As a young doctor in the early 1970s, Paul E. Jarrett, Jr., did a number of legal abortions. He began having doubts, though, after the urea-induced abortion of a mental patient. The child, weighing two pounds, was born alive, and the mother screamed, “My baby’s alive! My baby’s alive!” Dr. Jarrett later said, “I often wonder what we did for her mental status. That baby lived several days.”
But it was a 1974 operation that “changed my mind about abortion forever.” While doing a suction abortion, Jarrett found that the suction curette was obstructed by a torn-off fetal leg. So he changed techniques and dismembered the child with a ring forceps:
And as I brought out the rib cage, I looked and I saw a tiny, beating heart. And when I found the head of the baby, I looked squarely in the face of another human being—a human being that I’d just killed. I turned to the scrub nurse and said, “I’m sorry.” But I just knew that I couldn’t be a part of abortion any more.
Dr. Jarrett is one of many people who used to be deeply involved in abortion but have turned against it. Their experience tells us a great deal about the effects of abortion—most obviously on the children it destroys, but also on the women it traumatizes and the clinic staff it corrupts. Yet their experience also offers hope for the future. If people whose livelihoods depended on abortion can turn around, then certainly there is hope for everyone who supports abortion. (Leading abortion defenders, of course, do not view the situation this way; included here are comments from several of them.)
Although supplemented by other sources, what follows is based mainly on a remarkable series of conferences called “Meet the Abortion Providers,” sponsored by the Pro-Life Action League of Chicago from 1987 to 1997. Joseph Scheidler, the League’s director, has been involved in street protest against abortion clinics for many years. In that work, and through friends and supporters around the country, he kept hearing about disillusioned clinic staff. They included doctors, administrators, secretaries, a nurse, an ultrasound technician, a clinic guard, and others. Scheidler brought them together, several at a time, for one-day conferences in which they described their clinic work and explained the often-tormenting process of disengaging from it. While the League paid travel costs for many speakers, it did not pay them speaker fees.
Nearly all the ex-clinic staff had religious conversions that helped–or demanded–their exit. Religion was not their only motivation, but it certainly helped them see some truths they had refused to face for a long time.
What Abortion Does to Unborn Children
One truth involves the precise ways in which abortion destroys the unborn. Early abortions can be done by suction machines because the fetal bones and cartilage have not yet hardened. In the very earliest stages, this results in purŽed remains. Even a little later, though, it brings out identifiable body parts that must be reassembled to ensure that nothing was left behind. (Parts left behind can cause terrible infections in the mother.) Dr. Beverly McMillan used to do such reassembly after performing abortions, but “I got to where I just couldn’t look at the little bodies any more.” Many abortionists do not reassemble the parts themselves, but have other staff do it. Some staffers are not bothered by this; indeed, some are hardened enough to make jokes about it. Others do not want anything to do with it. “Clinic workers may say they support a woman’s right to choose,” said former Planned Parenthood clinic worker Judith Fetrow, “but they will also say that they do not want to see tiny hands and feet. They do not want to be faced with the consequences of their actions.”
Fetrow herself was committed to abortion when she first went to work at a clinic in California. But her view changed, partly because it was her job to look at aborted body parts and then store them, send them to a pathology lab, or dispose of them. While she didn’t especially want that job, she believed that the dead should be treated with respect. She did not want to hear a coworker make a sick joke about “taking the kids and putting them in daycare.” So Fetrow mourned in the Jewish tradition: “I sat Shiva for the babies; I said the prayers for the dead. I also named each baby when I placed it in the contaminated waste container.”
That was far more respect than the bodies of the dead receive in most abortion clinics. Debra Henry, who once worked in a Michigan clinic, said that if a woman had insurance coverage for a suction abortion, the fetal remains were sent to a laboratory. But if she had no insurance, the remains were “put down the garbage disposal.” As they prepared to open their second Texas clinic, Carol Everett reported to her abortionist business partner that it would have an “industrial-strength disposal–a double-action one that chops forward, reverses itself, and chops again as it reverses.” Their first clinic’s disposal had proved unable to handle the body of a child aborted at about thirty-two weeks. In the Illinois clinic where she once worked, Kathy Sparks found that remains of children aborted in the second trimester were put down “a continually flushing toilet.” Late-term abortionist George Tiller of Wichita, Kansas, had his own crematorium to deal with fetal remains. Luhra Tivis, once a medical secretary at his clinic, recalled a day when Tiller was carrying “a particularly heavy load of dead babies” into the crematorium. He asked her to help him with the door. She did so, then returned to her desk nearby. “I heard him fire it up. . . . And the most horrible thing was: I could smell those babies burning, because I was just around the corner.” Tivis later exposed Tiller’s practices in a letter to members of the Wichita City Council and in testimony before a state legislative committee.
Some doctors and clinic staffers are shocked by abortion techniques and tiny body parts when they first see them, but gradually become used to them. When the late Dr. David Brewer, as a young resident, first had to examine body parts after a suction abortion, “it was like somebody put a hot poker into me.” The next abortions bothered him, too, but he found that it “hurt a little bit less every time I saw one. And you know what happened next? I got to sit down and do one.” Again it felt like a hot poker, but again he got used to it. He compared his hardening to the way he developed calluses on his hands when he ran a lawn service as a teenager. With the calluses, he found, “my hands could work all day–and no blisters and no pain. And that’s what happened to my heart as I saw the abortions and then began doing them. My heart got callused.”
