‘It looks like a baby!’: abortion workers speak about the trauma of performing abortions
February 13, 2013 (LiveActionNews.org) - Much has been written about the emotional trauma that women go through after their abortions. But what most people don’t realize is that abortion is so inherently evil and destructive that it devastates everyone involved – the mother, the father – and the abortion provider. The doctors, nurses, and other clinic workers are human – and repeatedly seeing the bodies of aborted babies and participating in their deaths leaves emotional scars.
After giving a graphic description of how to check body parts to make sure everything is out after an abortion, Dr. Don Sloan, abortionist, says the following:
“Want to do abortions? Pay the price. There is an old saying in medicine: if you want to work in the kitchen, you may have to break an egg. The stove gets hot. Prepare to get burned.”(1)
Regardless of the motive the clinic worker has in being in the abortion business abortions are hard to deal with. According to one clinic worker interviewed by a pro-choice author Wendy Simonds:
“You’re going from dealing with people to dealing with what most people here at the Center consider a real hurdle, to do sterile room, because you have to deal with the actual abortion tissue. And for some people that’s really hard. They can be abstractly in favor of abortion rights, but they sure don’t want to see what an eighteen-week abortion looks like.”(2)
What is so upsetting about the “abortion tissue?” Pro-choicers often claim that abortion destroys collections of cells, painlessly ending a pregnancy. But according to another worker in the same clinic:
“…it looks like a baby. That’s what it looks like to me. You’ve never seen anything else that looks like that. The only other thing you’ve ever seen is a baby…You can see a face and hands and ears and eyes and, you know…feet and toes…It bothered me really bad the first time…”(3)
It is not surprising that Simonds says that clinic workers “never look at the face” when “processing tissue” from abortions.(4)
The clinic worker quoted above is not the only one to express frustration at pro-choice activists who mouth slogans without knowing the reality of what they are defending. Author Sue Hertz, who observed in an abortion clinic for a year, described the feelings of one clinic worker who attended a pro-choice brainstorming session with local activists:
The group was discussing a plan to defend abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy, up until birth:
“These people are political activists, Fran thought. Their work was critical to protecting abortion rights, but how many of them knew the reality of abortion, had seen the reality of what it destroyed?
Fran felt like standing up and saying to those arguing for unrestricted abortions,
“You haven’t seen the little feet. They look just like the little feet pushpins that the antis [pro-lifers] wear.” As a provider at Repro once said, if half the pro-choice people saw the fetal remains of a 2nd trimester abortion, they would jump the fence into the antis’ arms.”(5)
It is not just second trimester abortions that are disturbing for clinic workers. After all, an unborn baby has arms, legs, fingers, and toes by just eight weeks after conception. Jewels Green, who had an abortion as a teenager, worked in an abortion clinic that performed only first trimester abortions. This is what she says about her job:
“Working in the autoclave room was never, ever easy. I saw my lost child in every jar of aborted baby parts.”(6)
While it is unknown exactly what percentage of clinic workers have had abortions in the past, interviews with former clinic workers suggest that the number is very high. And an article in The National Catholic Register cites a study showing that 70% of Planned Parenthood workers are post-abortive.(7) Perhaps many women working at abortion clinics are trying to justify past abortions. Maybe they are reaffirming their abortion decision with every woman who they guide through the procedure. They may be living in extreme denial – lying to themselves about what they have done to their own babies, embracing the pro-choice movement as a means of emotional self-defense. Former clinic worker Norma McCorvey, who was the plaintiff in Roe versus Wade and who also worked at several abortion clinics before becoming pro-life, describes the emotional impact of the work – and touches upon the fact that so many clinic workers have had abortions themselves.
