Jewish women protesting for abortion rights in the 1970s. (Photo/Courtesy Jewish Women International)
Jewish women protesting for abortion rights in the 1970s. (Photo/Courtesy Jewish Women International)

Would my 1971 ‘missed abortion’ be criminal in a post-Roe world?

In the summer of 1971, a year and a half before Roe v. Wade, I had a missed abortion.

That’s an incomplete miscarriage, in lay terms. It was not a choice. Nor was it my choice to carry the fetus for another three weeks because my doctors, who did not perform abortions, hoped it would expel on its own. When it didn’t, I was scheduled for a D&C (dilation and curettage), the same procedure used in most early abortions.

In 1971, the D&C was done in a hospital. I checked myself in on a Friday afternoon; underwent surgery under general anesthesia on a Saturday and came home on Sunday, followed by two days of muscle pain because I had been over-anesthetized. Unable to care for my 2-year-old daughter, I hired a teenager to babysit. Three months later, I was thrilled to pass a pregnancy test, only to experience a spontaneous miscarriage while at an out-of-town dinner event.

Fortunately, my story has a happy ending. In November 1972, I gave birth to a son, and I now have two children who have blessed me with four grandchildren. But I will always wonder whether I had done something that caused me to abort. Was it the black oil-based paint I was using on the kitchen cabinets? Was it weed killer? Was it a pill I thought was harmless? Was it something I ate? I will never know.

Here is what I do know: In a dystopian post-Roe v. Wade world, women whose pregnancies are unintentionally aborted might be shunned for failing to protect a growing life — despite its potential harm to the carrier.

On the other hand, if the doctor refuses to perform a D&C — which is, after all, an abortion — and the patient develops septicemia, what then? 

The possible end of Roe v. Wade opens a box of horrors.

What if a woman who had a missed abortion was given medication, such as the drug misoprostol, instead of invasive surgery? Not so simple. Because misoprostol is used for elective abortions, states could outlaw it and cause further harm to a woman who is already traumatized by the loss of a wanted pregnancy.

When it comes to ectopic pregnancies, once again, the treatment involves emergency surgery or medication. Could the fetus survive such a pregnancy? A Guardian article puts the odds at 1 in 60,000. Meanwhile, the maternal death rate for ectopic pregnancies is between 2 and 4 per 1,000 — the cause of 10% of direct maternal deaths, according to the National Institutes of Health. Thank God, Judaism has strong views on protecting the life of the mother.

Historically, anti-abortion organizations have made a point of not blaming the mother, instead focusing their attention on the providers and clinics. But new laws in Texas, Mississippi and elsewhere could change that equation and indeed target women. And they could target women who have difficulty carrying a pregnancy to term. 

The premise behind Roe v. Wade was the right to privacy. In darker moments, I can now imagine an Orwellian world in which all women of child-bearing age are routinely tested for pregnancy with a hidden scanner as they enter a store, office or restaurant, and the statistics are fed into a government database so their pregnancy can be tracked. No, we are not there, but we need to ensure that such a scenario remains in the realm of science fiction.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].