One night, after a saline abortion, Brewer saw a badly burned little baby “kicking and moving for a little while before it finally died of those terrible burns.” He assisted with a hysterotomy, which is like a Caesarean section but is intentionally done early enough that the baby dies soon after delivery. “And they simply took that little baby–that was making little sounds and moving and kicking–over and set it on the table in a cold, stainless-steel bowl,” he recalled. The baby “kicked and moved less and less, of course, as time went on.” Far more common than abortions involving live births are the “Dilation and Evacuation” (D&E) type. This euphemistic term actually means dismemberment by instrument within the womb. It takes over as the usual form of abortion at the point when fetal bone and cartilage have hardened, or calcified, so that suction abortion cannot be done. Dr. Joseph Randall, who did abortions for about ten years, explained that after a D&E, “you have to reassemble that baby–arms, legs, head, chest, thorax–everything. That’s when it gets rough even for old timers like me.”
At least one clinic worker, nurse Brenda Pratt Shafer, turned against abortion almost immediately after witnessing a partial-birth abortion. (This is also called a “D&X” abortion for “dilation and extraction.”) Shafer, who was “very pro-choice” at the time, accepted a temporary agency’s assignment to Dr. Martin Haskell’s abortion clinic in Dayton, Ohio, in 1993. On her third day at the clinic, she observed the D&X abortion of a Down Syndrome baby in the sixth month of gestation. She saw Haskell deliver most of the little boy’s body, keeping only his head inside the womb:
The baby’s little fingers were clasping and unclasping, and his little feet were kicking. Then the doctor stuck the [surgical] scissors in the back of his head, and the baby’s arms jerked out . . .
The doctor opened up the scissors, stuck a high-powered suction tube into the opening, and sucked the baby’s brains out. Now the baby went completely limp. I was really completely unprepared for what I was seeing. I almost threw up as I watched Dr. Haskell doing these things. . . .
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. She kept saying, “I am so sorry, please forgive me.” I was crying, too. I couldn’t take it.
Shafer later gave congressional testimony about her experience and appeared widely in the media speaking against partial-birth abortion. Seldom, one suspects, has a doctor been so sorry that he hired a temporary worker.
Shafer also saw Haskell do D&E abortions. He would “take three-month-old babies and dismember ’em–just tear ’em from limb to limb while the baby’s heart was beating, yank off a leg, yank off an arm and just bring it outside . . . And that was horrible. I’d never seen it before. Never really wanted to think about it before.”
She learned early what others learned so late. Carol Everett summed it up well when she looked back upon her own abortion, which her husband, Tom, had wanted and she had not: “Death was the ultimate winner; not Tom, and not Carol. Death.”
Attitudes Toward Women, Minorities and Money
A few former clinic staffers reported that they or colleagues had negative attitudes toward women who came to them for abortions. Former ultrasound technician Joy Davis reported that in an Alabama clinic where she once worked, there were doctors who were “doing abortions because they hated women.” Dina Madsen, who worked in a feminist clinic in California, admitted that she didn’t have much sympathy for her patients. Her attitude was, “Well, you got yourself into this position; you better tough it out.” A couple of the doctors there, she said, “hated women. . . . And there was a lot of comment-making . . . crude jokes . . . sarcasm . . . touchy-feely type of games with the staff members.” Some of the women staffers “wouldn’t let any of these guys touch ’em with a ten-foot pole,” Madsen said. Yet they told women coming to the clinic that: “They’re wonderful doctors. They won’t hurt you. They’re the best at what they do. He’s really a nice man.”
A few also reported wretched attitudes toward minorities. Mark Bomchill worked as a guard at a Minnesota clinic where he heard a doctor make racist and anti-Semitic comments. After former clinic worker Luhra Tivis became involved in pro-life work in Little Rock, Arkansas, she found herself up against an abortionist “who brags about killing black babies.” She said he had told pro-life sidewalk counselors, “If you would just leave me alone, I could clear out Harlem.”
Far more commonly reported, though, was an avid interest in money. Doctors and administrators can make fortunes from abortion. Other staff–well-paid at some clinics, poorly-paid at others–are often single mothers in precarious economic circumstances, and they understand that their jobs depend on abortion sales. Hellen Pendley, who ran a Georgia clinic, would listen in on telephone conversations to see whether her staffers were good at sales. She said they knew the bottom line: “If you can’t sell abortions over the phone, you will not last.”
Kathy Sparks described a skilled “counselor” at her clinic who would find what a woman’s key pressure point was–perhaps a fear of telling her parents she was pregnant, perhaps money worries–and then “magnify it.” She said that ninety-nine percent of the women who came in decided to have abortions. Joy Davis reported the careful training she received at her first clinic in Alabama: “I had to sit and listen to women answering the phone for at least a month before they would allow me to answer the phone . . . We had to find out very quickly what their problem was, play on that, and get them in that clinic for an abortion. We were very good salespeople.” Hellen Pendley’s staff learned how to play on money fears by asking a woman who was ambivalent: “Do you know how expensive it is if you go through with this? Let me just tell you. . . . It’s gonna cost you about $8,000 just to have [the child]. Now, where are you gonna get that kind of money?” Pendley commented that “it’s really pretty simple to bring someone around to your way of thinking if you can manipulate what they’ve told you and use it against them. And that’s exactly what we did.”
What Abortion Does to Women Many women are psychologically devastated by abortion. And note that the word “women” should be interpreted broadly here: in many cases those having abortions are actually girls. Nita Whitten, who worked in a Texas clinic, said many women forced their daughters to have abortions. One such daughter, subjected to a second-trimester abortion, was clearly miserable and kept making trips to the bathroom. On one visit there, she started screaming, “It’s a baby! It’s a baby! Mama, Mama, Mama!” She had seen the baby in the toilet.
