Investigative

Abortion takes an emotional toll – even on abortionists

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A challenge to the pro-life movement

Wednesday, former Planned Parenthood director and pro-life activist Abby Johnson sent out a letter describing the retreat that her organization, And Then There Were None, recently held. Her letter is an eloquent plea to pro-lifers to support workers who are fleeing the abortion industry and suffering emotionally because of what they experienced.

She included some testimonies from the workers, including:

I can still hear the sound of babies’ skulls being crushed.

By its very existence, And Then There Were None gives a challenge to the pro-life movement – are we pro-life only for the babies, or are we pro-life for everyone – including those who have done things we find hard to understand?

Clinic workers react to abortion

A number of clinic workers  have talked about the emotional difficulties of working in abortion clinics.

Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff of Roe V Wade who converted to the pro-life cause and wrote about her story in her book Won by Love, describes the toll that abortion took on the clinic workers: 

When a later abortion was performed, workers had to piece the baby back together, and every major part–head, torso, two legs, and two arms –had to be accounted for. One of our little jokes at the clinic was, “If you ever want to humble a doctor, hide a leg so he thinks he has to go back in.” Please understand, these were not abnormal, uncaring women working with me at the clinic. We were just involved in a bloody, dehumanizing business, all of us for our own reasons. Whether we were justifying our past advocacy (as I was), justifying a previous abortion (as many were) or whatever, we were just trying to cope–and if we couldn’t laugh at what was going on, I think our minds would have snapped. It’s not an easy thing trying to confuse a conscience that will not stay dead.

The procedure McCorvey is describing sounds like a D&E (dilation and evacuation) abortion where the unborn baby is removed with forceps, piece by piece. It is an emotionally difficult procedure to perform or witness. In fact, shortly after this technique was developed, a practitioner read a paper at a meeting of the Association of Planned Parenthood Physicians which said, in part:

When performing a D&E abortion, the gynecologist is aware of being the active agent in the procedure. On the one hand, the doctor is sparing the patient the pain and emotional distress of the amnio abortion. On the other hand, he or she is the one who is crushing and dismembering the fetus in a D&E procedure, which can be emotionally disturbing… As the doctor tends to take responsibility and assume guilt for the procedure, she or he may have disturbing and recurrent ruminations or dreams.… Because of these problems, it is important that participation in D&E abortions be entirely voluntary, and that doctors have a chance to talk over their feelings with understanding colleagues or counselors.

Some clinic workers have described nightmares they had about this type of abortion.   A medical book aimed at potential abortion providers, says the following:

The two physicians who performed the D&E procedures…felt technically competent, but noted strong emotional reactions during or following the procedures, and occasional disquieting dreams.

In the same book, a nurse who assisted late term abortions said:

I dream about it…the abortions affect me personally. I know some day I will deliver and think of that. It’s changed my ideas.

In The Philadelphia Inquirer, an abortion doctor was quoted saying:

[D&E abortions are] far more psychologically traumatizing for the doctors … I can’t do them anymore.

Diane M Gianelli, in her article “Abortion Providers Share Inner Conflicts” published in American Medical News quotes a number of abortion providers talking about their ambivalence and emotional difficulties. She also quotes Terry Beresford, who trains abortion counselors for Planned Parenthood and other groups, saying:

Ambivalence is not a dirty word… Everybody has mixed feelings.

One clinic worker gives a possible reason why:

So by it looking like a baby, you’re associating it with yourself because…you used to be a baby, you used to be a fetus.

Studies on abortion providers

Few studies have been done examining the emotional effects of abortion on abortion providers. Reviewing two, pro-choice authors came to the following conclusion in a 1989 article in Social Science and Medicine:

Obsessional thinking about abortion, depression, fatigue, anger, lowered self-esteem, and identity conflicts were prominent.  The symptom complex was considered “transient reactive disorder” similar to “combat technique.”

Ambivalent periods were characterized by a variety of otherwise uncharacteristic feelings and behavior including withdrawal from colleagues, resistance to going to work, lack of energy, impatience with clients and overall sense of uneasiness.  Nightmares, images that could not be shaken and preoccupation were commonly reported.  Also common was the deep and lonely privacy within which practitioners had grappled with their ambivalence.

The article also said that:

Particularly striking was the fact that discomfort with abortion clients or procedures was reported by practitioners who strongly supported abortion rights and expressed strong commitment to their work. This preliminary finding suggested that even those who support a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy may be struggling with an important tension between their formal beliefs and the situated experience of their abortion work.

More recently, a survey performed by Project Choice, was cited by Rachael McNair in her book Achieving Peace in the Abortion War, found that 38% of clinic workers polled had “moral concern” about what they were doing. This number may actually be higher; it is possible that some clinic workers did not want to admit to doubts in a survey put out by a pro-choice organization.

Rachael McNair’s book is a valuable resource and good reading for anyone who wishes to explore the topic of the effects of abortion on providers in more depth.

On leaving

I would like to reach out and out to any abortion provider, clinic worker, or abortion doctor who is reading this. You can get out and start a journey of healing. As Joy Davis, a former clinic worker , said:

I was making $115,000 salary at the clinics. Now I don’t earn a fraction of that. But you know what? I don’t care. I like who I am now. I can live with my conscience.

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