‘We Don’t Do Abortions In Dubuque.’ An Iowan’s Experiences In The 70s And Beyond

AP Photo/Eric Gay

After her second time having sex, Julie Brown began experiencing severe pain on the right side of her abdomen.

It was 1979 and Brown, a now-Des Moines resident, was 16 and living in Dubuque.

In the hospital, after blood tests, a nurse quietly asked if Brown could be pregnant. After saying “yes,” she went into surgery not knowing what was happening.

“I woke up the next day in the hospital. The surgeon, [an] old white man, came in and he said, ‘We removed your appendix. You’re six weeks pregnant. We don’t do abortions in Dubuque.’ And walked out of the room,” Brown said.

She later learned she suffered from appendicitis, but doctors initially thought the pain might be because of an ectopic pregnancy—a pregnancy that attaches outside of the uterus–and had expected to find that.

Ectopic pregnancies must be removed because they can’t produce a living baby and they’re dangerous to the mother. 

And no one told Brown beforehand.

But her next step was obvious.

“I was an accomplished violinist, I’m in high school. And I was playing competitively. And at that time, there is no way that I could have done those things while pregnant,” Brown said.

Her pro-choice Catholic parents were supportive, so when she said she didn’t want to keep the pregnancy, they took her to the Emma Goldman Clinic in Iowa City. There, Brown said everyone treated her well, and for the first time she’d heard people openly talking about pregnancy and abortion.

“It left me with relief,” Brown said. “It left me with choices to decide what I was going to do instead of being done. I ended up the concertmistress of the orchestra, I got to go to all-state three years. I got to do the things that I wanted to do.”

A few years later, Brown was on the birth control pill, but there were risky side effects and many other contraceptive options. She asked her doctor to seal her fallopian tubes, which is a permanent form of birth control.

In part because she wasn’t married and didn’t have children, the doctors she talked to wouldn’t do it.

Later, when Brown was married and purposely pregnant, she started to miscarry. She called the doctor, who scheduled a dilation and curettage (D&C) procedure for the next day, but that night Brown started to hemorrhage.

“Everything ended up fine. I almost had to have a transfusion, but everything was fine,” Brown said.

But it was crucial she got treatment when she did because of how much she was bleeding. The blood ran down her legs faster than she could get to the bathroom, and the ER doctors discussed whether to do a transfusion or get her straight into surgery. Brown could have died, she said, if some of the laws that have been floated by anti-abortion politicians were in place.

“The health care and the doctors are what I needed,” Brown said. “I didn’t need any politician who really doesn’t understand what’s happening anyway to weigh in on whether or not I’ve caused something.”

Generally, miscarriages are treated the same way as abortions. Because of that, there are concerns that states with strict abortion laws will pass laws that could delay miscarriage treatment or penalize women who miscarry. This has already happened in Oklahoma, in case the patient did something to cause the miscarriage. Or attempted a self-induced abortion.

According to the Mayo Clinic, about 10-20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. The number is likely higher, because many miscarriages happen early in pregnancy, even before the pregnancy is discovered. 

Now, Brown has 19-year-old twins and has a lot to say to the people who tell pregnant people adoption is an option or that people should just use birth control and be responsible.

“I could go to personal responsibility on many, many other issues,” she said. “ Whether or not you actually put your seatbelt on it’s a personal freedom. It’s against the law and you might go through the windshield, but we’re still going to take care of you if you go through the windshield.”

She also said no birth control method is 100% effective all the time, and no one should be penalized for accidents.

“Everybody has those privacy rights and they should have those privacy rights to do what they want to do,” Brown said. “Birth control doesn’t work for everybody. That’s all assuming you are in a relationship, a sexual relationship with someone you want to be.”

“I think about all the things I’ve done in my life and all the people I’ve impacted. And there’s Republicans who don’t care. They don’t care about who I have impacted and the things that I have done. They would have been fine with me dying at 16,” Brown continued. “Every bit of it is tied into separating the women from autonomy in every area of her life.”


Nikoel Hytrek

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