Life is full of choices, big and small, but there is also much that's out of our control.
In her new memoir, "Boundless: An Abortion Doctor Becomes a Mother," author Christine Henneberg ponders the concept of choice — from her own career decisions and journey toward motherhood to the importance of trusting the choices of her patients — and how to reconcile a need for boundaries with the boundless love and dedication of parenthood. Though it's a deeply personal book, Henneberg also beautifully recounts many stories of patients, family members, friends and colleagues that have stuck with her over the years, from harrowing to heartwarming (and sometimes both at once).
Her book came together a few years ago, in the early months of her newborn daughter's life, as Henneberg reflected over many of the experiences and feelings she'd written about in her journal during her medical residency and beyond. She began recognizing common themes, "all about mothers, all about this same ambivalence I had during my training — not just whether to keep going but whether I could be a mom, whether I wanted to be a mom — the stories, they all already existed in my notebook," she said.
In "Boundless," she discusses her struggles during the grueling period of medical school and residency; her doubts about her choice of career; and ultimately finding fulfillment as an abortion doctor.
"I think in general people have this misconception that women going in to an abortion clinic are kind of careless, or clueless, or naive ... and that the clinic is full of people who are dejected and ashamed. It could not be farther from the truth," she said. Yes, there are plenty of moments of pain, sadness, and difficulty, but there is also empowerment.
"We're so proud to be there helping women through these difficult decisions," she said. "It's very rewarding work that we take a lot of pride in. Women leave the clinic carried to some extent on that pride they feel from the good care they've received there."
One of the reasons Henneberg said she loves her work as an abortion provider is the opportunity to fully support women in their choices.
"I really love meeting a woman in a place and a time in her life when she has every reason to feel anxious, afraid or certain that she's going to be treated poorly. To meet her and say, 'I completely trust you. I'm going to treat you with all the dignity and respect you deserve and keep you safe,'" she said. "Really trusting her with her life and her body, I think that is not something that women get — especially pregnant women — very often."
As a California-based doctor, Henneberg has not seen much change to her day-to-day clinical work since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June 2022 that overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and denied the constitutional right to abortion, although she said she does now see more patients from out of state.
"I certainly have strong feelings about the women who are stuck in other states who we will never see, who are so stuck they can't really access any solution. For so many women it was so hard for them to get an abortion already," she said. "And I think about my colleagues in other states who trained to do the work that I do, who can't do it any more."
When her two children are older, she hopes to travel to help provide care in states like Kansas, where abortion clinics are facing an influx of patients from neighboring states, and engage in more activist work. "I think about what's happening in the rest of the country a lot," she said.
While becoming a mother has not changed Henneberg's commitment to abortion work, it has had an impact on how she relates to the women in her care, especially to the many who already have children and are making a decision on ending a subsequent pregnancy.
"I really identify more with my patients. I empathize with them," she said. "They make decisions for what's best for their families. I understand the complexity of that choice, of that decision, much better than before."
The structure of "Boundless" follows Henneberg's pregnancy leading up to the birth of her first child, interspersed with memories from her childhood and personal life as well as her medical work. In addition to her evolving thoughts about motherhood, she reflects on her relationship with her husband, his close-knit family, and her own parents, including the sometimes fraught connection with her father, who died nearly three years ago.
"He knew very much the complexities of his and my relationship and how we loved each other and pushed each other very hard," Henneberg said. "I don't think there's anything in the book that would have surprised him."
From a young age, Henneberg always dreamed of being a writer. She was raised in Palo Alto and fondly recalls many happy days spent visiting the former downtown bookshop, If Wishes Were Horses, and the Palo Alto Children's Library, where she spending hours reading in its Secret Garden.
"For someone who liked to read, Palo Alto was the perfect place to grow up," she said. Her love of writing soon followed her love of reading. At age 14, in fact, she won the Palo Alto Weekly's annual Short Story Contest ("She writes compulsively," her mother told this news organization at the time).
While writing remains perhaps her truest calling, she became interested in medicine after volunteering as an English teacher in rural India during a semester off from college.
The experience "really opened my eyes to public health and poverty," she said, particularly in regards to women's health, and she was inspired by the work of Paul Farmer, the late physician and co-founder of the nonprofit Partners in Health, as well other writer-doctors. "I knew it was possible," she said of combining medicine and writing. She earned a bachelor's degree in English and creative writing from Pomona College, then completed the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program.
In recent years, she's published essays in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Review, HuffPost, Slate, the Los Angeles Times and others, and plans to return to fiction writing as well.
"I'm always writing about abortion stories because there are so many of them," she said. "I hope to help people understand what's at stake and how complicated it can be."
More information is available at christinehenneberg.com.
on Jan 5, 2023 at 5:13 pm
on Jan 5, 2023 at 5:13 pm
Thank you for your work in supporting and empowering women to make the choices that are right for them. You are a hero. Thank you.
on Jan 5, 2023 at 9:50 pm
on Jan 5, 2023 at 9:50 pm
Brava, Dr. Hennenberg. I will check out your book.