The abortion “issue” is such a hot topic that I have never written about it on this blog until today. I hope I won’t regret that decision but I felt it was appropriate to respond to this medical student’s essay – and the ~560+ comments that follow it – as a physician who has witnessed (but never performed) about 100 abortions. Let me explain.
During my Emergency Medicine training I was required to perform a certain number of intubations and abdominal ultrasound scans. My residency training program offered rotations in Ob/Gyn and at a local Planned Parenthood center. The senior residents told me that the best way to fulfill my intubation requirements was to assist with the Ob/Gyn OR procedures because the patients were young, healthy, and generally uncomplicated. At the time I was really excited by the opportunity to get the experience I needed – in as short a time as possible. I used to hang out in an Ob/Gyn operating room asking if I could assist the anesthesiologist with the intubations. Once they got to know and trust me, I could intubate about 6 patients in a day – an opportunity otherwise hard to come by as all the new anesthesiology residents were vying to practice intubation themselves.
One of the Ob/Gyns who used the OR (where I got my intubation experience) scheduled some abortions of fetuses that were at the border of viable – as old as 23 weeks. That made me quite uncomfortable, and I know that there were other staff (and several nurses) who refused to work with that physician. However, as squirmy as I felt, I thought it was important for me to see first hand what the procedure entailed… because otherwise I’d have to rely on anecdotes and second-hand opinions to draw my own conclusions. I wanted to see this for myself.
I’ll never forget the day I witnessed the first late-ish term abortion. I was preparing my intubation equipment – fidgeting with the Mac size 4 blade, making sure the light worked, when the physician brought the patient into the room on a gurney. The woman’s abdomen was very pregnant, and the Ob/Gyn was stroking her hair and whispering reassuring things to her. The anesthesiologist made small talk with the patient, explaining the nuts and bolts of the anesthesia – the oxygen mask – the propofol – the intubation. I stayed out of the patient’s line of sight and allowed the Ob/Gyn and her resident to spend some final moments with her. The scene was both tense, and yet supportive of the patient.
I initiated rapid sequence intubation with the assistance of the anesthesiologist, and then moved to get the ultrasound machine to visualize the uterus and its contents. Much to my discomfort the fetus was fairly large – and was moving around normally, even sucking its thumb at one point. I asked the Ob/Gyn resident why the fetus was being aborted since it didn’t appear to have any structural abnormalities. She responded that the mother simply didn’t want to have the baby, and had wrestled with the idea of abortion for a long time before she made her final decision.
The rest of the procedure is a bit of a blur – with details too graphic to describe here. But suffice it to say that the resident performing the dilatation and curettage had a fairly difficult time removing the fetus through the cervix, and had to resort to eliminating it in smaller parts, rather than a whole. It was very sad and it took a long time to make sure that the uterus was fully evacuated. I decided that I couldn’t watch another one of these procedures.
The rest of my female abdominal ultrasound experience was obtained at a Planned Parenthood center where very early abortions were performed. Generally, this consisted of suctioning out a tiny yolk sac (and “products of conception”) – without much of a recognizable fetus in the midst. Although these procedures were certainly emotional, they were somewhat less troubling than the later term dilatation and curettage.
What I didn’t expect, however, was that of the approximately 100 abortions I witnessed – none (to my knowledge) of the women requesting them were rape victims, nor was there a life-threatening birth defect in the fetus. Usually the reason they gave was psychological, emotional, or financial – “I just can’t afford to raise a child” or “This is not a good time for me to be pregnant” or “I don’t want this baby” or “I don’t want another baby” or “This was an accident, and I don’t want it to ruin my life.”
I did my very best to adopt an attitude much like the one that the author of the Washington Post article did – “It’s not for me to judge the validity of someone else’s reasons for wanting an abortion… They’re going to do it anyway so physicians need to make sure they’re safe… Women have the right to choose…”
But the reality was that those attitudes didn’t prepare me for the emotional turmoil inherent in the process of abortion. It’s sadder than I thought, more difficult than I thought… and the impact is farther reaching than I imagined. Studies estimate that about 1/3 of US women have an abortion at some point in their lives – that’s a heavy emotional burden that many women carry in silence.
In my opinion women should have the right to choose to have an abortion, but I’d hope that they also consider their right to choose to give their baby up for adoption as well. Some believe that an abortion is “easier” than giving up a baby for adoption – but I’m not so sure that’s the case from an emotional perspective. As far as rape victims or women who are carrying a moribund fetus – the decision to abort may well be emotionally less damaging. But for the majority of women who have abortions for less clear reasons (reasons like the ones I witnessed), I’d really encourage them to consider adoption as an option. Obviously, these decisions are intensely personal and have to be made on a case-by-case basis – and women should be supported either way.
As scientific and rational as I wanted to be about the procedure, I am still troubled by what I experienced as a witness to various abortions. Though I might have “entered the abortion conversation” as the third-year medical student did – after witnessing quite a few, I have a deeper appreciation for the emotional complexity of abortion, and a desire to help women avoid them if at all possible. I wonder if the author of the Washington Post article will change her perspective after she’s witnessed a few of the procedures?