“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.”(8)
It is not surprising that many abortion clinic workers experience “burnout”. According to one doctor who worked at Planned Parenthood for four years at the time of the interview:
“This can burn you out very, very quickly…not so much by the physical labor as the emotional part of what’s going on. When you do an ultrasound, particularly if you have children, and you see a fetus there, kicking, moving, living, doing things that your own child does, bringing its thumb to its mouth, and things like that- it’s difficult. Then, after the procedure, sometimes we have to actually look at the specimen, and you see arms and legs and things like that torn off…It does take an emotional toll.”(9)
An article in The Weekly Standard discussed the phenomenon of abortionist and clinic workers who leave the abortion industry. The article describes the experience of one abortionist, Lisa Harris, who performed a D&E abortion while she herself was pregnant. As she tore the leg off the baby she was aborting, she felt her own child kick in her womb. She describes her reaction in The Journal of Reproductive Health Matters:
“Instantly, tears were streaming from my eyes—without me—meaning my conscious brain—even being aware of what was going on. I felt as if my response had come entirely from my body, bypassing my usual cognitive processing completely. A message seemed to travel from my hand and my uterus to my tear ducts. It was an overwhelming feeling—a brutally visceral response—heartfelt and unmediated by my training or my feminist pro-choice politics. It was one of the more raw moments in my life.”(10)
The article goes on to say:
“Harris concluded her piece by lamenting that the pro-choice movement has left providers to suffer in silence because it has “not owned up to the reality of the fetus, or the reality of fetal parts.” Indeed, it often insists that images used by the pro-life movement are faked.(11)
Judith Fetrow, who worked at a Planned Parenthood clinic but later became pro-life, said the following about her fellow clinic workers:
“When I started at Planned Parenthood, I saw two types of women working at the clinic. One group were women who had found some way to deal with the emotional and spiritual toll of working with abortion. The second group were women who had closed themselves off emotionally. They were the walking wounded. You could look in their eyes, and see that they were emotionally dead. Unavailable for themselves, or for anyone else.”(12)
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There have not been many studies of the emotional consequences of performing abortions, but two studies done by pro-choice researchers did find the following:
“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.”(13)
Nightmares have been reported by a number of former abortion providers. Former abortionist McArthur Hill said the following in a conference of former abortion providers:
“Many of them [abortionists] had nightmares about their participation in the abortions. In my nightmares I would deliver a healthy newborn baby and I would take that healthy newborn baby and I would hold it up, and I would face a jury of faceless people and ask them to tell me what to do with this baby. They would go thumbs-up or thumbs-down and if they made a thumbs-down indication then I was to drop the baby into a bucket of water which was present. I never did reach the point of dropping the baby into the bucket because I’d always wake up at that point. But it was clear to me then that there was something going on in my mind, subconsciously.”(14)
So the question remains – if providing abortions is so emotionally painful, why do so many men and women remain in the abortion industry and continue to do them? Perhaps we can understand this if we realize what is at stake for the abortion provider. There are abortionists who have performed more than 20,000 abortions. There are clinic workers who have been working in clinics for years, helping perform abortions every day. The number of babies that these individuals have destroyed reaches into the hundreds and thousands.
Try to imagine the emotional pain that a person has to face when she realizes she has been implicated in the death of so many human beings. The average person can feel guilt and shame for the rest of their life by accidentally running over a child with a car while driving drunk. One’s conscience can be a merciless tormentor. To blame oneself for the death of another human being is a devastating thing. To blame oneself for the deaths of thousands of human beings is almost unimaginable.
This is why clinic workers deserve our compassion. This is why those who leave the abortion industry must be treated with kindness. This is why leaving the abortion industry is such a tremendously difficult and emotionally traumatic thing for a provider to do. Pro-lifers need to be there for them. We need to reach out to them with compassion. Many of them are wounded people in an exploitative industry. Maybe they had an abortion, and wanted to be there for other women in a similar situation and make it easier for them. Maybe they bought into pro-choice rhetoric that abortion is vital for women’s freedom. Maybe when they originally got involved, they thought they were saving the lives of women who they worried would otherwise go to back alley abortionists. Or maybe they got involved because the job was offered at a time when they needed to support their families. Whatever reason, the enemy is not the clinic worker or the abortionist. The enemy is abortion.
In reaching out to clinic workers, it is vitally important to show them compassion. Angry, harsh, and judgmental language or threats of damnation only work to entrench workers and cause them to view all pro-lifers as enemies. Abortion clinic workers must overcome immense emotional barriers before they can leave, not to mention practical questions like whether they can find another job (many employers are hesitant to hire former clinic workers), whether they can support their families, etc. In fact, many clinics hire single mothers so that the workers will feel more trapped in their jobs.
For example, Joy Davis, former clinic worker, said:
“If the doctor had somebody come and apply for job whose husband was a big hot shot that made a lot of money, then he didn’t want her working for him. But if they were single, and had children, that’s the one he wanted. He could control them.”(15)
Clinic administrators know that it is hard to deal with abortion work; they sometimes seek out women who would have a hard time leaving.
Sometimes a clinic worker has been isolated from many of the support people in her life, many of whom may disapprove of abortion. The other clinic workers may be the only support system she has. She may be afraid of losing these relationships, knowing that her conversion would put a strain on them.
