An Uncommon Life in an Uncommon War


There are many powerful war stories in our world. "This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor" by Dr. Susan Wicklund, with Alan Kessleheim, is one of them.

Dr. Wicklund has written a compelling memoir of her life and work as an abortion provider, caught up in the "culture wars" surrounding women's place in society, women's reproductive choices, and access to safe abortion care in the United States. Emerging from a close-knit working-class family in rural Wisconsin, young Susan experiences a traumatic abortion as a young woman where she was ignored and treated with horrific disrespect. This memory never leaves her and, becomes a guiding force for her life. Dr. Wicklund decides to become a physician even as she initially struggles with self-doubt about her abilities and as she juggles the joys and responsibilities of single motherhood to her daughter Sonja.

She ultimately finds her life's work as an abortion doctor. Her drive, passion, courage, skill, and sacrifice eventually propel her to become the one of the few abortion providers in four states (Montana, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Minnesota) during a pivotal point in her career. The "abortion wars" and violence against abortion providers are in full 1980s-1990s force as Dr. Wicklund and her family cope with the extraordinary fear, violence, hate, and disruption initiated by the anti-choice extremists who blockade her peaceful home and her various workplaces, place posters labeling her a murderer in her hometown, harass her in her car and various airports screaming "baby-killer," and threaten her life and the lives of her loved ones. All of this ferociously hateful activity eventually forces her to wear imaginative disguises as she literally hides, outmaneuvers, outruns, and outsmarts the obsessive stalking and crazed violence of these religious fundamentalist bigots.

And outsmart them she does. But it took amazing fortitude, passionate dedication, and extraordinary sacrifice. We do not see heroes such as this very often in our life times.

The details in "This Common Secret" about Dr. Wicklund's life and how she and her family successfully cope with the venom of anti-choice violence are both fascinating and disturbing, and they contribute to a well-written and easy read. Equally fascinating is her description of her work and the unique style, skill, and warmth she brings to the women she serves. She never forgets her own painful and frightening abortion experience and is determined that no woman in her care has that kind of experience. She describes women's lives, decision-making processes, and absolute determination to have safe abortions — women traveling for days and hundreds of miles to reach clinics are increasingly common in the US; in fact, the abortion access crisis in the US is worse than ever.

I have worked in the field of reproductive health and justice for many years and I have received several death threats in my life. "Several" is the operative word here. I am not confident that I could have coped with the nature and number of threats that Dr. Wicklund received, as well as the enormous disruption to her health and well-being that both the harassment and her constant travel to clinics in the four states she was serving required. In 1989, on her very first day as the sole abortion provider at a clinic in Milwaukee, she observes the protestors:

When I left the clinic (that day), I saw the protestors…were a force that had a negative impact on my patients, planting unnecessary fear and guilt in women at this vulnerable cross-roads as they weighed whether to end a unplanned pregnancy. Their rhetoric and self-righteous pleading were misleading and alarming. I knew, looking at them, that the last thing they cared about was the safety and well-being of the women I had seen that day.

The lives of women seeking abortion care, the dedicated staff of the clinics, Dr. Wicklund's beloved daughter, husband, her "flower" grandma (who harbors a tragic secret for more than 50 years), parents, and entire extended family of relatives, friends, and supporters are the many compelling figures who are an important part of this book.

But the center of it this compelling narrative is the unrelenting force and deep compassion that is Dr. Susan Wicklund herself. She exposes the violence and hypocrisy of the still powerful anti-choice movement in the US. She exposes her soul so that we can understand her motivation and her work and the need for safe and accessible abortion care. She shows true courage and sacrifice.

Yes, "This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Provider" is an extraordinary book. I believe that every member of Congress must read this, as well as all of the presidential candidates.

And George W. Bush needs his own copy. Read it, President Bush, and weep to see what your hypocritical anti-woman administration has done.

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  • harry834

    makes me proud. I'm proud of those who stand so that these women can stand. Those who oppose choice, in the name of humanizing the fetus, will dehumanize the woman.