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40 years after Roe v. Wade, doctor reflects on time in Oklahoma

Doctor Larry Burns does not defend abortions performed at late-term abortion clinics, unless it's a life-or-death situation for the mother — a very rare event, he said.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Modified: January 21, 2013 at 12:44 am •  Published: January 21, 2013

For almost 40 years, Dr. Larry Burns has done one thing: abortion.

Abortion rights activists might dub him a hero for running one of Oklahoma's three abortion clinics.

Anti-abortion advocates might go so far as to call Burns a murderer.

“I don't expect people to agree with me,” Burns said. “It seems like people don't want to know that you really exist until they need you, and when they need you, they really need you.”

It has been 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court decided on Roe v. Wade, a landmark decision that ruled no state could outlaw all abortions.

The Rev. Anthony Jordan counts Jan. 22, 1973, as “one of the darkest days in America's history.”

“On that day, the United States Supreme Court determined the death sentence for now more than 50 million unborn children,” said Jordan, executive director-treasurer for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

First experience

Six months after that decision, Burns got a call from a friend. One of the first legal abortion clinics in Oklahoma needed help with anesthesia, and Burns was studying to become an anesthesiologist.

He moved to Tulsa to work at the clinic. This is where Burns learned to perform abortions. He now operates a clinic in Norman.

During medical school, students generally do not learn how to perform abortions. They might learn similar procedures, but not specifically how to perform abortions.

Before Roe v. Wade, there were a limited number of places women could get legal abortions. There were clinics in Kansas, New York and California, but that was about it, Burns said.

It's estimated that the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Some ended up with permanent injury.

“A lot of times, you would get blindfolded and taken out to a farmhouse or motel or somewhere,” Burns said. “You've got total strangers working on you. You wouldn't know if they were medically qualified or not; usually they weren't.”

Oklahoma City law professor Carla Spivack said the rarity of abortion clinics before Roe primarily affected poor and working women.

While wealthier women could likely afford to travel for an abortion, others could not, she said.

“It meant women had no control over their reproductive decisions,” Spivack said. “Roe and the pill were sort of really the key events in giving women full citizenship and the ability to participate in society.”

Legislative issue

Former House Speaker Kris Steele voted on hundreds of measures during his 12 years at the Capitol.

But a moment about three years ago has stuck with him, especially when discussing the abortion debate.

He and other lawmakers were working late when a bill came up on the House floor about in vitro fertilization.

Under the bill, women who donated eggs for the process could not be compensated.

“Whenever the bill was brought up, several lawmakers said, ‘Oh, this is a pro-life initiative,' and it passed,” Steele said.

“It sailed with hardly any debate or even discussion just because somebody referred to it as pro-life.”

Steele said he voted yes without considering the consequences. He later studied the issue and realized, had he thought about it more, he would not have voted in favor of the bill.

He began to work against the bill, arguing that limiting in vitro fertilization goes against the “pro-life” principles of bringing life into the world.

“It just dawned on me how easy it is to get caught up in the emotion or maybe even the politics of an issue that is so emotionally charged without really thinking it through,” Steele said.

Steele, a Shawnee Republican, has served as a United Methodist pastor until recently when he took a full-time job at The Education and Employment Ministry, a nonprofit that focuses on reducing poverty, homelessness and unemployment in Oklahoma.

Steele is against abortion. At the same time, he says there's a difference between being against abortion and recognizing that Roe v. Wade somewhat dictates what a legislature can do.

“Like it or not, that was a decision that was made, and until it is overturned or changed, that's what we're going to be living with,” Steele said.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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