Dr. Arnold Halpern, who had seen women harmed by illegal abortions in the 1960s, thought of legal abortion as an aid to women. He performed abortions for years, but became “more aware of the adverse reactions women were having. Many felt badly about their decision to abort and still felt guilty years later.” While doing abortions, he was also “treating women who had had abortions but now desperately wanted to conceive.” Often abortion complications had made them infertile. (Halpern was also concerned about “the big problem of sexually transmitted disease,” which he said was “growing by leaps and bounds.”)
Staff at Hellen Pendley’s clinic saw many women who suffered psychologically from their abortions. But they were trained to tell such women that, if they had a problem, then “you had it before you had the abortion” and the abortion “has nothing to do with it.”
Joan Appleton was a committed feminist, an activist in the National Organization for Women, when she became head nurse of an abortion clinic in Virginia. She was deeply committed to women’s welfare. But in the course of her clinic experience, she became tormented with the question of why abortion “was such an emotional trauma for a woman, and such a difficult decision for a woman to make, if it was a natural thing to do. If it was right, why was it so difficult?” She also asked herself: “I counseled these women so well; they were so sure of their decision. Why are they coming back after me now–months and years later–psychological wrecks?”
Women whose babies were aborted at other clinics sometimes were physical wrecks as well. Judith Fetrow said she saw a doctor “perforate a woman’s uterus and then lie about the severity of the perforation.” Her clinic “often had women come back with severe infections caused by retained tissue or incomplete abortions–especially when we were training new doctors.” Perforating or tearing the uterus appears to be far more common than lay people realize; even competent doctors can do it. Dr. Jarrett explained that “the pregnant uterus in the first trimester is often the consistency of a wet paper bag”; it is frighteningly easy to push a suction curette or other instrument through its wall.
Hellen Pendley recalled how a doctor at her clinic, performing an abortion on a fourteen-year-old girl, tore her uterus and pulled the bowel through. He asked Pendley, “What do I do?” She interpreted that to mean, “What do I do to make sure that this stays under wraps?” Consulting the girl’s medical record, Pendley found that she lived some distance from the clinic and was accompanied only by a friend. So Pendley said, “Poke it back in, and send her home.” When she later described the case, Pendley admitted: “Whether she lived or died, I do not know.”
Once an acquaintance of Pendley’s alerted her about a young woman who was desperately ill in a local hospital. “She’s comatose right now,” Pendley’s informant said. “We’re getting ready to amputate her limbs. She’s throwing blood clots. I don’t think she’s gonna make it. But we were able to determine that she had had an abortion today.” They didn’t know where the abortion was done, so Pendley drove to her own clinic at midnight to see if it was involved. She did not find any record of the woman at her clinic; if she had, she would have shredded it. “We had a personal shredder in my office for that purpose,” she said. “There would not have been a medical record if the D.A. had shown up on my doorsteps the next morning.”
Pendley described how Atlanta abortion providers responded to news reports that a woman had suffered cardiac arrest at one clinic. (The woman never recovered from her coma, and died months later in a nursing home.) Worried people from the clinics in the area met, but expressed no concern about the woman in coma. “We didn’t care what happened to her,” Pendley recalled. “We cared about what happened to us.”
Pendley said that state inspectors, visiting the clinic where the woman’s abortion had been done, found:
- a patient chart claiming that the woman had recovered from anesthesia and could be discharged
- vacuum tubing that had not been properly disinfected
- insects in the clinic “
The list goes on and on and on,” Pendley remarked, “and this is in a state where it’s regulated.”
Some clinics, Pendley suggested, put women at risk of Hepatitis B or HIV/AIDS infection. “If you reuse a vacuum-aspiration cannula,” she said, “you’re going to infect the next person. But when you get busy in a clinic, there is no time to sterilize instruments. I’m sorry. You wash ’em; you repack ’em; and you reuse ’em.”
Carol Everett and her abortionist partner had what they felt was “the Neiman-Marcus of the abortion industry” in the early 1980s. They had a record of no complications–until they decided to go for the big money by doing late abortions. Operating on one woman who was about twenty-two weeks pregnant, the abortionist perforated her uterus and pulled out the lining of her colon. Instead of calling an ambulance–which could have given the clinic bad publicity–Everett drove the woman to a hospital, where she had a colostomy. The abortionist persuaded a colleague to reverse the colostomy later at no charge; he also arranged for the hospital to write off bills for both surgeries. There was no lawsuit.
Another abortionist at an Everett clinic perforated a woman’s uterus and also severed her urinary tract. Again Everett drove the woman to a hospital instead of calling an ambulance. “We were maiming at least one woman a month,” at one point, she recalled.
Then there was the woman named Sheryl, who, after an abortion at twenty weeks, was in the recovery room “lying in a pool of blood.” Everett said her bed “was soaked with blood, the privacy curtains were splashed with it, and even the wall had blood on it.” The staff were finally able to control the bleeding; but the abortionist, eager to leave for a date, did not examine the woman to find the source of the bleeding. The woman was anxious to go home, and the staff let her go a few hours later, although her blood pressure was very low. She lost consciousness the next morning and was rushed to an emergency room, but she died. The abortionist and his girlfriend changed her medical chart so that the blood pressure readings appeared to be normal. But the coroner established the cause of death as hemorrhage due to a cervical tear. Everett said she “went numb” upon hearing this:
We could have saved Sheryl’s life! my mind screamed. We only needed to have sutured her cervix. We had everything we needed in the clinic to save Sheryl’s life, with one exception–a doctor willing to take the time to re-examine his patient to determine the cause of the bleeding. But he had a date, and the margaritas were waiting.
