Unsung Heroes: Dr. Susan Wicklund
Dr. Susan Wicklund has devoted most of her 20-year medical career to helping women who are faced with the hard choice of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy during their first trimester—the only cases she herself treats. Now she has written a gripping account of her experiences, in THIS COMMON SECRET, My Journey as an Abortion Doctor.
Even though practicing abortion had been legal in the United States since 1973, in order to provide abortions, Wicklund has had to face right-to-life terrorists who not only threatened her own life but relentlessly persecuted her young daughter. Some of the experiences she writes about are horrible, but her triumph over intimidation and her sensitive treatment of her patients inspiring.
She grew up in a small working class community in Wisconsin—no one in her family had gone beyond high school—nor had she planned a different life. However after she underwent a legal abortion under horrible conditions she was drawn to midwifery, and then to the bold move of becoming a doctor. Her aim was to practice women’s medicine but she was drawn to becoming an abortionist when she realized that even though it was legal, it was still very difficult for women to get help in terminating a pregnancy.
Her home-town hospital, where was working at the time, refused to allow doctors on their staff to perform abortions. Abortion is legal today, and in the first three-months of a pregnancy it is minor surgery, but according to Erin Loeb, who reviewed the book in Salon Magazine, 87 percent of U.S. counties are without a provider. She decided that rather than deny women competent medical care she would leave the hospital and work of an abortion provider, working at a number of clinics in the mid-west.
The decision by small local hospitals to refuse to provide abortions, becomes understandable when we read Wicklund’s account of what she faced as an “abortion” doctor when she began to work at out-of-town abortion clinics. She writes that to get through the doors of the clinic many times she had to face demonstrators who shouted “Baby Killer! Their blood is on your hands, Susan.” Intermingled with the demonstrators were actual terrorists who began tracking her every move. Even where the police would “arrest” demonstrators who were blocking the entrance to a clinic and screaming invectives, they would not be booked and would quickly return.
In 1990, she wrote this account of a typical experience, in her diary:
Scared. Hard to write. Hard to think. Heart pounding. Tried to avoid protestors in front. Hid in back seat of taxi. Went to back door 10 minutes ago. Two men there. Had just gotten out of cab, keys in one hand and mobile phone in the other. Phone set to call front desk. Routine safety measure. Thank. God.
One man grabbed me and slammed me up against a parked van. His face in my face. Screaming at me. “You killer! You killer! You deserve to die” Stop killing babies Susan.” I struggled. Fought to get free. Would get away from the van by just inches and they would throw me against it. Over and over. …
Finally rescued by people inside the clinic, she began her work day helping patients who also had to face this crowd to come into the clinic. She writes about the terrible toll this relentless pressure had on her and her family, who never wavered in their support of her even when demonstrators were surrounding their home, shouting threatening epithets.
Wicklund and the brave people whom she works with to this day, offer much more than a routine procedure. Despite the every day brutality they encounter from right-to-life fanatics—which has led to fatalities—they continue to provide a safe environment for women and thoughtful sensitive help in making the hard decision of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy.
Medical Students for Choice has posted an article written in 1999 by Wicklund her co-author and friend, Alan Kesselheim, that was later incorporated in the book. In it they describe an incident where a young girl and her father came to a clinic requesting an abortion for the girl. Something didn’t sound right, and probing the situation with the girl, Wicklund learned that the father had sexually abused her. The whole incident is described in the article, but her remark about her commitment to her patients is worth quoting.
In the end, the police arrive to handcuff the father at the same time that social workers are whisking the daughter out the back door. Two weeks later, I will end her pregnancy, but that is the least of the life hurdles facing this sad, young girl.
Few counseling sessions are as dramatic as that incest survivor's. Months go by between stories like hers. But even the ordinary patients, the ones who arrive in my office week in and week out, are grappling with highly charged issues. And so am I.
Last fall's murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian thrust abortion providers into the limelight once again, but while we are reminded all too often of the violence that surrounds clinics, we rarely hear about what actually goes on in the privacy of the examining room, about the difficult conversations that take place between women and their doctors. And we almost never hear about the sometimes anguished choices doctors must make at this crossroads in a woman's life.
I know what it feels like to be at that crossroads. Once, I was 22 and in need of an abortion. The only "counseling" I received was on how I would pay for the procedure. Though my abortion took place decades ago, I still recall my fear, the questions I longed to ask but didn't because I never got the chance.
That's why, within months of starting my own practice, I began to draw my lines. Regardless of the policy of the clinics where I worked, I refused to arrive in the procedure room to find a woman with her feet already in the stirrups, an IV dripping a sedative into her arm. I insisted on talking with each woman before she was sedated, no matter how far behind schedule we were or how certain about her choice she seemed. "You are in control," I say to every patient. "You can stop me at any point to ask questions or tell me not to go on. I use a local anesthetic so you can speak with me the entire time."
The back-and-forth dialogue can be grueling, frustrating, haunting-and, sometimes satisfying. It's not uncommon for my staff to spend hours counseling one patient, who may return four or five times before deciding what to do. Sometimes my patients get angry with me for my persistence.
The truth is, even women who say they feel certain about the decision to end-or continue-a pregnancy often feel torn by conflicting pressures. They may have a partner who is coercing them. They almost always have plans that will be altered by the arrival of a baby.