Editor’s Note: We’re re-posting this story in honor of the 43rd Anniversary of Roe vs. Wadeóa monumental U.S. Supreme Court decision on Jan 22, 1973, which legalized abortion.
So here goes.
Okay, Iím gonna go out on a limb here and write a post that literally scares the bejesus out of me.
Itís hard enough when youíre not an OB/GYN to make peace with where you stand on the abortion issue. But when youíre an OB/GYN, itís even harder. I was raised in a family with three Methodist ministers, attending church at least once or twice a week for my entire young life. Countless Sunday school teachers and pastors taught me that abortion was sinful, and while Methodists tend to be relatively liberal about supporting a womanís right to choose, that choice was supposed to apply to the faithless, not the church-goers.
As a teenager, I abstained from sex, not because I didnít think my cutest-boy-in-school honey was hot, but because I feared eternal damnation and didnít want to face my mother if I got pregnant. I was raised to be Pro-Life all the way. And when I finished high school, I was. I wanted all pregnant women to keep their babies — no matter what.
But over time, I learned that this was not always in everyoneís best interest. What about the woman who conceived as the result of rape and incest? What about the welfare mother who already had 12 neglected children? What about the crack-abusing mother whose child would surely end up in foster care with a crack-baby brain? What about the 25-year-old whose baby had no brain?
Once I made room for accepting the nuances of these situations, I found great compassion in my heart for the other women who found themselves with unplanned pregnancies. What about the 16-year-old who wanted to be a marine biologist, or the 43-year-old whose fetus had Down syndrome, or the married mother of three who was finally ready to live her own life?† What about the 31-year-old with the cheating husband or the 21-year-old who used condoms and birth control pills and still got pregnant? At what point does the decision stop becoming a morality quiz and start becoming a real choice?
Of course, I donít know the answer, but I have learned that itís not my place to ask the question. I came to truly believe that a woman has the right to choose what happens to her body — no matter what.
Putting your money where your mouth is
By the time I finished college, I considered myself firmly pro-choice. Which is easy enough to say for lay people, but as an OB/GYN physician in training, youíre forced to put your money where your mouth is. Most people can just stand on one side or the other of the political divide, but not OB/GYNs. We either do abortions — or we donít. And in my opinion, if youíre an OB/GYN and you donít do abortions, you are acting hypocritically. As OB/GYNs, itís our job to advocate for women and their choices. If someone doesnít want to do that, thatís cool with me, but they should choose another field.
When I was a 25-year-old medical student, applying to OB/GYN residencies, I honestly hadnít thought a lot about the issue of whether, as an OB/GYN, I would perform abortions. Most of the best programs offered training in pregnancy termination but towed the party line of ďresidents may opt out of the training on ethical or religious grounds.Ē† But almost all of the residents at Northwestern did it. An unspoken pressure discriminated against those who didnít.
I was 27-years-old when I had to decide, and I rocked back and forth between my beliefs. On the one hand, I believed that, as an OB/GYN in training, I should provide safe, compassionate care for women wishing to terminate their pregnancies. On the other, I wanted to please my mother. Mom begged me not to do them, but Mom lost, and we made a silent pact never to speak about it again.
When I started my job in San Diego, I discovered that nobody in the practice I joined did abortions. If a patient found herself with an unwanted pregnancy, she was told that we ďdidnít do that sort of thing,Ē and she was handed a business card for someone who did. I was horrified.
Thank God, I never had an unplanned pregnancy, but I imagine that if I did, I wouldnít want to be shipped off to some stranger who ďdid that sort of thing,Ē as if the doctors were too high and mighty to get their hands dirty. We all make our own decisions in life, and certainly, the other doctors in my practice had the right to make their own choices. But I knew I couldnít work at a practice where our patients didnít feel supported in their times of greatest turmoil. So I surprised myself by announcing, ďFine. Iíll do them.Ē The minute it slipped out of my mouth, I felt a pang of regret. What had I done? But I swear — itís the weirdest thing — I honestly feel like God made me do it. I know it sounds crazy, but I felt a true calling to provide loving support and tender compassion, without judgment. My mother never understood, but I was being true to my own authentic self, even though it pitted me against her.
Compassion, not judgment
For eight years, I performed abortions on every patient in my practice who asked me to. I held their hands, wiped their tears, heard their stories, and loved them unconditionally. I knew that they never planned to wind up with unexpected pregnancies, and they needed compassion, not judgment. If my choice made one womanís painful journey more peaceful, then it was all worth it.
But it wasnít easy.† A few months after I started my job, I found my name on the front page of the Catholic News as the ďnew abortionist in town.Ē I prepared myself to face angry picket lines at work the next day, but praise God, they never came. I never quite felt comfortable in the skin of a doctor who aborts babies. I tried to resolve my confused conscience by extensively counseling my patients to make sure they understood all of their options, practiced smart birth control, and realized the fact that abortions are not without their consequences. The women whose pregnancies I terminated were often more grateful than those whose babies I delivered. I think many of them had already beat themselves up. The last thing they needed was another beating, so I tried to provide a compassionate ear and a shoulder to cry on.
Now, in my office practice, I donít do surgeries at all anymore, so I no longer perform abortions. In some ways, itís easier this way. I donít have to feel conflicted about how to stay true to my integrity in the face of a duty I find hard to perform. But I have no regrets about the time I spent serving my patients in that way. I would do it all over again, but Iíd still struggle. Sometimes itís not easy to stand up for what you believe in. But itís always worth it when you know youíve been true to who you are.