Seventeen students would be attending the March for Life, accompanied by three young Sisters of Charity, taking the all-night bus, and arriving in Washington in time to brush their teeth in the downstairs bathroom of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Spirits were high: The trip is an annual pilgrimage, but with pillows and popcorn, blankets and ear buds. The girls were eager, bustling, overflowing with enthusiasm—and so I assigned them Richard Selzer’s sobering essay “Abortion,” from his 1976 collection, Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery.
Dr. Selzer did not intend to write a piece condemning abortion. “I . . . wrote what I had meant to be a literary rendition of the event,” he explained twenty years later, “not an argument against the procedure.” It is just this, though, that argument was not his intention, which makes the essay so effective—and powerful.
The students trust this writer, the surgeon, having already read his “Lessons from the Art.” Selzer’s essays can have a jauntiness about them as he describes the marvels of the liver or the chagrin of going bald. “Abortion,” which I am reading aloud to them in class, is not jaunty:
Horror, like bacteria, is everywhere. It blankets the earth, endlessly lapping to find that one unguarded entryway.
I continue reading as Selzer recalls the start of an ordinary day—the “grind” of an early morning garbage truck, getting dressed and having breakfast, the walk to the bus stop. “It is all so familiar,” he writes. And then
All of a sudden you step on something soft. You feel it with your foot. Even through your shoe you have the sense of something unusual, something marked by a special “give.” It is a foreignness upon the pavement.
The room is quiet. The girls are listening.
You look down and you see . . . a tiny naked body, its arms and legs flung apart, its head thrown back, its mouth agape, its face serious. A bird, you think, fallen from its nest. But there is no nest on 73rd Street, no bird so big. It is rubber, then. A model, a . . . joke. Yes, that’s it, a joke. And you bend to see. Because you must. And it is no joke. Such a gray softness can be but one thing. It is a baby, and dead.
I hear a soft intake of air. I am not sure who it is.
The seniors will read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language; they will read a New York Times editorial supporting the Reproductive Health Act. They will note with scorn the default euphemism used by those who support abortion. But the people in Selzer’s essay who see the dead babies on the sidewalk do not use euphemism. They do not speak “in strangely altered voices” about the products of conception, or of fetal tissue. I continue reading.
Now you look about; another man has seen it too. “My God,” he whispers. Others come . . . “Look!” they say, “It’s a baby!” There is a cry. “Here’s another!” and “Another!”
I teach at a Catholic school, run by the Sisters of Charity of Mary the Mother of the Church. The all-girl student body tends towards ebullience. The biannual Pro-Life Café is a festive, happy event. Yet, the reality of abortion, the actual procedure, is never a happy event. No one likes to dwell on it. Somehow, you don’t like telling the students about it. They are young, untouched by horror.
This class of sophomores maintains a high pitch of energy. They talk and sing and laugh. Some are more quiet, such as Lara, with her long curly hair and doe eyes, who lost her father to a motorcycle accident, and Lenna, from Rwanda, elegant in a grey skirt and navy sweater. Annie and Jenny are from a close-knit group of Vietnamese families. Caroline, lean and sporty, is learning to read the Divine Office with one of the young sisters. Monique, also athletic, and dramatic, is an honors student, her glossy hair pulled back in a no-nonsense ponytail, eager for the day’s work. Their experience of abortion is “Save the babies!” and, for a moment, you don’t want them to know. You don’t want to tell them.
Nevertheless, I continue reading Selzer’s essay. He describes the arrival of the police, and ambulances whose attendants remove the tiny bodies from the sidewalk and take them away. He goes on:
Later, at the police station, the investigation is brisk, conclusive. It is the hospital director speaking: “. . . the fetuses accidently got mixed up with the hospital rubbish . . . were picked up at approximately eight fifteen a.m. by a sanitation truck. Somehow, the plastic lab bag, labeled Hazardous Material, fell off the back of the truck and broke open. No it is not known how the fetuses got in the orange plastic bag labeled Hazardous Material. It is a freak accident.”
This “freak accident” happened on August 6, 1975, in New York City. Residents who witnessed it were told by the hospital director that it was “a once in a lifetime” occurrence:
Aborted fetuses that weigh one pound or less are incinerated. Those weighing over one pound are buried at a city cemetery. He says this. Now you see. It is orderly. It is sensible. The world is not mad. This is still a civilized society .