Some clinics have lay staff do what only nurses or doctors are supposed to do. Mark Bomchill indicated that “untrained people” gave injections and medications to patients at the clinic he guarded. Hellen Pendley, who was a clinic administrator but not a doctor, said that when a patient had severe bleeding outside of regular clinic hours, “that was my problem, not the doctor’s. . . . I was the one who called in all the drugs. I was the one who prescribed the medication.”
Joy Davis, an ultrasound technician, went even further. Working for abortion doctor Thomas Tucker, she eventually managed a chain of six clinics in Alabama and Mississippi for him. Tucker, finding that he couldn’t cover all the clinics by himself, trained Davis to do abortions and other routine clinic work. Davis described what happened:
I never spent the first day in medical school. . . . But I started doing abortions. . . . I did Norplant, cryosurgery, Pap smears, pelvic exams. Anything he did, I did. And I was real proud of that, because I felt I did it better than he did. All of the employees would say, “Oh, you need to see Dr. Davis today,” because they felt that I was better than he was. I never had any problem patients. I never put a woman in the hospital. And he was putting ’em in the hospital almost every month in very critical condition–hysterectomies, retained tissue. Everything that could go wrong with his patients did go wrong.
This included the case of one young woman who had breathing difficulty, heavy bleeding, and extremely low blood pressure after her second-trimester abortion. Tucker, who had told Davis to stabilize the woman, canceled an ambulance Davis called when the situation became desperate. “We cannot send this patient to the hospital in this condition,” Tucker said. “They’ll hang us.” But the woman’s blood “was pouring like a faucet,” Davis recalled, “and I couldn’t stop it.” Tucker finally allowed her to call an ambulance as he left to catch a plane. Davis was greatly relieved when the ambulance rushed the woman to a hospital–”until the hospital called me and told me that she had died.”
Tucker’s persistent, extreme malpractice caught up with him when Davis went to state authorities and urged them to shut his clinics down. The Alabama authorities were in no great hurry to do so. People at the state medical board, Davis said, told her that “abortion was a hot political issue, and they really didn’t want to touch it.” Finally, though, Tucker lost his medical licenses in both Mississippi and Alabama.
Abortion has a politically privileged status in many other states. Politicians who have spent their careers supporting “safe, legal abortion” cannot admit that, after Roe v. Wade, many incompetent back-alley abortionists just moved around to the front and obtained instant respectability.
Whether competent or incompetent, many abortionists understand the value of campaign contributions. Luhra Tivis reported that Dr. George Tiller–the late-term abortionist with his own crematorium–made a great deal of money. “And, believe me, he spreads it around,” she added, “because I mailed out the checks to the legislators, so I know.” In 1996 Tiller contributed $25,000 to the Democratic National Committee and attended one of President Clinton’s White House coffees. Nita Whitten said that Texas abortionist Curtis Boyd made large campaign donations to people “he knew would be effective in keeping abortion legal in Texas and in the United States.” In this, as in so many other ways, abortion has become just another business.
Why People Become Involved in the Abortion Business
Those who are in the business, though, know that it is different in significant ways. Involvement in the planned, routine administration of death can take a heavy toll. Many former clinic staffers report that they suffered from nightmares, depression, alcoholism, and/or drug abuse. Some considered suicide.
Some had enormous personal problems before they ever worked in the abortion business. Indeed, they may have wound up in the clinics largely because of their personal problems. Former Planned Parenthood worker Judith Fetrow said that over one-third of the workers at her clinic “had child sexual abuse or forcible rape in their backgrounds.” Some were from alcoholic homes; some had suffered emotional or physical abuse. Many were lesbian or bisexual, she said, adding that “their lesbianism was a response to having been abused.” (This is often the case, according to literature on lesbianism.) Fetrow said that, for a woman who has grown up in “a world of secrets and pain, where the only safe place is the company of other wounded women, then it is not reaching very far to come to the wrong conclusions: that killing children means saving them and that women are safer, more autonomous and better able to care for themselves in a dangerous world if they bear no children.”
Hellen Pendley, in her searingly honest account of running a clinic, portrayed herself as a greedy monster who cared nothing for the women she was supposedly helping–much less for the children she was destroying. But then she revealed her own world of secrets and pain. When she was only twelve years old, a man who had given her rides to church youth gatherings raped her and “told me, as he raped me, that God sent him to do this to me.” The predictable result: “I felt nothing but hatred and bitterness and anger that a God could send anyone to do this.” She thought that God “was a hateful, destructive man.” She started using drugs and eventually ran away from home. Retrieved by her father, she finally told him about the rape. Instead of comforting her, he turned her over to the juvenile authorities, saying: “You can have her. I can’t do anything with her.” By age twenty-eight, after one “shotgun wedding” and two divorces, Pendley “was taking anti-depressants just so I could get out of bed in the mornings.”
Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the most famous of the ex-abortionists, a brave man who blazed a path for everyone else, described a tormented life in his autobiography, The Hand of God. Among the stories in Nathanson’s past:
- His father’s father, supported by his poverty-stricken immigrant family in a tuberculosis sanitarium, committed suicide so that his children would have more money for food. Nathanson’s sister also committed suicide, and his father once attempted it.
- His father, after making an unhappy marriage, bullied his wife mercilessly, so that Nathanson grew up in a “hate-filled household.”
- His father made him attend Hebrew school, but then methodically attacked the religion he learned in that school.
- With the influence of “this warped and twisted man,” Nathanson said, “a monster was germinating within me. The monster recognized nothing but utility, respected nothing but strength of purpose, craved love–and then perverted it.
