Registered nurse Brenda Pratt Shafer was pro-choice when she was assigned to assist Dr. Martin Haskell in performing abortions at his abortion clinic Women’s Medical Center. In her own words:
I took the assignment because I was at that time very pro-choice. I had even told my two teenage daughters that if one of them ever got pregnant at a young age, I would make them get an abortion.
Dr. Martin Haskell, who still performs abortions today and has sent a number of women to the hospital with serious complications, had pioneered the dilation and extraction abortion, also known as partial birth abortion.
This type of abortion, which was banned in 2003 (and the ban upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007) consisted of partially delivering a living unborn baby and then puncturing his skull with surgical scissors and draining the brain contents. The baby would be delivered until only the head was inside the mother, then the skull would be pierced and the brain sucked out through a tube. This was done to collapse the skull, which was considered too large to be safely extracted through the woman’s cervix. Brenda Schafer would witness several abortions done by this method.
Shafer worked in Dr. Haskell’s clinic for three days – September 28, 29, and 30, of 1993. On the first day, she assisted in first trimester abortions. She noted in her testimony before a Senate subcommittee that one of the abortion patients was a 15-year-old girl getting her third abortion.
On the second day, Shafer witnessed a D&E abortion. This method of abortion is still performed today and is the most common technique used to abort a baby in the second trimester. In a D&E, the baby is dismembered in utero. Shafer describes:
On the second day, I saw Dr. Haskell do a second-trimester procedure that is called a D & E (dilation and evacuation). He used ultrasound to examine the fetus. Then he used forceps to pull apart the baby inside the uterus, bringing it out piece by piece and piece, throwing the pieces in a pan.
You can see a diagram of a D&E procedure here. You can also see the remains of a 20-week-old baby aborted by D&E method here (warning: very graphic)
Shafer goes on to say:
Also on the first two days, we inserted laminaria to dilate the cervixes of women who were being prepared for the partial-birth abortions– those who were past the 20 weeks point, or 4 1\2 months. (Dr. Haskell called this procedure “D & X”, for dilation and extraction.) There were six or seven of these women.
Laminaria are sticks made of seaweed that are inserted into a woman’s cervix in order to open it. They absorb fluid and gradually stretch open the cervix. They are usually left in overnight. This is done because forcibly opening the cervix by instrumentation this far along in pregnancy would permanently damage it so severely that any later attempt to carry a child to term would likely end in miscarriage. The insertion of laminaria is the beginning of a late-term abortion procedure.
On the third day, Shafer would see these procedures completed. She describes one of them:
It was one of these cases that especially haunts me. The woman was six months pregnant (26 1/2 weeks). The doctor told her that the baby had down syndrome, and she decided to get an abortion…
Dr. Haskell brought the ultrasound in and hooked it up so that he could see the baby (then 26 1/2 weeks into pregnancy.) On the ultrasound screen, I could see the heart beating. I asked Dr. Haskell and he told me that “Yes, that is the heartbeat.” As Dr. Haskell watched the baby on the ultrasound screen, he went in with forceps and grabbed the baby’s legs and brought them into the birth canal. Then he delivered the body and arms, all the way up to the neck.
At this point, only the baby’s head was still inside. The baby’s body was moving. His little fingers were clasping together. He was kicking his feet. All the while his little head was still stuck inside. Then Dr. Haskell took a pair of scissors and inserted them into the back of the baby’s head. Then he stuck a high-powered suction tube into the hole and sucked the baby’s brains out. I almost threw up as I watched him do these things.
Next, Dr. Haskell delivered the baby’s head, cut the umbilical cord and delivered the placenta. He threw the baby in a pan, along with the placenta and the instruments he’d used. I saw the baby move in the pan. I asked another nurse and she said it was just “reflexes.”
The woman wanted to see her baby, so they cleaned up the baby and put it in a blanket and handed it to her. She cried the whole time, and she kept saying, “I’m sorry, please forgive me.” I was crying too. I couldn’t take it. In all my professional years I’d never experienced anything like this.”
She also saw two other partial-birth abortions, both done on healthy children late in pregnancy:
Another case I saw on that third day was a six-month-old (approximately 25 weeks) baby. The mother was over age 40. There was nothing wrong with this baby, she just didn’t want it. The doctor used the same procedure… This baby was also alive. I saw the heartbeat on the ultrasound. … The second baby was a little smaller than the first baby. I remember thinking how perfect this child was. The mother did not want to see it…
I also saw third case that day (I was only assisting in one operating room.) This was a 17-year-old girl. She was approximately 25 weeks. The same procedure was done on this baby.
The face of the aborted down syndrome baby haunted Shafer the most:
The Down’s Syndrome baby was the only baby that had a defect. And that baby with Down Syndrome had the most perfect angelic face I have ever seen. I never realized how perfect these babies are at this point. When you hear the word “fetus,” I think a lot of people think is I did of just a blob of cells, or a mass of something. It was very revealing to me. I don’t think about abortion the same way anymore. I still have nightmares about what I saw.
When Shafer went public with what she had seen, pro-choice activists scrambled to try and discredit her testimony. At the judiciary committee, a pro-choice Congresswoman read a statement from Dr. Haskell claiming that Shafer had never worked for him. She gave this testimony in front of Congress. The lie was easily exposed, and the Congresswoman withdrew her accusation and explained it away by saying that there and been confusion over Shafer’s name. With his first lie exposed, Dr. Haskell then came up with a second – he and his employees wrote another letter, admitting that yes, in fact, Shafer had worked for him, but that her testimony was faulty because he did not perform abortions that late in pregnancy. Shafer’s rebuttal was to present excerpts from speeches that Dr. Haskell gave in which he admitted performing these abortions up to and beyond 26 weeks. Still another accusation was made that the abortionist did not use ultrasound while performing abortions, and that therefore, Shafer’s testimony was false. Shafer again referred to speeches that Haskell had made in which he described using an ultrasound while performing a partial-birth abortion. The parade of misinformation and distortions that were used to attempt to discredit Shafer all fell apart under examination, but the lengths to which the pro-choice side would go to try to discredit her is very telling. They knew how powerful her testimony would be. Pro-choicers still attempt to discredit clinic workers who come forward with their stories. They know that their testimonies are some of the most powerful arguments against abortion that can be made.
Sources: Brenda Shafer, “What the Nurse Saw,” National Right to Life News, July 18, 1995: 23