For rape survivor, abortion bans recall painful history: NPR

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Adria Malcolm for NPR


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Adria Malcolm for NPR


SANTA FE, NM — This summer, when Elaine heard the reports about a 10-year-old girl in Ohio who had become pregnant from rape and had to travel out of state to have an abortion, he was hard to watch a way.

“I knew it was coming,” she said. “I knew it was only a matter of time before someone like me made headlines. And a doctor would publicize the effects of these laws.”

That doctor was Caitlin Bernard, an OBGYN in Indiana. Bernard’s story, about a young patient who was unable to have an abortion at home in Ohio after a ban took effect, drew backlash from conservative leaders . Without providing evidence, Republican Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita questioned the doctor’s credibility and threatened to investigate her.

A matter of time

For Elaine, this story took her back to 1969, when she was 11 years old and growing up in Amarillo, Texas. The youngest of five children from a large Catholic family, Elaine described herself as a “tomboy” who loved sports and cycling.

“I walked for miles and miles barefoot,” she said. “I was a bit precocious. I was a bit of the class clown, actually.”

A scanned photo of Elaine when she was 10.

Courtesy of Elaine


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Courtesy of Elaine

Now 65 and living in New Mexico, Elaine asked us to only call her by her middle name, as she fears her family will face backlash for her telling the story of her childhood.

Elaine says she was in bed one night in early 1969, in the bedroom she shared with her older sister, when their bedroom door suddenly opened in the early morning. A man snuck up, climbed into her bed and started raping her – threatening to kill her if she didn’t shut up. It lasted what “felt like an eternity”.

Finally, Elaine’s sister woke up. That’s when she says “all hell broke loose” as her sister chased the rapist out of the house. The rest of the family woke up to screams from Elaine.

“I know the police were there, but I don’t remember much of them that night,” Elaine says. “[My mom] called our family doctor and he met us at the hospital and he examined me.”

It was the same doctor who had delivered her 11 years earlier.

In a police report dated January 15, 1969, at 2:58 a.m., Elaine and her family recounted these events to Amarillo police. The report, reviewed by NPR, describes the attacker as a white male in his 20s or 30s.

He was never caught. But the trauma of that night will stay with Elaine, in her mind and body, long after. One of her sisters later told her that when Elaine came home that night, she started singing while bathing.

“Knowing what I know now, I think that’s a pretty good indication that I was dissociative — that I had checked out.”

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Adria Malcolm for NPR


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Adria Malcolm for NPR


When the unthinkable is no longer “theoretical”

Elaine says she was in the early stages of puberty and didn’t know what to look out for after the rape. But her mother was attentive. Several weeks later, when Elaine turned 12 in April, her mother said they needed to go back to the doctor.

“My mom just said, ‘We have to, you know, work out some issues there,'” Elaine said.

At the time, she didn’t understand what was going on. But now, as a retired pharmacist, she acknowledges that the doctor was performing a common procedure called dilation and curettage, or D&C, which can be used to terminate a pregnancy.

“What I remember is the pain,” she said. “My anesthesia was shaking my mother’s hand.”

Elaine says her mother explained in more detail what happened a few years later, when she was around 16.

“I just said, ‘Thank you,'” she said. “There was no doubt it was the right thing to do. No doubt. And I’m so thankful that I had a mom and a doctor to pull me through.”

Looking back on it now, Elaine says she is grateful for how her “very Catholic” mother, who died in 2010, handled an impossible situation. She says she understands that some people have strong moral objections to abortion. But to them, she says, “I’m here to tell you, in that kind of situation, you’d reject your religion in a split second. It’s easy to say what other people should do when it’s moot.”

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Adria Malcolm for NPR


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Decades later, remembering

She says she was unable to fully cope with the trauma of her experience for many years – after becoming a mother and watching her own daughter turn 11.

“A big part of my heartache was realizing what it must have been like for my mum to go through something like this,” Elaine says.

Elaine spent a few years in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. She says she’s sharing her story now because she wants to make it clear that these situations happen, even though people would rather not think about them.

“I think a big part of the reason we see these draconian laws is that it’s been 50 years since deer“, she said. “A few generations have grown up and enough people in today’s society don’t remember what it was like. … They don’t remember.”

In 1969, abortion was illegal in Texas except to save the life of a pregnant woman – as it still is today. This week, several more states are implementing abortion bans in response to this summer’s Supreme Court ruling reversing Roe vs. Wadewho legalized abortion nationwide in 1973. Some prohibitions, in states like Tennessee and Ohio, include no exception for rape or incest. Doctors who perform illegal abortions can often face prison sentences.

Although the rape itself was carefully documented by Amarillo police at the time, no record of Elaine’s abortion appears to exist. His doctor died decades ago. And abortions were often performed in secret, says historian Leslie Reagan, author of the book When Abortion Was a Crime. She says people who had resources or connections could sometimes find doctors who would quietly offer the procedure — if the doctor felt it was warranted.

“Something like that, where the patient knows the doctor, the doctor knows the patient and the family — they could be very sympathetic in that situation, which means they would,” she says. “I guess he probably never wrote anything about it – because, why would he?”

NPR spoke with two family members who say they remember hearing about the rape for years, including one who remembers discussing the abortion more recently.

Reagan says what’s happening now feels a lot like a repeat of the past.

“That’s the outcome – that’s going to be one of the outcomes,” Reagan said. “The other results are that some people will go through with pregnancies and carry children and be forced into childbirth.”

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Adria Malcolm for NPR


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Adria Malcolm for NPR


Stop the trauma

Elaine sometimes thinks of what would have happened without her family doctor, if she had been forced to continue with the pregnancy while she was in sixth grade, still reeling from the trauma of the rape.

“I probably would have been sent somewhere to have the baby,” she said. “But for me – being 4’10”, 100lbs – that would have been a guaranteed c-section, no doubt. And the thought of that is just abhorrent.”

Now, with three adult children out of the house and living with her husband high on a hill overlooking the mountains around Santa Fe, Elaine says she feels compelled to speak up – for girls like her who can’t. .

“What these kids need most is for this to end – they need the trauma to stop,” she said.

Elaine says if she could say anything to Dr. Bernard’s 10-year-old patient, it would be a very simple message:

“It wasn’t your fault. A very, very bad man did this to you. And you’re going to have a lot of people who love you, who are going to get you through this. And you’re going to be good.”

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