Revolution Interview

Dr. David A. Grimes

Author of Every Third Woman in America: How Legal Abortion Transformed Our Nation

February 23, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


Revolution Interview: A special feature of to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music and literature, science, sports and politics. The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own; and they are not responsible for the views published elsewhere in our website/paper. writer Sunsara Taylor recently interviewed Dr. David A. Grimes, whose book Every Third Woman in America: How Legal Abortion Transformed Our Nation (Daymark Publishing) came out in December 2014.


Sunsara Taylor: Thank you for taking the time. You have this new book, Every Third Woman in America—could you tell us a little about why you wrote this book?

Every Third Woman in America: How Legal Abortion Transformed Our Nation

Dr. David A. Grimes: The motivation for this book was the fact that the story of the “bad old days” of illegal abortion in America may die out with my generation. I recently retired, and physicians younger than me don’t recall what those days were like. Hence, we have become complacent through our naiveté. That’s why I think much of America—and certainly the Republican Party—seems unconcerned about the notion of turning back the clock on American women. We simply can’t let that happen.

Sunsara Taylor: You talk about “the bad old days”—could you describe what you mean by that?

David Grimes: The idea that Roe v. Wade brought abortion to America is wrong; abortion has been with us as long as pregnancy has been. And estimates from before Roe v. Wade, back in the 1950s, were that between 200,000 and 1.2 million illegal abortions were done annually in the U.S. Roe v. Wade had little impact on the number of abortions done, but it did affect dramatically the safety of the procedures: Abortions moved from the back alley to safe operating rooms, doctors, and clinics. The safety improved quickly, and illegal abortion deaths nearly disappeared.

For example, in the year when I was born, more than 700 American women died through unsafe abortions. Today, only about 10 women die annually this way (compared with hundreds from pregnancy and childbirth).

Sunsara Taylor: Did you see women who suffered from illegal abortions that had gone badly personally as a young physician?

David Grimes: I did. Roe v. Wade came down my senior year of medical school, so in my early years of residency as a young physician in training I had several occasions to care for women who had still turned to the back alley. One day I was called to the emergency department to see a young woman whom I was told had a temperature of 106 or 107 degrees, which I thought was in error. It was not.

When I examined this woman with a very high fever, I found that she had a red rubber catheter protruding from her cervix. A dietitian in the next town over had put it in. This was an old standard way of doing illegal abortions.

Another time I was on call I was asked to see a college student from our campus who came in with septic shock. She had virtually no blood pressure and a dead fetal foot protruding from her cervix in suspicious circumstances. Physicians younger than me have not seen these kinds of horrors.

Sunsara Taylor: What made you decide to practice abortion in particular?

David Grimes: During medical school, I decided to become an obstetrician/gynecologist. Again, the laws were changing as I was training, and I became interested in abortion as a medical issue. I also became interested in abortion as a civil rights issue. I grew up in the South in the ’50s and ’60s. The sit-in movement started in my home town of Greensboro, NC, when I was a student. The first Black student to graduate from my high school sat next to me alphabetically in home room, so I lived through that experience with him.

I quickly came to realize that reproductive rights are fundamental civil rights, and what we’re struggling with today is just as important as what was happening with Freedom Riders in the 1960s.

Sunsara Taylor: Why do you say that?

David Grimes: Without reproductive rights, all other “rights” become irrelevant for women. If a woman cannot control her fertility, everything else becomes irrelevant. Women will never enjoy what life has to offer them until they can control their fertility and thus control their destiny; it’s just as simple as that.

Sunsara Taylor: I’m very interested in your own experience with the civil rights movement; the impact it had on you overall but also the impact it had on you to see this issue with women as a civil rights issue.

David Grimes: I grew up seeing these injustices in the South. I can still remember going to a movie theatre in my home town, and there was a separate Black entrance way up in the balcony. Those kinds of things are just obscene, and we’re seeing the same kind of mean-spiritedness directed toward women now. It’s cloaked in the specious banner of “improving safety,” but we all know what the agenda is—to drive women into the back alley once again.

Sunsara Taylor: You write that abortion is usually debated—in politics and in the courts—in a vacuum, leaving women’s lives out of the debate entirely. Could you expand on that?

David Grimes: That’s what concerns me as a physician who’s been caring for women for over four decades of practice. We usually hear abortion being discussed in the abstract; it’s not an abstract concept when a woman becomes pregnant. What are her alternatives? If she does not have an abortion, then by default she becomes a mother, and the risks, responsibilities, and costs of motherhood are substantial. And here we see the Republican Party, with mainly elderly, affluent, white men as their leaders, telling women how they should live their lives. It’s simply unacceptable.

Sunsara Taylor: One of the things I especially appreciated in your book—it gives the whole sweep of abortion history in the U.S. and other parts of the world, quite an encompassing book—but one of the things I was particularly struck by is the way it demystifies pregnancy and the development of new life. You refute the notion that “Life Begins at Conception!” Why do you think that’s a wrong statement?

David Grimes: There are two problems with that very common phrase that we hear, “Life Begins at Conception!” First of all, conception is not a discrete event; it’s a process that takes several days. Unless one is doing in vitro fertilization in a laboratory, you never know its timing.

Second, the notion that fertilization starts a “new life” is clearly wrong, because the egg has always been alive, and the sperm has always been alive. We don’t get new human beings out of inanimate objects like rocks. We can never say when life began; it began millennia ago, eons ago. We can define when life ends, but we can’t say when it begins; it’s just a continuum, like a torch being passed from runner to runner.

Sunsara Taylor: People say when the sperm and the egg meet there’s a new set of DNA, and you have some interesting examples that debunk the notion that that’s what a human being is, just a new set of DNA.

