An ageing doctor recalls his time performing illegal abortions during the 1960s, and turns to Frida Kahlo’s art for the inspiration to continue his struggle; by
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The year 2023 didn’t look good, but it was no worse than 1967. In fact, ’67 was much worse. In 1967-68 the Vietnam War was televised nightly. Endemic and accepted racism, endemic and accepted police brutality, young women dying at the hands of criminal abortionists, and the political assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy tore the country apart.
If we survived that period, I believed we could survive the internecine polarization of 2023.
In 1967 I started my internship at The City Hospital of Detroit, located in the epicenter of the 1967 uprising or riot; the name you chose depended on your viewpoint and station. Rather than begin in the hospital, I was sent to the morgue to prepare forty-three bodies for forensic autopsies. I was there when they brought Cooper, Temple, and Pollard in from the Algiers Motel.
My next rotation after the morgue was at the women’s lying-in. We were there to try to save the lives of women dying from illegal abortions. We usually failed.
It was all too much. I wanted out.
Dr. Luke Ballinger asked me to help him in his clinic.
“Matt, Dr. Drummond. You’re disillusioned. You want out.”
“Come to my clinic. It will do you good.”
In the waiting room a mother held a child. The mother and child were haloed by artificial light. Purple crosses were painted on the baby’s shiny, bald head. I recognized the heartbreaking evidence of radiation treatments for a malignant brain tumor. The cobalt radiation beam would enter where the purple lines intersected. The baby was asleep. The young mother was dressed in a T shirt and jeans. She stroked the child’s head and closed her eyes and hummed softly. The baby moved his lips as if nursing. His eyes closed.
It appeared to me that the mother was dreaming of holding this moment forever. A moment frozen in time, abeyance. Here she could, for an imagined eternity, hold her sick child and he would never die, and she would never have to give him up and abandon the child to death. My eyes watered. My throat tightened. I imagined the mother’s thoughts of how afraid and alone her baby would feel to go into that unknown world of death without her. I imagined she would give anything to have it be she who was terminal. I imagined the horror that entered her mind. She would give anything to be with him when the dreaded time came and to hold his soft, trusting hand.
My eyes were fixed on the mother and child.
“Come on, Matt, stop staring at them,” Ballinger said. “We’re here to help them.”
Ballinger spoke to the woman. “Julie, you and Andrew come on in. Matt, you come with us.”
The young woman undressed her child. Luke listened to his lungs and heart. He took a reflex hammer and examined the child’s reflexes. He took the light out and examined the child’s eyes. I saw Ballinger’s face droop for just a second but quickly composed himself to a professional clinical demeanor.
“Is the baby eating?” Luke asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I think he’s growing stronger. I think he can beat this.”
“How are you doing? You look tired. You’re still working?”
“Yes, I have to.”
“Are you still getting sick?” Luke asked.
Ballinger wrote a prescription and handed it to Julie.
“I can’t fill this. All the money goes for my baby.”
I opened my wallet and gave Julie a twenty, my week’s budget.
Ballinger handed her a one-hundred-dollar bill.
She handed the twenty back to me but Ballinger stopped her.
“No, you keep it,” Luke said.
She looked at us and put a hand over her face and cried.
“Take the pills when you start to feel sick. It should help. I will see both of you next month.”
“Thank you, Dr. Ballinger.”
The woman wrapped the baby in a blanket and returned to the waiting room.
I put my stethoscope into my black leather doctor’s bag.
“Matt, what do you think?” Ballinger asked.
“I feel sick about that child.”
“Yeah, but imagine if we weren’t here to help, give her a hundred and twenty dollars. We got to make it easier for these people.”
“You’ll have to buy my lunch for the month,” I said. “I like your clinic. This is what I had in mind.”
“You come here every week. I’ll teach you everything I can. All is not lost.”
I looked at the woman holding her sick child. The mother continued to sing softly into the baby’s ear.
I kept staring at Julie and her child.
“Looks like a painting from the Detroit Institute of Arts, a Madonna and Child,” Luke said.
I turned to face Ballinger.
“You go to the DIA?” I asked.
“It reassures me. Whenever I’ve had too much.”
