Saturday, August 06, 2005

A Lesson in Abortion History

Thank goodness for used bookstores. I spent about an hour rooting around one in an old gold-rush town yesterday. I found an armload of old 2nd wave books, including Lawrence Lader's book Abortion II: Making the Revolution. Za found an old copy of Darwin's Origin of the Species and we sat at a huge oak table and read. What a sight! Anyone walking by the table might fear we were humanists! (I am still not sure what is wrong with humanism, but I will leave that for another day).

Anyway, I thought I would make today's blog a bit of a history lesson. And, if anyone out there is reading this and can give me more information on this figure I am about to describe, I would appreciate it.

Dr. WJ Bryan Henrie (1905-1972) from Grove, Oklahoma was a old-fashioned country doctor, who also happened to perform abortions. Here is what Lader writes:

"The farmers, and their wives in cotton print dresses, came to Henrie's clinic from picturesque villages like Bluejacket. In 23 years of practice, Henrie delivered 1,250 babies. 'More often, he drove to the south end of the country to see the sick in the wee hours of the night,' a former patient noted. 'He returned money to patients that were poor and asked them to go buy some clothes instead of paying him.'
'Doc Henrie never sent a bill to nobody,' a neighbor added.

After describing his character, Lader then turns to describing his political sensibilities:

"Henrie represented the rural, populist tradition. Henrie, in fact, was named after William Jennings Bryan; and his broadsides and pamphlets on abortion and women's rights, which he handset and printed on a creaky, out-of-whack press in his basement, were like the words of biblical prophets alone in the desert vastness. His writings quoted frequently from the Bible. He believed in human perfectability, even in the White House, sending each pamphlet to President Nixon, as well as the local county attorney who once prosecuted him."

Now we turn to Henrie's arrest and jail sentence. He was arrested in 1962 and spent two years in jail.

"Sitting down to dinner with the jailer whose grandchild he had delievered two weeks before, Henrie did not even appeal his conviction. Serenely, he accepted the consequences of a bad law . . ."

I like that last sentence. Henrie was more Socrates than Martin Luther King Jr. Anyway, Lader describes his prison sentence and its effect on his career.

"Even in prison, he began to release a barrage of statements, attacking abortion law. 'I believe that abortion is a woman's right and decision and no one else's,' he told a reporter of the Daily Oklahoman in 1963. 'I never felt abortion was wrong. I still think the law was wrong.'"

And, now I turn to the part of the story I am most interested in:

"Rather than hide in the anonymity of a distant city after his release in 1964, Henrie returned to Grove and devoted himself to his campaign. No longer able to practice medicine and forced to sell his clinic at a loss, he claimed that debts and legal fees had wiped out his assets of $200,000, and he had to live on his Social Security and his wife's salary of $500 a month as a nurse. Now he began a unique saga--the first physician to wander the country, traveling by bus for days at a time to save money, in his patient search to find an audience.

At Tulsa's All Souls Unitarian Church, where the minister announced, 'the time has come to look into our hypocrisy,' Henrie told a meeting of two hundred that 'in the progress of civilization, there comes a time when someone must stand bigger than the law.' He pointed out that Grove and surrounding areas had a remarkably low rate of juvenile deliquency and crime, possibly due to the birth of only wanted children. 'I delivered wonderful babies when they were wanted, and prevented pregnancies with contraception and abortion when they were not wanted.'"

Henrie's reasoning--that helping women terminate unwanted or unintended pregnancies lowered the crime rate--is, in fact, the same argument that Levitt and Dubner make in Freakonomics. I realize that a committed anti-abortionist will not be persuaded by Henrie's claim and in fact, will be repulsed. But, the point is worth thinking about. If you force women to give birth to babies that they do not want, then you are bringing into existence a child (or children) who may become incredibly dangerous, violent and/or abusive.