Dr. Connie Mitchell is a nationally recognized expert on the health care of victims of violence and abuse. She serves on the AMA National Advisory Council on Violence and Abuse and is a member of the Board of Directors of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health.
I grew up as one of four daughters in a middle-class family. As sisters, we shared everything: bedroom, clothes, cars and double dates. It was a loving and lively home and one, I thought, of few secrets. But recently, after one of my sisters was killed in a tragic accident, another sister told me of the secret the two of them had kept for many years. At age 16, my deceased sister was pregnant and wanted to terminate the pregnancy. She sought the counsel and support of the sister now disclosing the story and got the reproductive health care she needed.
Later, I asked my mother about her reaction to the story, as I too was raising teenagers and would appreciate her perspective. My mother began to cry, but she quickly let me know that these were not tears about the abortion. Her tears flowed because the story made her feel so inadequate. She said, "I wish that I could ask her what I might have said or done differently so that she would know, really know, that I understood life provides challenges, that I loved her no matter what, and that I respected her as a young woman."
My mother and I went on to talk about adolescent sexuality and how puberty is a time when children become more private and begin to separate as individuals. She spoke of adolescent development and both the pride and anxiety a mother feels as she watches her child grow, make friends, date, hold hands or experience a first kiss. She asked, "How do you teach children that intimacy is essential to a full life and then expect that this lesson will be internalized without any trials or glitches?" Then she became more emphatic in her tone, signaling her intergenerational message. "The urge to protect your children is so strong that it can easily be twisted into a desire to control. Bearing your children and letting them go into the world is like two birthings, one that is physical and one that is mental, both painful and exhausting at times."
After a pause, I saw that she was crying again and in a softer voice she said, "As much as I wish she had come to me, I will be forever indebted to all those who made sure that she could get the medical care she needed and that she didn't have to be alone. I am so grateful that her older sister could help her and that well-trained, licensed physicians could perform the procedure so she could be safe and healthy and enjoy many wonderful years of her life."
My sister went to college, married a handsome man, had three wonderful children and traveled the world as a flight attendant. I coached her through the birth of her first son just as she coached me through mine. I miss her dearly.
Like my mother, I too wish I could have one more conversation with my sister. I wish I could tell her that her life was no different than that of any other woman. We are sexual, sensual beings and we have complex reproductive lives as we try to deal with major physical changes in our bodies throughout our lifespan. I would tell her that we are fortunate to live in an age where we have choices in partners, contraception, child rearing and medical care. The vast majority of women make these choices carefully, with great deliberation. And I would tell her that I will do everything I can to be sure that all women – young and old, rich and poor, with family support or without, regardless of geography, race or religion – have the same choices so that they can have the same opportunities and pleasures that we had.
My sister's story is the reason I am voting NO on California's Proposition 85. I know the women in my family stand with me in opposing an initiative that only blocks vulnerable young women from the reproductive healthcare and support they need. Please join me November 7 and vote NO on Prop. 85.