Luke pointed toward the woman and the child.
“It’s beautiful in a way,” Luke said. “The timeless emotion of a woman who knows her child is doomed, but she cares and holds and comforts him as long as she can. Breaks your heart. To love something like she does, knowing it can’t last, you have to be very brave.”
They left the waiting room.
“Why bravery?” I asked.
“Because of the eventual loss. You know, till death us do part,” Luke said.
“You always lose what you love?” I asked.
“That’s the rule,” Ballinger said. “Julie’s going to lose her babies, both of them.”
“She’s pregnant. She has to terminate the pregnancy in order to take care of her sick child.”
“Terminate, like those on the wards at the lying-in?”
“I hope she finds someone who knows what they’re doing.”
Ballinger continued, “A human is made of nature and nurture, and don’t ask me which is more important.”
“Nature is the tissue; nurture is the years of development that makes the individual complete. If I can save them both, I will, but if I have to choose, I’ll save the complete individual. It’s what I call a battlefield decision. Like calling in airstrikes on your own position.”
“Airstrikes on your own position?”
“Matt, it happened to me in Vietnam.” A look came over Luke’s face that I had not witnessed before. His color turned white, with a faint blue tint around his lips. His face became a sagging, smooth death mask. “Yeah. I was in the Delta, and our field hospital was overrun by Viet Cong. We ran out of ammo. I called the bombers in to drop bombs on us, napalm. I figured some of us would make it. We would have all been killed if I didn’t do it. I was burned over fifty percent of my body. Front and back.”
“The rumor is you were fragged.”
“Not true, friendly fire that I directed. I got discharged. I got a medal with oak-leaf clusters. Oak-leaf clusters, what a joke. But a lot of boys, my friends, were killed, burned alive by the airstrike I ordered.”
“But some got out?”
“More than if I hadn’t done what I did. But it haunts me to this day. You see things that are no longer there. I do too. You have visions of the morgue and the abortion disasters. I see the faces of forty young boys asking me why. Some don’t have faces because the napalm burned them off. They march in formation like a military army of zombies. They’re still in uniform.”
Ballinger’s eyes welled up.
“I swore that day to devote my life to saving others no matter what. I owe it to the boys I saw blown to pieces, legs, arms, heads flying all over like bloody basketballs. I owe it to those who died that day. To mothers whose only wish was that their boy would come home alive. A lot of those soldiers were Black; that’s one reason I’m going to stay involved here. Nobody cares about them.”
It was the piece that was missing in my understanding of Dr. Luke Ballinger.
I sat at the kitchen table, picking at the Formica, thinking about what Luke told me. The door opened. I was startled and took a defensive stance. I relaxed; it was only Luke.
The television was on and the news showed pictures of college kids protesting the war. “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” said Ballinger.
“It’s one thousand.”
“One thousand what?”
“Our saturation bombing kills one thousand civilians a day. Not all are kids; they bag women, old people as well.”
He mimicked Sly Stone and sang, “It’s a family affair.”
“What are you doing here on your day off and my day off?” I asked.
Ballinger opened the refrigerator and drank orange juice out of the carton.
“I want to take you on a house call.”
“Where?” I asked.
“To a secret location. Let’s go.”
Another Luke Ballinger lesson. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity.
We drove past the hustle and bustle of Saturday at the Eastern Market. Stopped at a two-story motel. Parked outside Room 8.
“What are we doing here? This is a motel, a cheap one.”
We entered Room 8. There was a portable exam table covered with a white sheet.
“Stay here,” Luke said. “I left something in the car.”
“I left the radio. Got to go get it.”
Adjacent to the exam table was a blood pressure cuff and a steel tray with surgical gloves and stainless-steel scalpels, curettes, and a vaginal speculum. A gooseneck lamp reflected light off the surgical instruments.
The room was set up for an operation.
There was a barely audible, timid knock. I opened the door and recognized the young woman who held her child, the one with the brain tumor.
She’d left a fixed, heartbreaking impression, but she didn’t seem to remember me.
The small muscles around her mouth twitched. She glanced around me and saw the exam table. Her mouth fell. She was nervous, afraid of something.
