Friday, August 18, 2006

Grove Redux, Final Part

If you just landed on this blog for the first time in a long while, you missed my 5 part series on Grove, OK and its famous, outlaw abortion doctor. To help you catch up:
Missives from Grove, Part 1
Missives from Grove, Part 2
Missives from Grove, Part 3
Missives from Grove, Part 4
Missives from Grove, Part 5

I have finally returned from my trip and can't help but replay, over and again, the conversations I had with the town folks of "Old Grove." The story about the abortion doctor from the Bible belt has really shattered any of the familiar categories of our abortion debate. One of the observations I made, almost immediately, was that the categories of "pro-life" or "pro-choice," simply didn't fit; to characterize any of these people--men and women who range from 66-94--as one or the other is an anachronism. The polarizing, mutually exclusive categories manufactured by pundits and politicians are far from capturing the complex relationship that these people have to the moral question of abortion. In fact, abortion is not an abstract question to any of these people. Nearly everyone we spoke to knew of someone who had an abortion performed by Doc Henrie. Most of our interviewees could conjure up a face, a story, a tale of tragedy, when he or she thought of abortion.

After the third interview, the reporter working with us said: "What I am having a hard time getting my mind around is that I have to look at this story not through 2006 eyes, but 1956 eyes." I have thought about her comment many times and I think contained within it is something profoundly wise about how all of us might need to revisit the question of abortion. Ada, Dr. Henrie's nurse, said countless that there is no way you could look at what Henrie did in black and white terms--her very expression. She said: "Honey, life isn't that way and life will never be that way." Henrie didn't have the luxury of time to figure out the moral rightness or wrongness of abortions. He didn't see a moral issue in front of him. He saw a young rape victim. He saw an incest victim. He saw a mother who already had 10 kids and couldn't afford another one. He saw the daughters of the local ministers wanting to "save their name." Other doctors all around Delaware County sent Henrie patients because he was the only one willing to perform abortions and risk arrest. The Mayor, Carolyn Knuckolls said: "The reason that he did the abortions was because he didn't want some girl who wanted an abortion to go to some skid row place with no sanitation by someone who was a quack."

When you listen to these peoples descriptions of the Old Grove--the sleepy little fishing community before the newcomers come in--what becomes clear is that this is a lost era. You simply cannot understand this story, understand why this man willingly risked arrest and endured moral opprobium, until you are willing to put yourself in that place and that time. You may protest that these women could've put their children up for adoption, until you learn that such options simply did not exist. You could imagine the churches taking these women in and finding foster parents, until you realize that only farmers who desperately needed more farm hands would take one or two kids, if you were lucky. These people couldn't even pay for a doctors visit or the birth of their child, so it's hard to imagine that they could handle the expense of finding a parent who could care for a child they could'nt feed, nor tend to because of their own dire poverty. You might also remember that the birth control pill didn't exist and sex education was unthinkable. As Helen Crawford said, the eldest resident of Grove we had the pleasure to speak with, "In those days, people didn't know how to prevent pregnancies." Before Henrie showed up, you went to your midwife who would give you some kind of concoction, not knowing if you would even survive this home remedy.

The Mayor emphasized that Henrie never lost a single patient. This, of course, runs counter to the "official story," printed in the papers of the time. Henrie went to jail because his last patient died. And yet, at least three people said that he never performed that abortion; Ada said "he was framed." Henrie would never peform a surgical abortion either. The only time he ever performed a D and C was if a woman had miscarried. Doc Henrie relied on a non-surgical technique, now called a lamniaria. He would dialate the cervix, which would cause cramping and then a subsequent miscarriage. Women would arrive on a Friday night and stay in his clinic--a clinic which he built and paid for himself to treat the people of Grove--and stay until the miscarriage had occurred. He and his nurses would attend to them and ensure that they did not contract any infections. He also refused to perform abortions if the woman was past the first trimester. What is also of interest is that Henrie often refused to perform abortions in some cases. He always heard the patient out, and if he could, would convince her to keep the child.

To better understand why this town allowed Henrie to perform these abortions, and why they too were as discrete in protecting the identity of the women from their community who went to see him, you have to look at this from the standpoint of Old Grove in the 1950s. The women who showed up in his clinic were daughters, sisters, mothers, aunts, friends, and lovers. These women belonged to Grove and Grove took care of them. This simply was not an abstract question in any case. You weren't allowed to judge these women with scorn because they were, after all, people you loved and knew. The kind of absolute and unforgiving judgments and condemnation of women who seek abortions is an anathema to a tight knit community, where everyone knows everyone, where peoples' struggles are not isolated or ignored, and where children are under the guidance and care of all.

Only now, where we lived dispersed among each other, isolated, disconnected and thereby more capable of construing "others" or"those people," do we witness a swell of pro-life rhetoric, condemning all who seek abortions as "murderers," as "immoral," and as "sinners." We actually are far enough removed from the details of others lives that we feel entitled to judge them. "These young people today have no morals." "If people are starving now, it's their own fault." The erosion of community opens up the possibility of total, absolute and irreconciliable black and white moral positions.

What bothers me the most, as I try to witness this story not from my 2006 perch, is how much more tolerant, pliable and open these people were in the 50s. They had to be. They literally depended on each other to survive. Sure, you don't like what some of them think, what some of them do, but you can't afford to wholly discount them. You cannot walk by and ignore them. You know that "there before the Grace of God go I." And here we are now, in 2006, in a sea of anonymity. Helen said: "I don't even know any of my neighbors anymore. Grove is not the same place."

So, if I can entice others to care about this story as much as I do. If can, more importantly, help you look at this not through 2006 eyes, then I think we have a lot to learn from this story.