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For one rape survivor, new abortion bans bring back old, painful memories

Adria Malcolm for NPR

SANTA FE, N.M. — This summer, when Elaine heard the news stories about a 10-year-old girl in Ohio who'd become pregnant as a result of rape and had to travel out of state for an abortion, it was hard to look away.

"I knew it was coming," she said. "I knew that it was only a matter of time before someone like me hit the news. And that a doctor would go public on the effects of these laws."

That doctor was Caitlin Bernard, an OBGYN in Indiana. Bernard's story, about a young patient who was unable to get an abortion at home in Ohio after a ban there took effect, prompted backlash from conservative leaders. Without providing evidence, Indiana's Republican attorney general, Todd Rokita, questioned the doctor's credibility and threatened to investigate her.

A matter of time

For Elaine, that story took her back to 1969, when she was an 11-year-old growing up in Amarillo, Texas. The youngest of five children in a big Catholic family, Elaine describes herself then as a "tomboy" who loved sports and riding her bicycle.

"I walked miles and miles and miles barefoot," she said. "I was kind of precocious. I was kind of the class clown, actually."

A scanned photo of Elaine when she was a young girl .
/ Courtesy of Elaine
Courtesy of Elaine
A scanned photo of Elaine when she was a young girl .

Now 65 and living in New Mexico, Elaine has asked us to call her only by her middle name because she fears her family could face backlash for her telling the story from her childhood.

Elaine says she was in bed one night in early 1969, in the room she shared with her older sister, when their bedroom door suddenly opened in the early-morning hours. A man snuck in, climbed into her bed, and began to rape her – threatening to kill her unless she stayed quiet. It went on for what "seemed like an eternity."

Eventually, Elaine's sister woke up. That's when she says "all hell broke loose" as her sister chased the rapist out of the house. The rest of the family woke up to Elaine screaming.

"I know the police were there, but I don't remember much about them that night," Elaine says. "[My mom] called our family doctor and he met us at the hospital and he examined me."

It was the same doctor who had delivered her 11 years earlier.

In a police report dated Jan. 15, 1969, 2:58 a.m., Elaine and her family recounted those events to Amarillo police. The report, reviewed by NPR, describes the attacker as a white man between 20 and 30 years old.

He was never caught. But the trauma from that night would stay with Elaine, in her mind and her body, long afterward. One of her sisters later told her that when Elaine returned home that night, she began singing as she bathed herself.

"Knowing what I know now, I think that's a pretty good indication that I was dissociative – that I had checked out."

/ Adria Malcolm for NPR
Adria Malcolm for NPR
The trauma from that night stayed with Elaine, in her mind and her body, long after it happened.

When the unthinkable is no longer "theoretical"

Elaine says she was in the early stages of puberty, and didn't know what to look out for after the rape. But her mother was paying attention. Several weeks later, around the time of Elaine's 12th birthday in April, her mother said they needed to go back to the doctor.

"My mom just said, 'We've got to, you know, fix some problems down there,' " Elaine says.

At the time, she didn't understand what was happening. But now, as a retired pharmacist, she recognizes that the doctor was performing a common procedure called dilation and curettage, or D&C, which can be used to terminate a pregnancy.

"What I remember about that was the pain," she says. "My anesthesia was squeezing my mother's hand."

Elaine says her mother explained in more detail what had happened a few years afterward, when she was about 16.

"I just said, 'Thank you,' " she says. "There was just no question it was the right thing to do. No question. And I'm just so grateful that I had a mother and a doctor to get me out of that."

When she reflects on it now, Elaine says she's grateful for how her "very Catholic" mother, who died in 2010, handled an impossible situation. She says she understands that some people have strong moral objections to abortion. But to them, she says: "I'm here to tell you, in this kind of a situation you would throw out your religion in half a second. It's easy to say what other people should do when it's theoretical."

/ Adria Malcolm for NPR
Adria Malcolm for NPR
Recent issues over abortion rights remind Elaine of what she went through more than 50 years ago.

Decades later, remembering

She says she couldn't fully face the trauma from her experience for many years — after she became a mother, and watched her own daughter turn 11.

"A lot of my grief was really realizing what it must have been like for my mother to go through something like that," Elaine says.

Elaine spent a few years in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. She says she's sharing her story now because she wants to make clear that these situations do happen, even if people would rather not think about them.

"I think a big part of the reason why we're seeing these draconian laws is because it's been 50 years since Roe," she said. "A few generations have grown up and enough people in today's society don't remember what it was like. ... They don't remember."

In 1969, abortion was illegal in Texas, except to save a pregnant woman's life — as it is again now. This week, several more states are implementing abortion bans in response to this summer's Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which had legalized abortion nationwide in 1973. Some bans, in states including Tennessee and Ohio, include no exceptions for rape or incest. Doctors who perform illegal abortions can often face jail time.

While the rape itself was thoroughly documented by Amarillo police at the time, no such records of Elaine's abortion appear to exist. Her doctor died decades ago. And abortions were often carried out in secret, says historian Leslie Reagan, author of the book "When Abortion Was a Crime." She says people who had resources or connections could sometimes find doctors who would discreetly offer the procedure – if the doctor felt it was warranted.

"Something like this, where the patient knows the doctor, the doctor knows the patient and the family – they could be very sympathetic in this situation, which means they would do it," she says. "My guess would be he probably never wrote anything down about this – because, why would he?"

NPR spoke with two family members who say they remember hearing about the rape for years, including one who recalls discussing the abortion more recently.

Reagan says what's happening now looks very much like a repeat of the past.

"This is the result — this is going to be one of the results," Reagan says. "The other results are some people will go all the way through pregnancies and bear children and will be forced into birth."

/ Adria Malcolm for NPR
Adria Malcolm for NPR
Elaine is speaking out about her abortion — especially for girls in situations like hers.

Stopping the trauma

Elaine sometimes thinks about what would have happened without her family doctor, if she'd been forced to continue the pregnancy as a sixth-grader, still reeling from the trauma of rape.

"I probably would've been shipped off somewhere to have the baby," she says. "But for me – being 4'10", 100 pounds – it would've been a guaranteed C-section, no question. And the thought of that is just abhorrent."

Now, with three grown children out of the house and living with her husband high on a hill overlooking the mountains around Santa Fe, Elaine says she feels compelled to speak up – for girls like her who can't.

"What these children need above all is for it to be over – they need the trauma to stop," she said.

Elaine says if she could say anything to Dr. Bernard's 10-year-old patient, it would be a very simple message:

"This was not your fault. This was a bad, bad man who did this to you. And you're going to have a lot of people who love you, who are going to help you get through this. And you're going to be OK."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.