“Doctor, thanks for helping me.”
She gave me a quizzical look.
I offered her a chair.
“I’m frightened. I don’t know if this is right. My child is sick and I need to give him all the care I can. I need to work. But I don’t know… who are you? I was to meet Dr. Ballinger.”
Her fingers trembled. She manipulated the buttons on her blouse.
“I saw you at the free clinic,” I said. “I’m Dr. Mathew Drummond.”
“I hope I’m doing the right thing. I need to take care of my child. I need to work; I need the money. I’m the only one he has.”
I observed her faded, evaporated youth. She looked tired but there was something else. Resolve? Bravery?
“A woman directed me here. I’m to see the doctor. Someone who’ll take care of things safely.”
“I’m an intern at the City Hospital. You don’t remember me?”
The woman flushed angry, crimson.
“I’m not having an intern do this, for God’s sake.” She stood. “I’m leaving. I have to stay alive. Nothing can happen to me, not yet. You will not touch me.”
Luke walked in. “I’ll take care of you. I’ll do the procedure.”
She looked at Luke. The tension in her face relaxed.
“Thank God, it’s you,” she said. “Dr. Ballinger, thank you.”
“Julie, you’ll be fine,” Ballinger said. “You know I’d let nothing hurt you.”
Luke hugged Julie. She held on to him for several seconds. Tears stained Luke’s shirt.
“How’s little Andrew?” he asked.
“He’s okay for now. They told me that the radiation treatments would one day no longer be able to keep his cancer under control. I know I won’t have him forever, but I need to work, I need the money, and when I’m not working, I need to be with him every second.”
“You’ll be fine,” Ballinger said.
“Will I be able to have other children someday?”
“Absolutely,” Luke said.
Luke turned on the radio. WJLB, the voice of Wash Allen could be heard. “Wash the lover, Wash the fighter, Wash the stone street strutter, will now play Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Dancing in the Streets.'”
The woman was asleep. Breathing evenly. I watched Ballinger look under the sheet draped over her knees. He inserted the vaginal speculum, then took the suction device. There was a sucking sound like a bathtub makes just before the water is gone. Red tissue filled a glass canister on the floor. It wasn’t much. All that promise and potential couldn’t fill half a medicine bottle.
“Can’t forget the Motor City” drowned out the vacuum sound.
“All done. She’ll be fine.”
It had taken a few seconds.
The red tissue in the glass jar was about the size of a quarter.
Luke noticed. He picked up the jar. “That is nature, Matt.” He pointed to the woman asleep on the exam table. “That woman is nature and nurture. Her child at home is nature and nurture. Try to save all of them if you can, but if not, save the mother and the child she’s caring for. Triage.”
“Matt, I need you to help me. I need you to help me keep women safe.”
I had to think. My thinking place was the Detroit Institute of Arts. Luke was correct, for here humanity was condensed.
The art was permanent and perfect and eternal; it wouldn’t grow old and sick or bleed to death and die.
In the cathedral-like room, the frescos of Diego Rivera surrounded me and made me feel small; not that important. My footsteps echoed. The Detroit Industry mural depicted the aggressive, blast-furnace-powerful, manufacturing character of the city. The north and south walls showed Black men, brown men, and White men laboring in choreographed muscular unison to produce automobiles, airplanes, tractors, ships, and bombs.
Rivera believed that men and women of all races could work in harmony, homogenized for good or bad. He celebrated the union of man and machine.
All the backbreaking work and sacrifice of the laborers, the scientists, the engineers must have a purpose other than industry, steel, and strength. What did it all mean?
The east wall showed a perfectly developed human fetus attached to the placenta, encased in the womb. The fetus was the largest figure represented and was the focus of the mural. The reason for all human endeavor was for the protection and proliferation of the human race. I’d been in this room many times; now I got it, because events had changed me. I was being asked to help in the termination of pregnancies.
The fetus was safe in the womb, fed by the large arteries of the placenta. A steel plowshare was depicted menacingly close to the sleeping infant. Was the plowshare the instrument of an abortionist?
A woman sat on the floor in front of the east wall, sketching the mural in charcoal. I looked at her work. The detail was exquisite.
