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Uncommon candor

An abortion doctor tells it like it is

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Susan Wicklund has become used to strangers swarming her at airports, stalking her at her workplace, barricading her front door, and accusing her of murder. She’s not an exposed government operative, the author of If I Did It, or that Olsen twin who was involved with Heath Ledger—she’s the author of This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor, the former director of Bozeman’s Mountain Country Women’s Clinic, and a straightforward voice in a controversial practice. She calls it like she sees it, and what she sees, in short, is a series of young women pursuing a legal operation while a mob of “anti-choice” advocates expend considerable energy to prevent this.

Language can become a politically charged muddle during discussions of abortion (if you even call it that–some favor the euphemistic term “procedure”). Consider, for instance, the difference between the terms “unborn child” and a “cell-collection” when it comes to describing what is aborted. Wicklund personally opts for “products of conception,” or “POCs,” an accurate, albiet clinical, term, but she grabs the rhetorical bull by the horns by asking each of her patients, directly, “Do you want an abortion?”

In her book, which is part memoir, persuasive essay and vitriol—but mostly a series of case studies—Wicklund uses short conversational sentences to explain exactly where she stands on the subject, and why. She details her own abortion. She explains her policy of only aborting first-trimester pregnancies: She cannot think of older POCs as “tissue.” She screams back at protesters and invites docile “antis” to talk over coffee. Any questions about her take on abortion are answered on page 33 when she writes, “Abortion is about life: quality of life for infants, children, and adults. Everywhere and in every sense of the word. Life, not death.”

Early on, her short sentences can be annoyingly difficult to digest, and her journal entries after high-impact events violate the show-don’t-tell policy of good storytelling. Sections like, “Scared. So scared. Hard to write. Hard to think. Heart pounding,” work against the narrative, sucking up some of the tension. These minor mishaps are few and far between, however, and they only stand out because the rest of the text does an excellent job of offering the reader a mostly unobstructed view of Wicklund’s clients, profession and personal convictions.

This gives the reader an insight into Wicklund’s life as well. Her inclination to blow past any autobiographical narrative parallels what she acknowledges as her “single-mindedness,” and a “tunnel-vision” focus on providing abortion services for women in three states. The memoir sections were actually lengthened at the suggestion of co-author Alan Kesselheim, but Wicklund still spends more space acknowledging “the patients are what kept me going” than she does detailing her entire post-secondary education, begun as a single mother at the age of 25.

Wicklund’s focus on the individual patient is pronounced, from her emphasis on counseling sessions, to her description of each woman’s situation, to her decision to violate her employer’s regulations by allowing a mother to accompany her daughter during the operation. This sort of specificity and outward focus gives Wicklund credibility when she argues that restrictive measures on abortion (for example, the requirement that women wait 24 hours between the initial consultation and the procedure, notifying parents if the patient is less than 16 years old, etc.) are damaging in practice. She can point to the woman who lost her job because she had to take multiple days off work, and to the teenage girl who was a victim of incest and needed her father’s permission to have the procedure.

It also gives her a chance to directly parry the accusations and misinformation of the “antis” outside her door. Wicklund turns away three patients who, despite asserting that they want an abortion, have not convinced Wicklund they are absolutely certain; she even includes a thank-you letter from a client who chose to have the baby instead. Another client reveals her fears of AIDs, death, or a three-day long procedure, and gives Wicklund a chance to expose pro-life agencies that advertise themselves as “abortion information centers.” Cynics could dismiss this as self-serving propoganda, but Wicklund also shares the details of an abortion she wishes she’d never performed, one that, though procedurally and legally correct, left all parties devastated. “I felt responsible,” she writes. “I was responsible.”

Even in her biases, Wicklund is refreshingly transparent. Instead of using the common “pro-life” label, she calls the protesters “anti-choice” advocates, and views them as fundamentally evil, violent and “twisted.” She illustrates the hypocrites, the “antis” who come into the office demanding abortions while calling the doctor a murderer. But she also reveals the source of this vitriol—the invasion of her apartment, barricades in front of every clinic, the murder of a colleague, and one of thousands of threatening letters sent by Missoula native Mike Ross.

The confident, reassuring and open voice that Wicklund uses to talk her patients through a procedure is probably the same voice she uses to guide readers through This Common Secret. Clearly written from a pro-choice perspective, this is an honest, informative book written by a woman who is not afraid to call an abortion an abortion.

Susan Wicklund reads from and signs copies of This Common Secret at Fact & Fiction Thursday, Feb. 21, at 7 PM.

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