Passionate engagement:
Two doctors speak about their abortion activism

Dr. Pippa Abston speaking about health care reform

Screenshot of video of Dr. Pippa Abston speaking about health care reform

“I thought I might get in over my head and I might have done so! But I’m glad I did it anyway and in the process got connected to some folks I might not have met otherwise, it is definitely worth doing.”

Speaking is Dr. Pippa Abston, a pediatrician in Alabama, recounting for a journalist her decision to become involved in the fight against Alabama’s forced ultrasound law—an involvement that has included interviews with local media, making a Youtube video condemning the law, speaking at a prochoice rally, and drawing up a new “right to medical judgment” bill that stipulates health care providers should not be forced to perform medically unnecessary or unwanted procedures.

Dr. Abston is not herself an abortion provider. Moreover, besides being a busy pediatrician and medical school faculty member, she is already deeply involved in other areas of medical politics—she is the coordinator for her local chapter of Physicians for a National Health Care Program, and she also is an advocate for improved mental health services in her state. She told me in an interview that her initial involvement in the mandatory ultrasound issue was “accidental”—when the television station called her clinic looking for comment, “no one from ob/gyn was around and they knew I was outspoken!”

When I read Dr. Abston’s words, quoted at the beginning of this piece, they sounded eerily familiar to me. I then recalled another physician talking to me, in quite similar terms, about the social consequences of her decision to publicly engage with the abortion issue. Dr. Jane Hodgson was a very prominent ob/gyn in St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1950s and 1960s, with a thriving private practice and a faculty position at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine. She was the first woman elected president of the Minnesota Obstetrical/Gynecological Society.

Dr. Jane HodgsonHodgson’s conventionally successful career in medicine—and her personal life—took a dramatic turn as she grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of access to legal abortion for her patients. As one of the few women ob/gyns in practice in her community, she received numerous requests from desperate women for abortions—some of whom she knew would end up in the hands of inept illegal abortionists. She was particularly enraged at the cruelty shown by her colleagues at her hospital, who often denied the procedure even for those very sick patients who theoretically could qualify for medically approved abortions.

In 1970, wanting to provoke a test case, she openly performed an abortion on an patient with rubella (which recently had been shown to cause severe fetal anomalies) and became the only U.S. physician ever to become convicted of performing an illegal abortion in a hospital. Her Minnesota medical license was suspended, and was only restored to her after the Roe v Wade decision in 1973.

In the three years between her arrest and the Roe decision, Hodgson became immersed in abortion provision and abortion politics. She became the medical director at the Preterm clinic in Washington, DC (where abortion was legal) and wrote some of the first articles demonstrating the safety of legal abortion. After her return to Minnesota, she helped establish some of the states’ first abortion clinics, and became active on the legal front as well, serving as lead plaintiff in several cases challenging that state’s restrictions. She published a textbook and numerous articles on abortion. Up to the time of her death in 2006, she was a board member of the Center for Reproductive Rights and involved in numerous other abortion rights activities.

Dr. Hodgson paid a price for her visibility on the abortion issue. She lost some longtime friends, her favorite nurse quit her practice, her faculty appointment was threatened, and when she went to deliver a paper at the medical society of which she had formerly been president, a number of the attendees shunned her. Like many abortion providers, she was periodically targeted by picketers at her office and home.

But Jane Hodgson never regretted her decision to get involved in the abortion issue, feeling she had gained far more than she lost. As she said to me, “The people I’ve known who are involved in this issue are on the whole more interesting to me—I’ve made friends I never would have made.”

Thankfully, Pippa Abston has so far received only minimal negative reaction to her quite visible involvement in abortion politics. Unlike Dr. Hodgson, she reports no loss of patients or personal acquaintances. Both however, in strikingly similar terms, cited as a benefit of their abortion-related activity the connections made with those they otherwise would not have encountered. What should we make of this?

I suggest that that these doctors’ statements point to a paradox of the abortion conflict in the United States. The constant legal and legislative attacks on abortion that started shortly after Roe, not to mention the physical attacks on abortion providers themselves, have helped create a vibrant prochoice community that draws actors from many different social worlds, and whose members often forge very deep bonds with one another. Dr. Abston spoke with admiration about the “passion” she had seen among the abortion rights activists she had met. Similarly, Dr. Hodgson said to me of her involvement with the abortion issue, “I think I’ve been lucky to have been part of this… If I hadn’t gotten involved, I would have gone through life probably being perfectly satisfied to go to the medical society parties, and it would have been very, very dull.”

There should be no misunderstanding. I am not arguing that it is a “good” thing that abortion has been under such siege because this opposition has, in turn, contributed to building to a strong prochoice community. Rather, Jane Hodgson’s and Pippa Abston’s reflections align with what I have heard from so many other physicians over the years: that whether abortion provider or supporter, engagement with this issue introduces these clinicians to a diverse group of allies, with a shared sense of mission, that is rare elsewhere in medicine.

Photo of Dr. Hodgson courtesy US Government via Wikimedia Commons.

  • Sara Imershein, MD MPH:

    Thank you Carole! I wholeheartedly agree with Dr Abston. Thank you for sharing her story.

  • Carole Joffe:

    Hi Sara, Glad this rang true for you! best, carole

  • Dear Friends,

    I am a feminist activist living in Istanbul, Turkey. You may have already heard that Turkish government has initiated a new law that bans abortions which has been our right since 1983. Here, we are trying to build a strong campaign. The forum we are working on is established by feminist groups, organizations, individuals as well as women from different political parties mainly from the left. We need to build contacts for international solidarity. On the 8th June which is this Friday we will have a street manifestation with thousands of women. Last week, there have been many protests in Turkey the most crowded of which was around 3000. We will have online broadcasting for which we will soon spread the link. Do you think it is possible to have a protest in Ireland or even in other countries and localities simultaneously? We do not have much time, so please answer me soon! On the other hand, I am searching for experiences in countries where abortion is banned. Our political history shows that we have much more impact on the legislative processes if we can speak with ‘scientific facts’ and numbers. Although I am a sociology student and very critical about apositivistic approach, such information seems to serve well. do you have such easy access documents?
    Last but not least, you can sign our petition in the time being and maybe help to spread it as well as the news:

    With Solidarity!

    Derya Özdemir

    Boğaziçi University MA student in sociology
    Purple Roof Women’s Shelter Foundation (İstanbul, Turkey) Volunteer

    for futher information please contact:

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