“You’re very talented,” I said.
She did not look at me.
“Anybody can copy,” she said. “This is an assignment.”
She refused to notice me.
“I’m an art student. I have to draw this. I hate it.”
“Diego Rivera? This is magnificent.”
“It was a mean insult to his more talented wife, Frida Kahlo.”
“But the work shows that all human activity is to support life. Protect that which lies in the womb.”
She put her charcoals aside and shook her head.
“Rivera’s work is rough, brutish, powerful, but lacks emotion. There is no love, honor, compassion. It might as well be a series of large photographs. There is more emotion in the black-and-white photographs of Detroit’s incredible Monte Nagler. He took photographs of Rivera’s mural and humanized it with superimposed images of the riots. That’s emotion. Rivera was of steel and testosterone.”
“Rivera was obsessed with creation.”
“But not emotion.”
She looked at me, finally.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m a doctor. I come here to think.”
She shook her head.
“Rivera painted a fully developed infant entering the birth canal. It was at the time that his wife, Frida Kahlo, had another miscarriage and almost died. Her baby was malformed, unrecognizable as human even at the fourth month. She wanted to give birth so badly. He drew that to mock her for what she’d lost and could never have. He could be very cruel to her. He was a pig, a beast. He did not want her to have children. Come with me. I’ll show you.”
We walked to an adjacent room that held the works of Frida Kahlo. The works were small but emotion exploded off the canvases. The difference was striking and I had dismissed it in my years at the museum. I thought them too bloody and avoided them. Just as now medicine had become too bloody, and I wanted to avoid it.
“Diego the elephant kept Frida the dove in a cage. Someday she will be more famous, more appreciated. While he painted the beautifully formed, healthy infant, Frida painted this self-portrait.”
The painting was Frida Kahlo in a hospital bed. She was hemorrhaging from a miscarriage. Blood poured off the sides of the stretcher. Images of the deformed, lost infant hovered over her.
On the side of the bed was painted Henry Ford Hospital. It was a tribute to the hospital that saved her life.
“While she was recovering from a surgically terminated pregnancy, Rivera had an affair with her sister!”
I would help Dr. Luke Ballinger.
It had been over fifty years. Dr. Ballinger and I and several other doctors performed abortions on women in the first trimester. We never got caught. The police and detectives knew what we were doing, but we all worked to keep the women safe and out of the hands of the criminals, the first-trimester butchers. We saved many lives, prevented many rapes.
The criminals would only abort in the first trimester, because later in pregnancy it was too risky. If the woman died they would face a murder rap. We did the abortions to spare the life of one rather than lose two. It was Luke’s battlefield decision come home from Vietnam.
In the first trimester we removed formless cells safely. I removed the microscopic to save a developed life. Nobody would extract a fully developed fetus. But to remove cells to save a life? A young woman in trouble? There was a difference in the first-trimester terminations. I can’t explain it, there just was.
Once Roe v Wade was law, I was done; so was Luke.
In 2023 they want to return to 1967. I would be asked to help once again for the same reason as before: to keep women out of the hands of the criminals, the butchers, the rapists who would once again exploit desperate women in early pregnancy.
I would be asked to remove formless cells. I would lose one rather than two. Luke was gone – he died from Agent Orange-induced leukemia – but his battlefield decision lived with me.
I was a father and grandfather, and those formless cells had a greater significance. They developed into something wonderful. Something I could not appreciate fifty years ago. I had to think.
Just as I did fifty years ago, I went to the Detroit Institute of Arts. I sat surrounded by the Diego Rivera mural of Detroit Industry, and waited for Frida to come and counsel me. It was the only place where she would visit me. It was the only place for a séance.
It would be a fantasy conversation, but then her paintings were of fantasy and surrealism, so this phantasmagoria was, at least to me, very real and very possible.
I sat and waited, and she appeared. She had not changed.
I greeted her. I smiled.
“Every time I see that Congresswoman from New York, she reminds me of you.”
“She is very pretty but not like me.”
“Unlike me, she would pluck her eyebrows and wax her moustache if she had one. She probably does.”
“Have a moustache.”
“I recall your self-portrait, the one with your unibrow and your wispy moustache, and the monkey.”
“We always had monkeys about when I was growing up. We pretended to be on an African safari. I would pretend I was a big-game hunter. I always played with the boys. I was Tarzan.”
“Today the doctors would put you on hormones, operate on you, and change you into a boy.”
Frida looked disgusted.
“I would become like a pre-Colombian Aztec priest and rip the heart out of a doctor who tried to do that to me.”
“You dressed like a man even when you were very young. You made a masculine self-portrait after you cropped your hair. Perhaps you would have been happier as a man,” I said. “In some cases, it is a very legitimate procedure.”
“Doctors! My father had epilepsy and they were going to remove part of his brain. They were going to do a lobotomy. He refused. He was an artist and that would have been the end of him.”
“We try to help,” I said. “People want to be normal.”
“Normal is for weaklings. I liked women but mostly men. But I was a woman. You must live a long time to grow into being different, and appreciate being different. The doctors wouldn’t understand time and acceptance, the need for suffering, blood, and patience. They are thieves anyway.”
We studied her portrait of Dr. Eloesser.
“You didn’t think that about Dr. Eloesser.”
“He was very different from most doctors. He was head of the department of surgery at San Francisco General. He went to the battlefields of Spain to help the Loyalists. He was in the Lincoln Battalion. He never became rich but administered to the poor. You remind me of him.”
“I am not in his league. I’m just a family doctor. I dodged the Vietnam draft. I’m not a socialist.”
“Yes, but even as an old man you fought COVID, you went to the hospital every day. You still have the sentimentality of a socialist, even though you are old now.”
“Doctors want to change you into their own image. They have little respect for your unique image, your identity. I must love me for what I am. I don’t want a doctor to change that, make me artificial to make themselves feel good. You must become your most interesting subject, for better or worse.”
“That’s why you created so many self-portraits?”
“Yes. The only subject that interested me was me.”
“You looked inward.”
“Diego was interested in many things. He looked outward,” she said. “Machines, steel, automobiles, airplanes; all aspects of human endeavor fascinated him.”
“But compared to you,” I said, “there is action, activity, but no emotion.”
We were silent for a while.
“Is that why you come to talk to me? Ask me something silly like why I did not become a man?”
“No. I need to talk to you of the same thing as before.”
“Abortions? You settled that in 1972.”
“It’s back again.”
“To help the women would be too much strain on you. You are old now. Soon you will lie with me.”
Still the seductress.
“Perhaps. I would like to keep you anxiously waiting.”
We left the Diego Rivera mural and walked arm-in-arm, observing her art.
“There is a lot of blood in your work,” I said.
“And suffering,” she said.
“Your painting of The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, showing a beautiful woman jumping from a building to her death, makes me recall 9-11.”
“That is good. I tried to make people see, cry, and feel, even if removed by time and distance. Observers must not escape.”
We studied Frida and the Abortion.
“I don’t like this picture of you. You are crying and bleeding. You lost your baby.”
“I wanted to be a mother so badly. I tried three more times with the same result.”
“I may be asked to do them again,” I said.
We observed the painting of Frida hemorrhaging in Henry Ford Hospital.
“Is Henry Ford still a great hospital?”
We studied her painting A Few Small Nips. It shows a woman murdered; the man stands beside her body, holding a bloody knife. The man resembled Diego Rivera.
“Why did you stay with him?”
Her works were of skeletons and blood, and disturbed and frightened me.
“Were you ever happy?” I asked.
“Before my accident, very. After being crushed and impaled on a metal bar, I became about suffering. My pictures exposed you to suffering and its importance. You absorb them and cannot claim ignorance.”
I had a great practice, a comfortable life, a wonderful family. If I did the illegal, I could lose it all. When I was an intern, I had little to risk. Now it was different. Cells mean more to me. I have become old-fashioned and comfortable.
I looked at Frida.
“What will you do?” she asked.
“You opened my eyes to suffering fifty years ago. I will do the same now as I did then.”
“That is good,” she said. “I knew it. I will wait for you.”
She drifted away.
I waved goodbye at nothing.