SANTA FE, NM — This summer, when Elaine heard the news stories about a 10-year-old girl in Ohio who became pregnant as a result of rape and had to travel out of state for an abortion, it was hard to look away.
“I knew it was coming,” she said. “I knew it was only a matter of time before someone like me would be in the news. And that a doctor will make public the effects of these laws.”
That doctor was Caitlin Bernard, an OB-GYN in Indiana. Barnard’s story of a young patient who was unable to obtain an abortion at her home in Ohio after the ban took effect there drew a backlash from conservative leaders. Without providing evidence, Indiana’s Republican attorney general, Todd Rokita, questioned the doctor’s credibility and threatened to investigate her.
Matter of time
For Elaine, this story takes her back to 1969, when she was 11 years old growing up in Amarillo, Texas. The youngest of five children in a large Catholic family, Elaine described herself then as a “boy” who loved sports and cycling.
“I walked miles and miles and miles barefoot,” she said. “I was kind of precocious. I was actually kind of the class clown.”
Now 65 and living in New Mexico, Elaine asked that we only call her by her middle name because she fears her family might face backlash for telling her childhood story.
Elaine says she was in bed one night in early 1969 in the room she shared with her older sister when their bedroom door suddenly opened in the early hours of the morning. A man crept into her bed and began raping her – threatening to kill her unless she kept quiet. What “seemed like an eternity” went on.
Eventually, Elaine’s sister woke up. Then she says “all hell broke loose” as her sister chased the rapist out of the house. The rest of the family woke up to Elaine’s scream.
“I know the police were there, but I don’t remember much about them that night,” says Elaine. “[My mom] called our family doctor and he met us at the hospital and examined me.”
It was the same doctor who had delivered her 11 years ago.
In a police report dated January 15, 1969, 2:58 a.m., Elaine and her family recounted these events to the Amarillo police. The report, seen by NPR, describes the attacker as a white man between the ages of 20 and 30.
He was never caught. But the trauma of that night would stay with Elaine, in her mind and body, long after. One of her sisters later told her that when Elaine got home that night, she started singing while taking a bath.
“Knowing what I know now, I think that’s a pretty good indication that I’ve been dissociative — that I’ve signed off.”
When the unthinkable is no longer “theoretical”
Elaine says she was in the early stages of puberty and didn’t know what to watch out for after the rape. But her mother was paying attention. A few weeks later, around Elaine’s 12th birthday in April, her mother said they needed to go to the doctor again.
“My mom just said, ‘We’ve got some issues down there to work out,'” says Elaine.
At the time, she didn’t understand what was happening. But now, as a retired pharmacist, she admits the doctor performed a common procedure called a dilation and curettage, or D&C, that can be used to terminate a pregnancy.
“What I remember about it was the pain,” she says. “My anesthesia was holding my mother’s hand.
Elaine says her mother explained in more detail what happened a few years later, when she was about 16.
“I just said, ‘Thank you,'” she says. “There was just no question that it was the right thing to do. No doubt. And I’m so thankful I had a mom and a doctor to get me out of it.”
When she reflects 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 serious moral objections to abortion. But to them she says, “I’m here to tell you that in such a situation you would throw away your religion in half a second. It’s easy to say what other people should do when it’s theoretical.”
Decades later, remembering
She says she was unable to fully face the trauma of her experience for many years – after becoming a mother and seeing her own daughter turn 11.
“A lot of my grief was really realizing what it must have been like for my mother to go through something like that,” says Elaine.
Elaine spent several years in therapy for PTSD. She says she’s sharing her story now because she wants to make it clear that these situations happen, even if people prefer not to think about them.
“I think a big part of the reason we’re seeing these draconian laws is because it’s been 50 years since then Rowe” she said. “Several 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 is again now. This week, several more states are enacting abortion bans in response to this summer’s reversal of the Supreme Court’s decision Roe v. Wadewhich legalized abortion nationwide in 1973. Some bans, in states including Tennessee and Ohio, do not include exceptions for rape or incest. Doctors who perform illegal abortions can often face jail time.
While the rape itself was extensively documented by Amarillo police at the time, no similar records appear to exist of Elaine’s abortion. Her doctor died decades ago. And abortions were often performed in secret, says historian Leslie Reagan, author of When Abortion Was a Crime. She says people who have the resources or connections can sometimes find doctors who will discreetly offer the procedure — if the doctor thinks it’s warranted.
“Something like when the patient knows the doctor, the doctor knows the patient and the family — they could be very empathetic in that situation, which means they would,” she says. “I guess he probably never recorded anything about it – because why would he?”
NPR spoke with two family members who say they remember hearing about the rape years ago, including one who remembers discussing the abortion recently.
Reagan says that what is happening now is very much like the past repeating itself.
“That’s the result — that’s going to be one of the results,” Reagan says. “The other results are that some people will go all the way through the pregnancy and have children and be forced to give birth.”
Stopping the trauma
Elaine sometimes wonders what would have happened without her family doctor if she had been forced to continue her pregnancy as a sixth grader still reeling from the trauma of the rape.
“They were probably going to send me somewhere to deliver the baby,” she says. “But for me — being 4’10,” 100 pounds — a C-section would have been warranted, no doubt. And the thought of that is just disgusting.”
Now, with three grown 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 out — for girls like her who can’t.
“What these kids need above all is for it to be over – 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. It was a bad, bad person who did this to you. And you’ll have lots of people who love you to help you get through it. And you’re going to be fine.”