David Grimes: Right; many politicians have a limited background in science, biology, reproductive biology in particular, and they think there’s some unique event that takes place and starts a new human being. They say “ensoulment” takes place and there’s a new, unique occupant in the uterus. I ask them, then what happens some days later when that mass of cells splits and you then have identical twins; which one gets the soul? This example usually causes great consternation, because they’re suddenly confronted with the biological fact that fertilization did not define the new entity; a new entity has appeared days after fertilization.

There’s another biological oddity called a hydatidiform mole where an egg with a missing or inactivated nucleus gets fertilized by a sperm; all the genetic material comes from the father. The uterus fills with grape-like mush. No one would say that this mush has First or Fourteenth Amendment constitutional protections—or inheritance rights. Yet it began by union of an egg and sperm.

Sunsara Taylor: I was so glad to see that part of your book. It is no coincidence that the movement against abortion is also against scientific sex education, also linked to an assault on evolution, any comment?

David Grimes: Science denial cuts across lots of disciplines. I recently wrote in the Huffington Post on science denial, on similarities between the anti-vaccination movement and the anti-abortion movement. They have a lot in common. You’re right; science denial hurts public health, whether we’re talking about the recent measles epidemic or opposition to abortion.

Let me follow up on something I said earlier on the simplistic notion that a new pregnancy begins at the moment of fertilization. The easiest way to explain why that’s not true is yet a third example, and that’s in vitro fertilization. Let’s assume a couple that lives in Oakland, California, is going across the Bay to get in vitro fertilization done in San Francisco. Let’s assume that doctors there manage to get an egg and sperm to unite in a petri dish. Can the woman go back to Oakland and announce to her friends that she’s pregnant, have a baby shower, and start prenatal care? Of course not; the fertilized egg resides in another county! That clearly explains to lay people that fertilization of the egg does not mean she’s pregnant. Not until it implants in the uterus does pregnancy begin, so everyone, including the federal government, agrees that implantation defines the beginning of a pregnancy, not fertilization.

Sunsara Taylor: There’s a whole movement among fundamentalist Christians to adopt every fertilized egg that is frozen in any in vitro lab, thinking these are “unique people” they urge women to have them implanted and bring every single one of them to term. George W. Bush actually did photo ops with children who were produced this way, called “snowflakes.” This is how far this movement wants to go in terms of making women feel they have a duty to use their bodies to “save” what is clearly not a person.

David Grimes: Again, this reveals how little many people understand about reproductive biology. Here’s a fact that’s not widely appreciated, even among many doctors: most fertilized eggs die early on. They don’t even make it to seven weeks. There’s an enormous loss of fertilized eggs early on. About a third of recognized pregnancies are lost through spontaneous miscarriages. Early pregnancy loss is the norm in our species. Those of us alive today are the minority of our cohort of conceptions who survived the winnowing process of pregnancy. Women are born with millions of eggs. What happens to all those eggs? Men make billions of sperm over a lifetime, turning out hundreds of millions a day. What about all that wastage? That’s just the nature of reproduction in our species.

Sunsara Taylor: Going back to the “bad old days,” which is definitely the trajectory we are on with the legislation and the court rulings, the whole movement of violence against doctors. But, we’re not only going back to a time when abortion was illegal, it’s now being criminalized. Miscarriages, complications in pregnancies, and self-induced abortions are being criminalized—meaning women and those who help them will go to prison—in a way and on a level that did not happen before Roe. Am I right?

David Grimes: You are right, and it’s really horrific. What we’re seeing replicated now in state after state are conditions that prevailed during Ceausescu’s time in Romania in the 1960s and 1970s, when they actually had pregnancy police who monitored women’s pregnancies to make sure they weren’t ended prematurely. We’re seeing women tried for “crimes” of having a miscarriage. We’re seeing women driving across state lines to get care. Women living in west Texas crossing over into New Mexico to get care. Women in south Texas crossing over into Mexico. What we’re seeing is a recurrence of what I call the “sandwich years,” 1970 to 1972, when 80 percent of all the abortions in the U.S. were provided on the two coasts, in New York and California. Women suffered terribly, not just financially but also medically, from these long treks to get decent care. Imagine you’re a teenager living in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1970; you have to ride a Greyhound bus 1,200 miles each way to get care in New York City. No one should have to do that.

Sunsara Taylor: What’s your message for young people today?

David Grimes: Safe, legal abortion is fundamentally important for women’s health. Abortion will not go away; it will not be legislated away. The question that faces us as a society is what women are going to have to pay for their abortions, in terms of dollars, disease, degradation, and, for some, death. We cannot turn back the clock on women.

Sunsara Taylor: What do you think it says about the way society views women, that this right is actually being not only chipped away for years but now being hammered away at?

David Grimes: It’s a horrible indictment of the leadership of our country, especially the Republican leadership; the Republican Party has had a plank in its platform since the 1980s of total abolition of abortion, and at the most recent convention in 2012 there was no mention of any exception for rape or incest. This is truly mean-spirited. I’ve always used the analogy of once women become pregnant they’re regarded by many as a Tupperware container for nine months. Katha Pollitt in her new book uses another apt analogy; she refers to women as being considered “potting soil.” It’s terribly, terribly demeaning to women.

Sunsara Taylor: Do you want to say anything about the question of abortion internationally?

David Grimes: The situation around the world is gradually getting better; there have been several countries that have liberalized their abortion laws, but today, the World Health Organization estimates that about 20 million women will have illegal, presumably unsafe abortions every year, and, of those, the most recent estimate is that 47,000 women will die per year, needlessly, because of complications from unsafe abortions. The fact that almost all those deaths are preventable is a tragedy.

Sunsara Taylor: I want to thank you.

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