It is important to reach out to clinic workers with compassion. According to Rachel MacNair, who wrote a book on abortion’s impact on providers:
“Some former abortion clinic workers have been won over to the pro-life side because of the love they experienced from people who demonstrated against their clinics. Norma McCorvey, former lead plaintiff as Jane Roe of Roe V Wade, is one. The case of another, Judith Fetrow, is striking because she initially experienced hostility from pro-life demonstrators at the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic where she worked. On one occasion, she was so upset by her work that she decided to leave the clinic. But on her way out, demonstrators started shouting at her, “Murderer! The blood is on your hands!” Fetrow felt as though “someone had kicked me in the stomach,” so she went back to the clinic and “back to work.”
But a sidewalk counselor named Steve reached out to her, chatting with her in a friendly way. “It took some time,” Fetrow recalled, “it took enormous dedication, and it took the patience of a saint. But over several weeks we developed a friendship across the lines, based on trust.” Fetrow again left the clinic, but this time she did not return.(16)
Most tragic of all are the acts of violence against abortion providers by anti-abortion people. Those who oppose abortion but champion violence are truly hypocritical. To be pro-life is to stand up and say that killing is not a legitimate way to solve problems. I’m going to end with the following heartbreaking story, told by former clinic worker Joy Davis, at a conference for former abortion providers. She is quoted on the DVD “Abortion: An Inside Look”:
“When I was in the abortion industry, and started having the nightmares, and started having all of the guilt, and feeling that what we were doing was so wrong, I went to a friend of mine who was an abortionist. He didn’t work with me, but he worked at a clinic close by. I went to him and told him about all the things that I was feeling. About the nightmares and the guilt. He said that he understood very well, because he also had nightmares, and that he also had a tremendous amount of guilt. I never asked him why he did abortions but I knew he would only do early first trimester pregnancies. Because once the nervous system started developing in the baby he would not terminate that pregnancy because he was afraid that he would hurt that baby. So he was a very, very, unusual man. But he gave me some good advice. He said the only thing I can tell you is to follow your heart and do what your conscience tells you to do. I asked him if that’s what he was doing. And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m working on it.’ I’d like to think that he would be here today. I’d like to think that he would’ve come out. But you see, a couple of days after that conversation he was shot and killed in front of a Pensacola abortion clinic. His name was Dr. David Gunn.”
Dr. Gunn was denied the chance to come to terms with his life and work to undo the harm he had caused. This is a terrible thing to do to someone. I hope that pro-lifers will join me in reaching out to clinic workers, both current and former, with compassion.
1. Don Sloan, M.D. with Paula Hartz, Abortion: a Doctor’s Perspective, a Woman’s Dilemma (New York: Donald I Fine, 1992) 239 – 240
2. Wendy Simonds. Abortion at Work: Ideology and Practice in a Feminist Clinic. (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick) 1996 69
3. Simonds 88
4. Simonds 86-87
5. Sue Hertz Caught in the Crossfire: A Year on Abortion’s Front Line (New York: Prentice Hill Press, 1991) 122
6. “Former abortion clinic worker breaks silence, speaks out for life” by Kristen Walker LiveAction.org Thu July 20, 2011
7. TIM DRAKE “From Abortion Worker to Catholic Apostle” National Catholic Register 01/25/2013
8. Norma McCorvey Won By Love (Thomas Nelson, Inc: Nashville, TN) 1997 p 13
9. Nancy Day. Abortion: Debating the Issue (Enslow Publishing: New York) 1995
10. David Daleiden and Jon A. Shields “Mugged by Ultrasound: Why so many abortion workers have turned pro-life”. The Weekly Standard JAN 25, 2010, VOL. 15, NO. 18
12. “Is Abortion Good for Women” Rachel MacNair, Angela Kennedy. Swimming Against the Tide: Feminist Dissent on the Issue of Abortion (Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts Press, 1997) 82
13. Roe, KM “private troubles and public issues, providing abortion amid competing definitions” Social Science and Medicine, 1989 volume 29 number 1, 1197
14. “Meet the Abortion Providers’ conference by Pro-Life Action League 1993 Read full testimonyhttp://clinicquotes.com/former-abortionist-mcarthur-hill/
15. Interview with Joy Davis, Life Dynamics 1993
16. Story recounted in Mary Meehan spring/summer 2000 The Ex-Abortionists: Why They Quit. Human Life Review 26 (2/3), 7 – 28, 8 and 21 Quoted in Rachel M MacNair and Stephen Zunes. Consistently Opposing Killing: from Abortion to Assisted Suicide, the Death Penalty, and War (Bloomington: Author’s Choice press, 2011) 135
Reprinted with permission from LiveActionNews.org. Sarah Terzo is a pro-life author and creator of the clinicquotes.com website. She is a member of Secular Pro-Life and Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians.