The front line of the war on abortion

By Elizabeth Schulte

THIS COMMON Secret begins with a conversation between the author Susan Wicklund and her grandmother, in which Wicklund has decided to reveal the work she has devoted several decades of her life to--providing abortions.

Review: Books

Susan Wicklund, This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor. Public Affairs, 2007, 268 pages, $24.95.

But in the process, it's not Wicklund telling the secret, but the older woman, who knows first-hand the dangerous and deadly reality of a time when abortion was illegal. Despite the fact that discussion of abortion is largely condemned to the shadows in the U.S., in every family there is a story about abortion.

In some cases, it's under illegal, humiliating and life-threatening conditions and, fortunately, in others, it's an easy, painless procedure that lifts a heavy burden from the woman. In her book, This Common Secret, abortion provider Susan Wicklund tells both kinds of stories.

While there are facts scattered throughout, this book is a memoir, which enables Wicklund to tell in a straightforward way why abortion should be viewed as a fundamental right for all women. Through describing her experiences providing affordable abortions to poor women, she explains the serious consequences to any restriction on abortion.

"Some of the political maneuvering sounds innocuous or even positive," she writes. "Of course parents should know about a daughter's pregnancy decision. Who would object to that? But what if that pregnancy is the result of incest, or the family has a history of domestic abuse? It also seems reasonable to consider a choice as weighty as abortion for at least a day. The fact is that the notification process burdens women with logistical, professional and financial difficulties that in some cases make the abortion impossible."

She tells the story of Martina Greywind, who tried to obtain an abortion while in prison and became the focus of the Religious Right. "Not surprisingly, the people who pay the greatest price in the abortion war are always the ones without power, without resources, without advocates, the most vulnerable...Poor women in the U.S. are four times as likely to have an unintended birth and three times more likely to have an abortion."

The argument is clear--whether to carry through a pregnancy should be the woman's decision, and the woman's alone. In some cases, the intensive counseling Wicklund provides at her clinic seems too intrusive, but this makes her story even more convincing to people who might be on the fence about the abortion issue.

Much of the book also describes what it is like to work under the constant threat of anti-abortion protesters and terrorists. Wicklund describes both the impact of the protesters harassment and lies on the patients who have to pass them to get into her clinic and her harrowing personal stories of being stalked and threatened by anti-abortion terrorists.

This book doesn't address the role that pro-choice forces can play in pushing back these anti-abortion, anti-women forces, but it makes a compelling argument about why they have to be taken seriously. The strength of this book is that it makes concrete all of the issues that surround the abortion debate. When there is a mandatory waiting period, a pregnant woman has to consider whether she can miss another day of work.

When a teenager has to wait for a judge's permission for an abortion, she risks the danger of needing a late-term procedure, which may not be available in her state. When anti-choice protesters go unopposed, the women who have to pass through their lines feel the impact.