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Lexington doctor re-examines abortion stand in her new novel

Dr. Carolyn Purcell, a retired ob/gyn, photographed in her Lexington home. She has written a book, ‘Saving Jane Doe,’ a fictional treatment of how four women made different decisions on the subject of abortion.
Dr. Carolyn Purcell, a retired ob/gyn, photographed in her Lexington home. She has written a book, ‘Saving Jane Doe,’ a fictional treatment of how four women made different decisions on the subject of abortion. cbertram@herald-leader.com

It’s a familiar old Lexington in Dr. Carolyn Purcell’s fictionalized account about the choices of pregnant women and how a doctor comes to terms with abortion both legally and morally.

Purcell, 68, starts her novel, Saving Jane Doe (Morgan James Fiction, $14.95 paperback) with an unconscious woman bleeding from an illegal abortion gone wrong at the old Downtowner Motor Inn on Main Street. It is 1971, two years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision made abortion no longer the stuff of back alleys and decrepit hotel rooms.

The first few pages are filled with intense descriptions of what happens to a woman’s body after she’s been butchered while trying to abort. That’s deliberate, Purcell said: “It was intended to be awful. The message was to say, ‘We don’t want this. We don’t want any woman to go through this.’”

The woman in the novel nearly dies, but forms an attachment with her doctor, Cara Land. Although the woman cannot remember her name, she becomes a part of Cara’s family, hired as a housekeeper by Land’s uncle.

Eventually the woman, Jessie, remembers who she is and finds her family, which includes three children. A daughter will later become pregnant at 15. Another daughter lives through a health crisis. A daughter-in-law makes a difficult decision to abort a child not belonging to her husband.

Land’s practice, like Purcell’s, is near Good Samaritan Hospital. Beloved Lexington institutions such as the Green Tree Tea Room and Spalding’s Donuts make an appearance.

But that’s the novel. Carolyn Purcell’s life has been different.

For about five years, 1977-82, Purcell was Lexington’s only female ob/gyn. She practiced in 21 years before retiring due to the continued effects of an auto accident injury.

Unlike Cara Land, she did not marry, did not have a rich and wise uncle living in downtown Lexington and did not help a patient called Jessie recover from an abortion given in a now-demolished motel (known, in its time, for a demolition that blew asbestos around downtown) and eventually go to work for the Florence Crittenton home for pregnant girls.

But Purcell was conflicted about abortion: “I had read that conflict was the basis of a novel. I had been conflicted about abortion my entire career.”

As a doctor she thinks abortion should be allowed early on in the pregnancy. But as a Christian, “I couldn’t deny that it’s an immoral thing. I’m at peace with it now. I’ve decided they’re both right in some ways and wrong in others.”

Although Purcell said that women should have the right to choose, “I think it’s almost always the wrong choice.”

She thinks pro-choice advocates tend to avoid the moral implications of making a decision to abort. But she thinks that abortion foes minimize the horror many women feel during and after their abortions, which she saw as a doctor: “It’s an agonizing decision,” Purcell said.

Purcell’s novel shows that a pregnancy decision, “has very wide ramifications not just on the woman, but on her relationship with her family and friends.”

Purcell grew up on farms around Kentucky with her parents and brother and graduated from Fleming County High School before attending the University of Kentucky for both undergraduate studies and medical school.

She was inspired to choose the field of medicine by a high school biology teacher who had wanted to be a doctor and was not initially planning to go into obstetrics and gynecology, terming it “one of the specialties I said I would never do.”

She had planned to be a general practitioner, but later, she found that ob/gyn “was a perfect specialty for me.”

She enjoyed providing both specialty and sometimes primary care for her patients, she said. “I was a lot of people’s only doctor.”

To hone her writing skills Purcell spent a year in a Christian writing workshop, working with two mentors. She isn’t certain if she will write another book. But she stays busy with her church, Faith Fellowship of Lexington, friends and family and her terrier Mori.

“I really starting writing this because of my own conflict, and I was hoping to come to peace with it,” Purcell said. “And I decided I’d rather be compassionate than right.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

Excerpt from Saving Jane Doe, by Carolyn Purcell:

“I wonder if the demonstrators are right. Would it stop abortion if it was illegal?” Elaine asked.

Jessie shook her head. “Elaine, I am living proof that making abortion illegal does not prevent it.”

(Elaine) “And I am living proof that making it legal does not prevent the consequences.”

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