not have ended up pregnant by him. So he said, ‘I know someone who can take care of this.’”

They were picked up by someone she didn’t know, she was given whiskey to anesthetize her and the procedure was performed on a kitchen table.

“I bled for a couple of days and aborted it into the toilet in my dorm room,” Gunz remembered. “But I was very sick by that time, so I barely knew what was happening, because I’d developed sepsis.

“The abortion connection wanted to take me out somewhere and drop me and leave me to die, and my boyfriend said, ‘I’m not gonna do that.’ So they dropped me at the emergency room.”

Gunz spent the next two and a half months recovering in Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill, where early dialysis machines were able to support her kidneys, which had stopped working from the massive infection.

Gunz went on to become a clinical social worker and have children and grandchildren.

When the Supreme Court made the Roe v. Wade decision, Gunz said she was relived, “because no one else would have to risk their lives when they were in a tough situation.”

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...

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