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Pro-abortion doctor laments backslide in women’s rights

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An elderly, ex-South African Jewish doctor this week recalled the perilous time when he was one of a few doctors countrywide performing illegal abortions. He risked everything – from his reputation to his professional career – to help hundreds of women from all walks of life who were desperate and had nowhere else to turn.

More than 30 years ago, this doctor, who asked to remain anonymous, felt forced to pack up his family, close his thriving Johannesburg practice, and head for the United Kingdom (UK) because things became “too hot and uncomfortable” regarding his activities.

He started a new practice from scratch in a country that didn’t frown upon abortion and definitely didn’t consider it a crime.

He said he chose to perform abortions in South Africa in spite of the fact that it was illegal because he “had a heart” and believed women deserved a choice.

“I always disagreed with the anti-abortion policies of the day. I didn’t think it was fair on women, it wasn’t fair that they had no choice,” he told the SA Jewish Report this week from his UK home.

He believes the United States (US) Supreme Court decision last week to reverse the Roe v. Wade ruling would take the country into a “backslide in time reminiscent of South Africa” when he had to hide the fact that he was helping women make extraordinarily personal life choices.

The court’s decision made the constitutional right to abortion, upheld for nearly a half century in the US, no longer valid.

“Americans are mad. Half of them want to sell guns to children to commit mass murder, and the other half say it’s criminal to terminate unwanted pregnancies. It’s all mad,” the doctor said.

“The people deciding these laws past and present have absolutely no idea of the suffering and anguish caused by women who run around like blue-arsed flies desperately seeking help. I’ve seen this.”

In the height of apartheid and for more than 30 years, he opened his practice to women of all races when virtually no one was willing to do so. These women had nowhere to turn, but they had heard about a certain Jewish doctor who was empathetic to their situation. Women would come and find him from all over the country and beyond.

Abortion was legalised in South Africa in 1996, during the nation’s transition from apartheid to democracy, under the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act. The doctor had already left the country a number of years before this came into effect. This revised law drastically reduced the number of deaths caused from botched backstreet abortions.

The doctor said he knew that people in the community spoke of him, mostly behind his back, and there were murmurs and rumblings of his clandestine activity. However, though the rumour mill included speculation that he was arrested and struck off the roll, this wasn’t the case. “Suspicions were around, but it was hearsay,” he said.

“As far as I’m aware, not one of my patients ever suffered, all lived, and thankfully, those who desired to do so went on to have children later on in their lives. My patients were grateful beyond words,” he said.

He left on his own accord at a time when “things were becoming hot for me. I knew it would be better to work beyond the rules of South Africa where what I was doing was seen as a crime”.

The writing was on the wall. “I may have been helping others in dire need, but who was going to be there for me when I was in dire need? I realised I had little choice.

“I sweated a lot. It was tough. I was fully aware of the dangers to myself and my family and how badly things could have turned out,” he said.

Looking back, “Do I think I did anything wrong? No. Do I feel guilty? No.”

The only regret he has is the countless women he wasn’t able to help because they hadn’t heard of him at the time. “I’m just sorry for the people who didn’t know me and couldn’t be helped,” he said.

To this day, he has never divulged his methods and never will. “Only G-d knows, but what I will say is that none of my patients passed away, and all went on to live normal lives.”

“They never risked their lives by coming to me – I was the one to take all the risk,” he said. “For me, it was terribly risky, and I knew no one would come to my defence.”

So why did he do it?

“I felt in my heart there was no one around to help these women, and I thought I’d take that chance. There were hard-hearted doctors. I wasn’t one of them. Some would call it a terrible crime, others would say I saved their lives, their marriages, their jobs. Different people believe different things – it depends which side you’re on. It’s emotive and complicated. This isn’t a simple matter.”

He has chosen to remain anonymous because he said that coming out now would be unfair to all his patients who relied on his discretion.

“People came to me from all over. Some were well known. There’s no benefit in disclosing anything. That’s all in the past.” Even the late Winnie Madikizela Mandela contacted the doctor seeking help for an acquaintance of hers involved in the then banned African National Congress.

It’s unknown what effect the US Supreme Court decision will have on South Africa, if any.

“Women should have a choice, but that’s my belief,” said the doctor, who feels sad that “the world finds itself here”.

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