This is a harrowing account of a legal abortion which resulted in complications that received inadequate care. It is written by Janet Creighton and excerpted from the June 1974 issue of From the Ground Up, a feminist newspaper published in Seattle. (Abortion was legalized by Washington voters on November 3, 1970.)
Just Another Horror Story
By Janet Creighton
I went into Population Dynamics, a Seattle abortion and birth control clinic, the second week in April -- seven weeks pregnant -- for a vacuum aspiration abortion. I was asked a few questions about previous pregnancies and miscarriages and my general health. The basic procedure was explained to me by a nurse who never left the room. While I felt nervous I wasn't frightened. The whole abortion took only a few minutes and was almost painless. During the abortion we discussed birth control methods, and I was told that an IUD would be inserted at a later time (free of charge) if I wanted one. When I left I was given a sheet of instructions and told that if I had any problems I could reach them at any time. Needless to say, I was quite impressed and felt that, indeed, I was in good hands.
Then, two weeks later, after feeling somewhat tired by [sic] in generally good health, I started bleeding -- then gushing. I made it as far as the bathroom where I splattered the floor with huge clots of bright red blood. Several more clots made it into the toilet and with each expulsion my fear increased. Mercifully, my very competent roommate took control and laid me on the floor with pads and a blanket and called Dr. Denniston at Population Dynamics. I spoke to him and explained that up until then everything had gone well (or as expected), but that now something was very definitely wrong.
The doctor said he would phone in a couple of prescriptions and double-checked to make sure he had the right pharmacy. If after six pills (two every twenty minutes) the bleeding had not stopped, I was to go to Group Health Hospital. (His back-up service is at the Ballard Hospital, but my insurance coverage is with Group Health.)
Left with the phone close at hand and my six-year-old daughter to read to me, my roommate went to pick up the pills. An hour later, after frantic calls to Population Dynamics, she was still waiting for the prescription to be phoned in. Denniston had gone out and could not be reached. (We found out later that my prescriptions were waiting on Mercer Island. I live on Capitol Hill. That's also where my pharmacy is.)
By that time, not only was I bleeding in huge clots, but I was also in pain and very frightened. My roommate returned and rushed me to Group Health. At the hospital, after covering my legs and their floor with blood, I was given a D & C (a scraping of the uterine wall) and two IV's and kept in observation overnight. Now after two more weeks, vitamins and iron, I can say that I feel almost human again.
In cases where the uterus is large because of previous pregnancies, as it was with me, it is sometimes difficult in an abortion to clear out all of the tissue. When tissue is left behind, blood builds up around it and cramping and hemorrhaging occur. It is then necessary to do what amounts to another abortion. I will never know whether or not Denniston was guilty of performing an incomplete abortion on me. When the D & C was done at Group Health, the blood clots and everything that was scraped out was sent to the lab, but they lost the specimen. (Convenient for Dr. Denniston, but it leaves me with no opportunity for legal recourse.
My complaints are two-fold. First of all, the back-up care I was given was totally inadequate. No woman should be left hemorrhaging on the floor while her doctor goes out to dinner. Heavy clotting may occur where no tissue is left, but it may also be a sign of a perforated uterus or an incomplete abortion. A telephone diagnosis is not enough. Nor it is satisfactory that doctors protect each other at the expense of telling their patients what went wrong.
My second complaint is more general. Women are not secure in their access to abortions. The anti-abortion groups are no less adamant than before, and, individually, women are unable to insist on thorough and adequate care for themselves and other women. But, paradoxically, to publicly complain about poor care endangers the clinics and doesn't guarantee better care in its place.
Denniston has performed many abortions and sterilizations without complications at comparatively low cost, but he has also made mistakes. A major cause of these mistakes is the attitude of the medical profession toward abortions specifically, and women in general. Doctors who perform abortions are part of a profession that has not yet accepted abortion as a woman's right. Most doctors see abortion only as a way to control population growth. Thus, the doctor, and not the woman, has the right to control her life. The whole atmosphere for women, although not for doctors, is still one of covertness. Abortions are legitimate medical procedures (that need to be developed and explained.) They are an acceptable means of controlling one's life. And until this is acknowledged, abortions will continue to be hurry-up operations performed by only a few doctors with too little time to devote to initial examinations and follow-up care.