Nathanson was also influenced by his own experience with illegal abortion as a medical student, when his girlfriend aborted their child–with his agreement and using money provided by his father. And he was influenced, as were many doctors of his generation, by having to care for women badly injured by illegal abortionists. Dr. Beverly McMillan, rotated to Chicago’s Cook County Hospital as a young resident, found that fifteen to twenty women per night “were coming from the back-alley abortion mills of Chicago.” She was delighted, four years later, when the Supreme Court struck down laws banning abortion in its Roe v. Wade decision.
Both doctors ultimately concluded that legal abortion was not the answer to the tragedies they had seen. When Nathanson was asked to clean up a legal abortion clinic in New York in the early 1970s, he found that the abortion doctors there were “an extraordinary variety of drunks, druggies, sadists, sexual molesters, just plain incompetents, and medical losers.” One, he said, “was a fugitive from justice, with the FBI close on his tail.” Nathanson replaced the old crew with skilled doctors. But then competition from other clinics led him to reduce the doctors’ pay in order to reduce the price of abortions, and many of the most competent doctors left his clinic. The result? “Abortion clinics, my own included, were increasingly populated with younger, inexperienced physicians and–yet again–the medical losers.” Nathanson finally concluded that “the abortionist problem is inherent to abortion and likely to get worse, not better.”
Dr. McMillan and others decided that the answer to crisis pregnancies is helping women with counseling, prenatal and obstetrical care, and other assistance. Many of the ex-abortionists do volunteer work for pregnancy aid centers started by pro-life activists in the past thirty years. What if such centers had been started by senior doctors and medical professors sixty years ago? It seems fair to say that millions of children’s lives would have been saved, and women and health professionals would have been spared much guilt and grief.
For many people who became involved in abortion, however, it was not because they had been abused as children or because they wanted to help women. Some of the doctors started doing abortions simply because this was expected in their residency training or because they wanted to be agreeable to their medical partners. Dr. David Brewer described himself as having “no real convictions” and being “caught in the middle” when he became involved in abortion as a young resident. Dr. McArthur Hill, involved as a young Air Force surgeon, later said that his participation “was not as an avid abortion proponent, but as a reluctant puppet in a world gone berserk.”
Money was certainly a major incentive for some. Dr. Noreen Johnson became medical director of a California abortion clinic in the late 1970s when she was still a hospital resident. Averaging 30 to 40 abortions a week, she was making $70,000 to $80,000 per year from abortions alone. That was over twice as much as her resident’s salary of roughly $30,000 per year. By 1994 the main doctor at a North Dakota abortion clinic made $100,000 a year while working there only two days per week.
Carol Everett described herself as consumed by greed during her years in the abortion industry. When she surpassed her first goal of two hundred abortions per month at her clinic and $5,000 per month for herself,
I already had my sights set on my next six-month goal–four hundred abortions and ten thousand dollars a month in take-home pay by the end of March, 1982. When I got there, I planned to reward myself with a new Oldsmobile Toronado. . . .
Insanely, I kept pushing to do more abortions and “bigger” ones. I was hopelessly hooked by the love of money and what it could do for me next. After remodeling my home, I planned to buy two new sports cars for the children. I was consumed with the thought of all the things I was going to do . . . and blithely forgetful of the horrors we were committing at the clinic.
Hellen Pendley recalled that “I walked in the laboratory every day. I saw dead babies every day for three years. . . . If I could see fifty, I was so happy. Because, you know what? That meant I was really gonna have a good bonus in my next paycheck.”
At the other end of the payscale were single mothers who could not easily leave their jobs even if they became assailed by doubts about what they were doing. When Joy Davis was hiring staff for Thomas Tucker’s chain of abortion clinics, she looked for single mothers who “needed us and needed the money. That way, I knew that I would have their loyalty and that they would stick with it no matter how tough it got.”
What Abortion Does to Clinic Staff
It can get very tough, indeed. When Dr. McArthur Hill took care of saline-abortion patients, he started having a recurring nightmare that he was holding a newborn baby and waiting for a faceless jury to signal thumbs up or thumbs down. Debra Henry, a medical assistant at a Michigan clinic, had seen tiny body parts and had heard a baby’s skull being crushed within the womb. Her nightmare involved carrying a dead baby down an endless corridor.
Dr. Nathanson went through many painful years after he did his last abortion in 1979. His guilt was overwhelming, not only because he had performed many abortions himself and had directed an abortion clinic, but also because he had helped bring about the legalization of abortion: “I would awaken each morning at four or five o’clock, staring into the darkness and hoping (but not praying, yet) for a message to flare forth acquitting me before some invisible jury.” Although a longtime atheist, he had started reading religious literature, but still had “an unremitting black despair.” He considered suicide.
Dr. Brewer said that “when I was doing abortions, my life was in a shambles in terms of drugs, immorality and all the rest.” Abortionists, he said, “have marriages that are on the rocks. They have a seed of greed that’s so big (and bearing fruit now) that they are just clamoring for more money. And they’re seeing their teenage children be lost. . . . And they’re very, very lonely people.”
Nita Whitten, working as a secretary in a Texas abortion clinic, became depressed and addicted to drugs. “I took drugs to wake up in the morning,” she said. “I took speed while I was at work. And I smoked marijuana, drank lots of alcohol. . . . this is the way that I coped with what I did. It was horrible to work there, and there was no good in it.” After having an abortion herself, she became severely depressed and at one point planned to commit suicide.
