America's most agonizing issue

Monday Book Reviews

November 02, 1992|By David Holahan

CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE. By Sue Hertz. Simon & Schuster. 242 pages. $20.

AS MIGHT be expected, the mood on the abortion front is grim for all concerned: for pro-lifers, who chain themselves to abortion clinic doors or even paddy wagons; for clinic staff, who often have to deal with distraught patients as well as occasional "invasions" from Operation Rescue fanatics; for police, who must keep the peace while pro-choice and pro-life forces scream and jostle one another in front of clinics; and finally for the women who have to run a gauntlet of intimidating abortion foes to exercise their legal right to terminate a pregnancy.

Although the question of abortion is generally argued in the abstract, Susan Hertz has written a book that illuminates the complex controversy in vivid human detail. A former reporter and currently journalism professor at the University of New Hampshire, Ms. Hertz chronicles one year (1989) in the life of Preterm Health Services, a Brookline, Mass., clinic that is the largest single provider of abortions in New England -- about 10,000 a year.

It was not a happy year. Operation Rescue, then a two-year-old organizations dedicated to shutting down "abortion mills" nationwide, was at its peak in the Boston area. In one assault on Preterm and two other local clinics, 227 of Operation Rescue members were arrested for blocking access to the clinics.

While this was the most dramatic challenge to Preterm director Carolyn Wardell, she also had to deal with a rising deficit, a weary and often despondent staff and a declining number of doctors willing to perform abortions. She frequently wondered whether giving up weekends with her 4-year-old daughter to guard the clinic was worth it.

The author profiles people on both sides of the picket line and doesn't overtly choose sides, but her sympathies are clearly with the clinic staff and the women seeking abortions. Accounts of pro-life activists are perfunctory -- almost stereotypical.

The strength of the book is in its workmanlike recounting of the procession of unhappy, often agonized women who come to Preterm for a variety of reasons: They are generally too young, too poor, too alone, too unlucky, too abused or various combinations of these. In essence, abortion cannot be divorced from numerous other problems in society.

Abortion, of course, predates all the recent controversy as well as the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized it. A study cited in the book estimates that almost 829,000 abortions were performed nationally in 1967, more than half of the 1.6 million performed legally each year today. By 1973, Preterm co-founder Dr. Waldo Fielding had learned from his 20 years in hospital emergency rooms that there are no limits to what a woman will do to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

David Holahan is a writer in East Haddam, Conn.

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