A retired doctor remembers

Introduction

Dr Evans (names changed for confidentiality), an English obstetrician and gynaecologist (O&G), married a midwife, and they migrated to New Zealand in 1975.

“We emigrated to New Zealand, partly because I was fed up with being in a medical practice where under the National Health Service, I was seeing at least 12 patients an hour. The practice was outside London, near a large council estate, and it was like a conveyor belt.

“I had qualified as an OB/GYN two years before the 1967 UK Abortion Act became law. A lot us had mixed feelings about it. Most OB/GYN’s working in public hospitals heaved a sigh of relief that they would no longer have to deal with young women filling themselves up with soapy water, after having sex at the weekend.

“In the UK at the time, the illegitimate birth rate was around five percent. When the Abortion Act came in I had on average about five demands for abortion each week. They weren’t requests, but forceful demands, and when I invited these women and girls from the estate to sit down and talk things through in the surgery, there would be a lot of shouting, anger and stomping out the door. There were dire threats of complaints to the medical authorities.

“The Pill had arrived, but a lot our patients had no idea how to use them. They would have a naughty weekend and try stuffing Pills up their vaginas. These young women would be marshalled into my surgery by their shocked and indignant mothers, demanding an abortion.

“Other women were just highly motivated to get rid of their baby and didn’t want any counselling. In those cases where any advice was clearly unwelcome, I wrote out a referral to another doctor. Once they were on that conveyor belt, there were no further questions asked.

A memorable case

“One particular patient affected my thinking on what abortion does to women. She was a 62-year old lady from the council estate, who came to see me about a routine medical matter. As we talked, I could see that she was holding back tears and when I gently asked her what was the matter, she burst into deep sobbing. ‘I’m missing my 40-year old daughter!’, she cried.

“As I comforted her, she explained that 40 years ago she had had an abortion and somehow ‘knew’ that her baby was a girl. As she got older, the woman continually mourned for her lost daughter.

Counselling in the surgery

“When confronted by a request for an abortion, I found that at least 30 minutes was required for a reasonable discussion. As I said, some just wanted an abortion, and I would tell them they really didn’t need me – and to see another doctor.

“But for those prepared to listen, I would offer full care and support. I would tell them that not every abortion is safe, what the potential risks could be, and that this baby might be their only child. Another thing to consider, was that this baby was their own mother’s grandchild.

“I felt I did persuade some women to continue with their pregnancies, but most I never saw again. It was only in New Zealand that I experienced the joy of six women coming up to me and proudly showing me their now beloved babies. And it is the same for the girls’ mothers who may initially be pressing them to have an abortion. Once the baby arrives, the maternal feelings kick in.

“One of those girls had first come to see me before the abortion clinics opened in Auckland. After a long discussion, she decided to go through with the abortion with the help of Sisters Overseas Service, and fly to Sydney. My last words to her were: ‘Look, even when you arrive at Sydney, you still don’t have to go through with it. Come back and see me. As it turned out, she got as far as the New Zealand airport and then turned back.

“My policy in the surgery has always been that the woman doesn’t need to decide today. ‘Let’s talk it over and then come back after a week and have another chat.’
Some did, most didn’t.”

“I had one couple come to me seeking an abortion. They were determined, but at the same time quite casual. I suggested that they see another doctor. Several months later, they were back again and told me that the abortion had been easily arranged, but now they were engaged and she was three months pregnant.

“They smiled and said: ‘We want to keep this one.’ I looked at them and found myself saying that they had better find another doctor. I often used to wonder whether I did the right thing professionally, but there was something about their attitude – they were just too casual.”

Adoption as an alternative

“Some years ago, we doctors started receiving attractive brochures from rural couples who couldn’t have children and wanted to provide a loving home for the babies of single mothers. These brochures had photos of the couples, their profiles and sometimes their farms.

“It so happened that I had a 17-year old pregnant teenager come in for a consultation, and I had a hunch that she might be open to the idea of meeting one of these couples. They had a lovely farm and lots of pets for a child. 

“The girl was agreeable and I contacted the couple, who then arranged a meeting and showed her around their farm. She liked the idea of her baby going to such a good home and being able to keep in contact, and of course the couple were delighted.

“Sadly, the girl’s mother would have none of that, and forced her to have an abortion. The couple were devastated.”

“Let’s do a pregnancy test”

“The most precious moments in any GP’s career is when you do a pregnancy test on a woman who is prepared to keep her baby. Mostly the mother is eight or nine weeks pregnant, and you place the foetal monitor on her stomach and let her hear her baby’s heartbeat. They invariably dissolve into tears of joy – and you feel tears too. It makes it all worthwhile!”