Kathy Sparks, medical assistant at an Illinois clinic, thought she was not bothered by the blood and gore. When she first witnessed an abortion, she thought it was no different from “dissecting a frog” in biology class. But she did turn to alcohol and other drugs. Some other staffers at her clinic were on drugs, she said, and several were alcoholics. Then a series of personal problems made her depressed and finally desperate: her father died; her marriage appeared to be ending when her daughter was only six weeks old; she lost her best friend; and she had a terrible relationship with her mother. At one point, Sparks actually put a gun to her head and cocked it, but found that she could not pull the trigger. Although hysterical, she had the sense to telephone her mother-in-law, who calmly told her: “Put the gun down. Pick up the baby and come over here.”
How They Leave the Abortion Business
Fortunately, Sparks had already put the gun down to use the telephone. She drove herself and her child to her mother-in-law’s home. Then she had her “born-again day” as the older woman told her about Jesus Christ, and “I just listened.” The two prayed together; Sparks committed her life to Christ and repented. She did not leave the abortion clinic right away. But soon she felt very cold in the clinic and noticed “a stench in the air.” After assisting at a horrific abortion in the twenty-third week of pregnancy, she took the fetal remains to the clean-up room and found herself “weeping uncontrollably.” The next day, she told the clinic director that she would have to quit because of her religion. “What you’re doing here is wrong, and I must leave,” she said.
Religious conversions, either in the evangelical Protestant tradition or in the Catholic tradition, were typical of those who spoke at the “Meet the Abortion Providers” conferences. Dr. Nathanson was unusual in that he was still an atheist for years after he turned against abortion and started his awesome amount of writing, speaking and filmmaking against it. A long religious quest ended in his baptism as a Catholic in 1996.
Many did not leave the abortion business right after their conversions, or when they first realized that they were involved in deep evil. When Dr. McMillan, then the medical director of an abortion clinic, became increasingly disturbed by the tiny body parts, she started arranging the clinic schedule so that she wouldn’t have to do abortions. Later, she simply resigned. A former clinic nurse told this writer years ago that at one point she found she could no longer turn on the suction machine. Then she could no longer do the measurements to determine stage of pregnancy; so she retreated to counseling. When she started counseling everyone against abortion, she and the clinic soon parted. Hellen Pendley, worried about supporting her three children, decided to stay at her clinic while she looked for another job. But this previously hard-boiled administrator started looking for women who hadn’t yet had their abortions and who needed to talk with someone. When she found one, she would lead the woman into her office, lock the door, and say, “You’ve got to find another way. . . .”
Some staffers left their clinics under their own steam, but others were helped along by what might be called tugboats in human form. Pendley was aided by a pastor she had expected to respond harshly when she told him that she ran an abortion clinic. But the pastor was kind. “I didn’t know you were struggling with that,” he said, “but, you know, I’m glad you’re here.”
When Joan Appleton was tormented by questions about abortion’s effects on women, she felt that she couldn’t go to a feminist leader such as Molly Yard and say, “Molly, you got a minute?” But there was one anti-abortion sidewalk counselor at her clinic, Debra Braun, whom Appleton trusted because “I really believed she cared about women.” Appleton went to Braun with her questions. The two had many conversations over several years; they became good friends, and Appleton eventually left her clinic. Now she and Braun both work for Pro-Life Action Ministries in St. Paul, Minnesota. Appleton helps staffers leave abortion clinics and achieve reconciliation and healing.
Dr. Anthony Levatino started withdrawing from abortion after a tragic death in his family. He had done abortions as a resident but felt internal conflict about it. He and his wife were “going crazy trying to find a baby to adopt”–while at work he was aborting babies and “throwing ’em in the garbage at the rate of nine and ten a week.” He thought, “I wish one of these people would just let me have their child.” The Levatinos finally adopted a little girl, Heather, and later had a son. The doctor kept doing abortions, even the gruesome D&E type–until Heather, playing outside one day, was killed by a car. After that, he said, “I couldn’t even think about a D&E abortion anymore. No way.” He kept doing early abortions for several months, but “I began to feel like a paid assassin. That’s exactly what I was. . . . So I quit.”
Some clinic workers who were starting to waver had experiences with antiabortion demonstrators that simply hardened their resolve. Judith Fetrow recalled that, at her California clinic:
. . . the Tuesday before I committed my life to the Lord, I had actually walked out of the clinic. I started down the driveway towards the Christians, because I wanted out. I wanted to not be there anymore. And one of the Christian women noticed me and started shouting, “Murderer! The blood is on your hands!” The other Christians started shouting the same thing. It felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. I went back inside the clinic, and I went back to work.
She had a far better experience, though, with a pro-life sidewalk counselor named Steve:
He told me his name, and he asked me my name. He talked to me about how cold he was standing out in front of the clinic in shorts. He gave me a tape by Carol Everett. He invited me to go to church with him; and when I said no, he invited me to have coffee with him. . . . And although Steve did not condone my sin, he offered me unconditional acceptance.
It took some time; 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.
Notwithstanding her own initial bad experience, Fetrow mentioned that Planned Parenthood people have been instructed not to talk with abortion foes at the clinics “because too many staff and volunteers have been hearing the truth and repenting.” She added: “It’s hard to fight a battle, much less win a war, when your soldiers keep surrendering.”
Norma McCorvey, the famous “Jane Roe” plaintiff of Roe v. Wade, made a spectacular surrender in 1995. McCorvey was working in a Texas abortion clinic when the Rev. Flip Benham of Operation Rescue moved in next door. Benham befriended “Miss Norma”; so did the little daughter of an Operation Rescue worker. Soon Benham baptized McCorvey, who later started the Roe No More Ministry and still does a lot of public speaking against abortion. People sat up and paid attention when McCorvey described seeing empty swings on a playground and thinking, “Oh my God, the playgrounds are empty because there’s no children, because they’ve all been aborted.”
