Worried in 2008 that the legal right to an abortion might soon be “swept aside,” Dr. Waldo L. Fielding wrote a New York Times essay that revisited what many women endured before the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal in 1973.
From 1948 to 1953, he “saw and treated almost every complication of illegal abortion that one could conjure” while training as a gynecologist in New York’s municipal hospitals. Abortions have been performed throughout history, he reminded readers. Roe v. Wade, he added, only meant they could be done legally and safely, under the care of physicians.
“The familiar symbol of illegal abortion is the infamous ‘coat hanger’ — which may be the symbol, but is in no way a myth,” he wrote. “In my years in New York, several women arrived with a hanger still in place. Whoever put it in — perhaps the patient herself — found it trapped in the cervix and could not remove it.”
Dr. Fielding, who later moved to Boston, where he became a well-known obstetrician and gynecologist and the author of a popular book about pregnancy, died Jan. 1 in South Shore Hospital.
He was 100 and, weakened by an infection and age, died of respiratory failure brought on by COVID-19 pneumonia. A strong supporter of pandemic precautions, he had been vaccinated twice and had received a booster shot, one of his sons said, but complications of advanced age and a urinary tract infection left Dr. Fielding vulnerable.
Dr. Fielding also had been medical director of Preterm Health Services clinic. In 1994, four years after he retired, Preterm was one of two Brookline clinics that were attacked by abortion opponent John Salvi, who shot and murdered a receptionist at Preterm and injured two other employees.
Writing in his New York Times essay, Dr. Fielding noted that although coat hangers were a gruesome symbol of how abortions were performed before Roe v. Wade, they were by no means the only things used in botched attempts that imperiled women’s lives.
“Almost any implement you can imagine had been and was used to start an abortion: darning needles, crochet hooks, cut-glass salt shakers, soda bottles, sometimes intact, sometimes with the top broken off,” he recalled.
Speaking of one woman in particular, he wrote that she “did not explain why she had attempted the abortion, and we did not ask. This was a decision she made for herself, and the reasons were hers alone. Yet this much was clear: The woman had put herself at total risk, and literally did not know whether she would live or die. This, too, was clear: Her desperate need to terminate a pregnancy was the driving force behind the selection of any method available.”
Dr. Fielding’s focus “was always on taking care of women and making sure they had the best care,” said his wife, Anita MacKinnon, of Hingham.
As an advocate for legal, medically safe abortions, “I never felt morally that I was doing the wrong thing,” Dr. Fielding said of his work at Preterm in an interview a few years ago for “No Choice,” a Bill Moyers video series that examined the abortion issue before and after Roe v. Wade.
While working at Preterm on Beacon Street, Dr. Fielding often encountered hundreds of protesters on weekends. “I never dared park my car there,” he recalled in the video interview, “but they would find me and follow me along the street.”
Waldo Lewis Fielding was born in Worcester on July 25, 1921, the only child of Dr. Bennett Fielding, a general practitioner, and Harriet Newman Fielding, whom he credited more than his father with directing him toward a medical career.
An accomplished table tennis champion in his teens, he graduated from Classical High School in Worcester and attended Dartmouth College, the only school to which he applied.
Because of a need for physicians during World War II, he graduated early, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1942. He spent two years studying medicine at Dartmouth and finished his medical degree at the University of Michigan.
Joining the Navy, he served on the island of Guam and the Truk Atoll in the Pacific, and remained in the military until 1948. Then he began a residency at a Harlem hospital in New York City that shaped his abortion advocacy.
While in New York, he met Sue Benjamin, a successful singer in theater and TV who later performed under the name Sue Bennett. They married in 1949 and had two sons, Jed, who now lives in Chicago, and Andrew, of Pompton Lakes, N.J.
After he completed his residency, the family moved to Greater Boston, where he worked at first with a medical practice before launching his own private practice. He also taught at medical schools.
His first wife, Sue, who died of cancer in 2001, had her own TV show in Boston and appeared with Rex Trailer.
“I always loved how much my father made my mother laugh,” Andrew said. “He was an incredibly funny man and my mother would just be overtaken by laughter at so many of the things he said.”
Jed said in an e-mail that he was “so proud” of his father “for the ways he stood up for the rights of women.”
Dr. Fielding was also a performer, and spoke only half-jokingly about “the terrible dichotomy” between his love of medicine and the theater.
As a physician, he appeared on broadcast news and talk shows, and published his book “Pregnancy: The Best State of the Union” in 1971.
And as his medical career drew closer to his retirement in 1990, he acted and sang more regularly in community and professional plays, continuing to do so well into his 90s, notably in productions of “Love Letters” at the Cotuit Center for the Arts.
More than a dozen years ago, Dr. Fielding met Anita Ivaldi MacKinnon, an organist and fund-raiser for nonprofits. They married in 2014 and later moved to Linden Ponds in Hingham.
“He’s a born entertainer,” she told Cape Cod Wave magazine in 2015, a few weeks after they married.
A private memorial service will be held for Dr. Fielding, who in addition to his wife and two sons leaves two stepsons, Matthew MacKinnon of Bethlehem, N.H., and D.J. MacKinnon of Hingham; four stepdaughters, Laurie Fallon of Easton, Liza MacKinnon of Hingham, Leslie MacKinnon of Dorchester, and Linda Blue of Annapolis, Md.; six step-grandchildren; and a step-great-grandchild
Dr. Fielding’s wife said he was particularly proud of his Moyers video interview. On that show, he criticized how men often made decisions before Roe v. Wade and amid efforts to weaken the ruling. “They’re deciding what a woman should be able to do with her own body,” he said.
In his New York Times essay, he wrote that “it is important to remember that Roe v. Wade did not mean that abortions could be performed. They have always been done, dating from ancient Greek days.
“What Roe said was that ending a pregnancy could be carried out by medical personnel, in a medically accepted setting,” he concluded, “thus conferring on women, finally, the full rights of first-class citizens — and freeing their doctors to treat them as such.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.