. . . Outside on the street men are talking things over, reassuring each other that the right thing is being done. But just this once, you know it isn’t. You saw, and you know. And you know, too, that the Street of Dead Fetuses will be wherever you go . . . It has laid claim upon you so that you cannot entirely leave it—not ever.
This sounds like an ending but it is really only the end of a new beginning attached to the rest of the essay—Dr. Selzer’s “What I Saw at the Abortion,” a piece he published in the January 1976 issue of Esquire magazine, where the Yale surgeon was a contributing editor.
The surgeon, the writer, is precise. As he has noted, the pen and the scalpel are the same size. He knows the art of surgery; he knows how to be precise. I begin reading again.
It is the western wing of the fourth floor of a great university hospital. An abortion is about to take place. I am present because I asked to be present. I wanted to see what I had never seen.
The patient . . . lies on the table submissively . . . A nurse draws down the sheet, lays bare the abdomen. The belly mounds gently in the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy . . .
. . . The doctor selects a three-and-one-half-inch needle bearing a central stylet. He places the point at the site of the previous injection. He aims it straight up and down, perpendicular. Next he takes hold of her abdomen with his left hand, palming the womb, steadying it. He thrusts with his right hand. The needle sinks into the abdominal wall. Oh, says the woman quietly. But I guess it is not pain that she feels. It is more a recognition that the deed is being done. Another thrust and he has speared the uterus. We are in, he says.
The girls are hushed now, waiting.
In the room, we are six: two physicians, two nurses, the patient and me. The participants are busy, and attentive. I am not at all busy—but I am no less attentive. I want to see.
I see something! It is unexpected, utterly unexpected, like a disturbance in the earth, a tumultuous jarring. I see a movement, a small one. But I have seen it.
And then I see it again. And now I see that it is the hub of the needle in the woman’s belly that has jerked. First to one side. Then to the other side . . . . Again! And I know!
It is the fetus that worries thus. It is the fetus struggling against the needle.
Here the writer pauses to describe the fetus in the fifth month. One pound. Twelve inches. Eyebrows, eyelashes. By the sixth month, the fetus can cry, suck, make a fist.
A reflex, the doctor says.
I hear him. But I saw something in that mass of cells understand that it must bob and butt. And I see it again! I have an impulse to shove to the table—it is just a step—seize the needle, pull it out. We are not six, I think. We are seven.
Now the surgeon witnessing the abortion imagines the fetus responding to what is suddenly happening in the womb.
A spike of daylight pierces the chamber. Now the light is extinguished. The needle comes closer in the pool. The point grazes the thigh, and I stir. Perhaps I wake from dozing. The light is there again. I twist and straighten. My arms and legs push. My hand finds the shaft—grabs! I grab. I bend the needle this way and that. My mouth opens. Could I cry out?
Quietly, I point out that the writer has shifted the point of view.
Finally, the abortion is over.
And yet . . . there is the flick of that needle. I saw it . . . I saw . . . I felt—in that room, a pace away, life prodded, life fending off. I saw life avulsed—swept by flood, blackening—then out.
The surgeon has seen an abortion, and he cannot un-see it. The students, too, have seen. They cannot un-see. I allow a moment.
“Miss Thompson.” Caroline breaks the silence. “I wish everybody would read this. Because . . . they don’t know . . . you try to talk to them and they don’t know. They don’t know what actually happens.”
“They don’t want to know,” says Lara, soft-spoken but certain.
“But Miss Thompson . . .” says Monique. Her young face looks pained. Her voice is quiet, and she struggles for the words. “They . . . know. The doctor with the needle. The nurses. They know, don’t they? They know the baby is there. They know the baby is . . . like, I mean . . . the baby is fighting . . . for its life. How can they do it?”
The question is stark and spare. I need to answer. I’m the teacher.
“Every age,” I begin to hold forth, “has its moral blind spots . . .” But I stop. It’s a lame answer. Facile. Inadequate. How can anyone not know that the dead baby on the sidewalk is a baby? How can the medical staff in the operating room of a great university hospital not see the movement, the flick of the needle?
I cannot answer.
[All quoted material from Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, by Richard Selzer, originally published by Simon & Schuster, 1976. Published “with a new preface” in 1996 by Harcourt. Dr. Selzer’s essay “Abortion,” which appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of the Human Life Review under the title “What I Saw at the Abortion,” can be accessed here.]