Religious and intellectual conversions have changed many clinic staffers’ lives, but they do not take away all the psychological burdens. Joan Appleton has warned that the initial “honeymoon period” after leaving the clinics cannot last, because “the whole reality of the horror” clinic staff have been involved in comes to them gradually. “If I knew back in ’89, when I left, what I know now,” she said, “I would’ve gone to the nearest bridge and jumped.” If former clinic staff do not receive help early, she said, they are likely to turn–or return–to drugs, alcohol, and suicide attempts. She has organized a U.S. branch of the Centurions, which helps former clinic staffers with healing therapy and fellowship.
Appleton warns right-to-life activists against treating clinic defectors as “trophies” to be paraded in public right away. They need time apart, she explains, to face why they “killed in the first place”; they must deal with this if they are “to have any healing whatsoever.” Appleton advises former clinic staffers “to give it at least a couple of years before you go in front of a microphone.”
Some still have much work to do on old habits, perhaps including greed. “Some of us demand enormous amounts of money to talk about our sins,” Appleton once noted wryly, “and unfortunately, there are too many pro-life groups more than willing to pay the price to have their hero speak.” She believes that genuine reparation “cannot and must not include monetary profit for our sins.” She realizes, though, that former clinic staff must earn a living and that many have children to support, and she does not object to modest speaking fees.
Joseph Scheidler, on the other hand, said at one of his conferences that the speakers were “not getting a cent for this. I don’t give stipends to anybody–especially former abortionists. I think they owe us this testimony. And they know it.”
Their public speaking often comes at great personal cost. It involves mentally reliving the worst parts of their lives and exposing–in detail and to strangers–their complicity in abortion. For some, including Nathanson and McCorvey, it also involves admitting that their earlier public abortion advocacy was deeply wrong. The former clinic staffers who speak out are much like the Ancient Mariner, who had to keep retelling the terrible story where “the dead were at my feet.” As Hellen Pendley said, “It never gets easier.” No one should underestimate their courage, or their suffering.
They can take comfort, though, in knowing that they have influenced the public debate and have helped save many lives already. Those who volunteer for pregnancy aid centers or sidewalk counseling have the extra solace of knowing about specific lives they have saved and women they have aided.
What Abortion Defenders Say About their Former Colleagues
Last January Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), held a press conference to complain about state laws concerning abortion, including efforts to regulate abortion clinics. She was asked about women who used to work in the clinics and “have now gone over to your opposition”: Don’t their accounts suggest “that some regulation is needed”? Michelman responded that women’s lives and health have been “vastly improved” since the Supreme Court legalized abortion. Reproductive health services, she claimed, “are the safest medical services available.” If there is occasional “faulty adherence” to high medical standards, “the states take care of that. But women are very safe.” Then she quickly moved to the next question.
Ronald Fitzsimmons is executive director of a trade group called the National Coalition of Abortion Providers (NCAP), which consists of about 200 independent (non-Planned Parenthood) clinics. In a recent interview, he acknowledged problems at some clinics, but said that every business has its “bad apples” and that he is “not shy about criticizing” them. Of allegations about destruction or falsification of records, he said that “people should be prosecuted for that stuff.” Responding to Pendley’s report about reuse of instruments without sterilizing them, he commented: “Oh, Jeez. I mean, that shouldn’t be happening. That disgusts me. . . . She should be going to NAF with that stuff.” NAF is the National Abortion Federation, a providers’ group that sets standards its member clinics are supposed to meet, whereas NCAP is more oriented toward the political, public-relations and business side. Fitzsimmons said at least one-half of NCAP’s members also belong to NAF.
On the question of calling ambulances for women with serious injuries, Fitzsimmons said they “absolutely” should be called. He added, though, that there have been cases where antiabortion demonstrators at clinics have followed an ambulance to the hospital and actually entered the patient’s room. Of the story about the continually flushing toilet for fetal remains, he said that “I can’t tell you how disgusting that is to me, if that’s happening.” The clinic, he said, “should be cited for health-code violations.” (A current staff member of the clinic in question said it does not dispose of fetal remains in this way; she said state law requires it to submit tissue from any surgery to a laboratory for a pathology report.)
Fitzsimmons said there is more clinic regulation in some areas than abortion foes realize. He remarked that in New York, for example, it is sometimes almost impossible to open a new clinic because “of the regulations and the paperwork that you have to go through.”
Yet some horrific operators have done many abortions in New York before finally being convicted of criminal violations. And Fitzsimmons’s own organization, on its Web site, has an interesting disclaimer: “We suggest that patients contact their State health authorities to make sure that the clinics and doctors they choose are reputable. NCAP makes no warranties or guarantees about the providers listed in this site. . . .” This disclaimer introduces a list of NCAP’s own members.
Fitzsimmons was bothered by the assumption “that the folks who work at the clinics are uncaring and driven by greed.” He said again, “You’re gonna get those bad apples,” but he added that most clinic staff “really mean well. And they certainly think they’re doing the right thing.”
Asked about ex-providers’ reports of their nightmares, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse, Fitzsimmons said, “I don’t know about drug abuse and stuff like that.” But he did acknowledge that “everyone in this field” has medical and moral limits and that some doctors do not perform late abortions. As “the fetus becomes more developed,” he said, “it does become more of an emotional thing and all.” He suggested that people on both sides of the abortion issue should be asking why some women seek late abortions even though they know, from brochures and models, just what the older fetus looks like. (Point well taken.)
