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In the Shadow of the Prayer Tower: Forty Years of Pro-Choice Activism in a Red State

by Barbara Santee


At a time when women’s reproductive freedom is under constant attack, it is critical that younger women especially realize the importance of becoming involved in this struggle for the most basic of all human rights.  As a contribution to this, I want to share a speech I gave in May of this year when I was honored to receive the “Newsmaker Award” from the Tulsa Chapter of the Association of Women in Communications.  The speech was given at Southern Hills Country Club, located only two miles from Oral Roberts University that features a “Prayer Tower” on its campus. My speech received an overwhelming response.  

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I am deeply humbled and grateful for this incredible honor and I accept it, not just for myself, but for those anonymous advocates, doctors and clinic workers, who put their lives on the line every day to guarantee this most basic of all human rights – reproductive freedom.  How many of us would like to work where a bullet-proof vest is a job requirement?

I commend the Board for its courage in giving these people a voice by drawing attention to this highly contentious issue at a time when both abortion and contraception, and the people who provide them, are under constant attack.

I have been a Pro-Choice advocate since the late 1960s.  In my 40-plus years of activism, the one question I am most frequently asked is why I became so committed to defending a controversial issue like abortion.

It’s very simple.  I firmly believe a woman’s uterus is not the property of the state.

One in three women in this room will have had an abortion by the time she is 45 years old.

Some fifty million women have had safe abortions since Roe, but before that, thousands were killed or injured by illegal abortions.

I was one of those women.

When I was 18 years old, I left a house filled with alcoholism, poverty and abuse.  I was a naive country girl with a high-school diploma, $10 to my name, and everything I owned was in a cardboard suitcase.  I was completely alone and scared to death – and tailor-made for exploitation. Predictably, the jackals gathered, and it wasn’t long before I became pregnant.

My girlfriend found an abortionist who told me to meet him at, what turned out to be, a rundown house in North Tulsa.

I climbed up on a dirty kitchen table to have my first internal exam by a complete stranger who could have been a plumber, a fry cook or, if I were lucky, a doctor.

I was terrified because I had heard stories of women waking up to find they were being raped by their abortionists; and there wasn’t a thing they could do about it because they were committing a crime.

That didn’t happen to me, but I left crying because he wanted $200, twice my meager monthly salary as a typist.

In desperation, I took some pills and aborted myself.

A week later I was rushed to St. John’s hospital with a massive infection. The doctor told me if I had waited 24 hours, I would have died.

Before I was wheeled to the operating room, they put a placard on my chest that read “Incomplete Abortion.” It might as well have been a big Red “A.”

For years, I never spoke about it.

Fifteen years later, three years before Roe, I met with a dozen women in the basement of All Souls Church to organize the first pro-choice group in Oklahoma called M.O.R.A.L. (Modern Oklahomans for the Repeal of Abortion Laws). I was elected chair.

My religion professor at T.U., Harold Hill, agreed to help me start an “underground railroad” to get women to safe abortions.

As chair, I received the initial calls from the women, I referred them to Hal for counseling, and he put them in touch with a legitimate doctor.

But the women never went to the doctor’s office and they were never told his name.

Each woman was instructed not to tell anyone where she was going, to meet the doctor in the parking lot where Steve’s Sundry is now, to bring cash, and to come alone.

She was told to lie down in the back seat of his car, covered with a blanket so she couldn’t see where she was being taken, and she was driven to the doctor’s lake home that had been converted to a clinic.

Imagine how terrifying this must have been for these women, but it was necessary, because all of us were committing a felony punishable by two years in prison.  One Oklahoma physician, Dr. Bryan Henry, had already spent two years in McAlester.

Our “underground railroad” ran for three years, and Harold Hill estimated he referred 3,000 women during that period.  Three thousand women who were not injured or killed because he got them to safe medical care.

My good friend, Harold Hill, died last month.

Every year, there will be another crop of frightened, naive 18-year-old girls who will need our help.  They are why I’ve fought so hard to keep abortions safe and legal.

If my reality offended any of you, remember that your daughter, your sister, or that woman sitting next to you may be that 1 in 3; and imagine her going through these horrible experiences if we lose the protection of Roe.

Regardless of your personal beliefs, is that what any of us really want for the women we love?

Thank you again for this incredible honor.  I will cherish this award for the rest of my life.

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Dr. Barbara Santee, www.barbarasanteephd.com, is the retired executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oklahoma, and is currently a consultant and volunteer with several community groups in her home town of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  She holds a Ph.D in Sociomedical Sciences from Columbia University A 12-minute video of the presentation and her acceptance speech can be found at:  http://youtu.be/lbTljh9qo8g.


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