How about the reports of psychological suffering in women after their abortions? Fitzsimmons admitted that “a number of our clinics offer post-abortion counseling,” but he generally downplayed this problem. Trauma is not necessarily due to the abortion alone, he said, since “people often come to the clinic with a lot of emotional issues to begin with.” Relief may be the most common response after abortion, he suggested, although he conceded that “there is also guilt” and there may be regret. Mentioning postpartum depression and regret about releasing a child for adoption, he said it is not as though “abortion is the only thing out there that evokes emotional reactions.”
No, but it is the only one of the three that involves taking a human life. In the other cases, a woman can say, “It was very difficult, but I got through it–and my child is alive to be happy about that.”
Margaret Johnson, director of the Southern Tier Women’s Services, an abortion clinic in Vestal, N.Y., said that “the best way to help women is to make sure that they’re making a good decision.” Decrying the highly politicized national debate on abortion, especially during election years, Johnson said that women facing an abortion decision “feel so alone and so unrecognized or silenced” by both sides of the debate. Neither side, she remarked, speaks to “what that woman is facing,” which is the question of how she balances “the needs of my family, myself, my partner, and this pregnancy.” Johnson deplored the “judgmental and uncompassionate climate for women” considering abortion.
Yet one might respond: Harsh and shrill language is often self-indulgent, and usually counterproductive. Yet if the question is reduced to one of “balance” and the party whose life is at stake is referred to as “this pregnancy” rather than “this child,” then the cards are certainly stacked in favor of the idea that “making a good decision” can include deciding to kill the child.
At least, though, Johnson does not start with the assumption that abortion is the best outcome. She has worked with women who ultimately decided against abortion, and she says “I’m happy for them.” She tries to be sure that a woman “is not being forced into a decision . . . has resolved whatever ambivalence there is”; that she is “not going against a major belief system or that, if she is, she has some help”; and that she “is not having a major relationship problem.” How about pregnant women (and girls) who are pressured by abandonment–kicked out of the house by a parent or abandoned by a boyfriend? She said “we see that a lot” and “we try to at least point her to her own resources” or to helpful community resources.
Johnson is not much impressed by the efforts of pro-life pregnancy aid centers, “mostly because they give out such distorted and propagandistic information.” Although she acknowledged that some centers offer help “quite in good faith,” she suggested that in an economic sense it is just “a drop in the bucket.”
Many would dispute her on both counts. Most of the information the centers offer is truth that women need to hear and see. The practical aid they give–which may include maternity and baby clothes, baby furniture and formula, and sometimes cash assistance–is quite helpful to women who are hard pressed economically. Their moral support, in welcoming both mother and child, may be even more important. Some of their staffers and volunteers become expert at directing women to community resources for additional aid. Some do informal but effective work in family conciliation.
But many of the women who staff pregnancy aid centers might agree with Johnson that welfare reform is harming women who have, or want to have, children. They might also agree with her contention that there is too little psychological support for those who have their babies despite difficult circumstances. She recalled, for example, the case of a teenager barred from an honor society because she had a child outside of marriage; where, Johnson asked, “is the support for that kid?”
Johnson suggested that horror stories about clinic conditions come from a minority of “bad providers.” Referring to a couple of former clinic administrators who described terrible conditions, she noted that they were in charge and “could have done things differently.” If you are out to take advantage of women and abuse them, she added, then “you’re gonna have nightmares, and you should have nightmares.”
Point well taken. But nightmares, depression, and substance abuse are by no means confined to staff in the sleaziest clinics. People who set out to give women what they considered quality service have been afflicted as well. And it is not just former clinic staff who suffer. Current staff, too, agonize over their work in sessions sponsored by the National Abortion Federation. According to an account in American Medical News:
They wonder if the fetus feels pain. They talk about the soul and where it goes. And about their dreams, in which aborted fetuses stare at them with ancient eyes and perfectly shaped hands and feet, asking, “Why? Why did you do this to me?”
One clinic worker described her use of ultrasound to find gestational age in late pregnancies. She said she started feeling miserable when she could see the fetal heart’s four chambers. She felt even worse when she placed her hands on a woman and felt the child kick. Right after their abortions, a nurse reported many women cry and say, “I’ve just killed my baby. I’ve just killed my baby.” All of this sounds remarkably like what ex-providers said at Joseph Scheidler’s conferences.
Years ago, the Washington Post described a Chicago doctor who had seen poor teenagers injured or killed by illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade. It did not occur to him to set up a pregnancy aid center to help poor women; instead, after Roe v. Wade, he provided abortions in a hospital clinic. He even became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against restrictions on federal funding of abortion. Yet he was not happy about his abortion activism:
Dr. David Zbaraz spends most of his time delivering babies, but on those days when he performs an abortion, his wife can tell as soon as he walks in the door.
“I come home angry,” he says. “It’s a nasty, dirty, yukky thing and I always come home angry . . .
“I’ve become very good at it. I’ve become one hell of an abortionist. But it’s not something I tell my kids about.”
There is room for debate over how many “bad providers” there are. In a real sense, though, all of the clinics are bad providers. As Dr. Nathanson wrote when he looked back upon his efforts to improve an abortion clinic nearly thirty years ago: “I had replaced a gaggle of medical rogues and ruffians with a spotless, respectable collection of superbly trained, highly competent physicians–and these new recruits continued to carry out the same grisly task . . .”
So that, as Carol Everett put it, death was still the winner.
The Human Life Foundation, Inc.
215 Lexington Avenue, New York, New York 10016
Spring/Summer 2000 Issue