The New York Times obituary sings the praises of a man who, by his own reckoning, performed over 20,000 abortions in his career. The obituary goes to the heart of what abortion is, and how people get sucked into it. Harrison, if he is to be believed, thought he was helping women.
And it's easy to get into that mindset, to fall into the idea that if the woman is distressed at being pregnant, then abortion is the way to help her.
But is it?
The fact that she's contemplating -- or even seeking out -- abortion is surely a sign that she's distressed. Harrison saw that distress as evidence of a need for abortion:
“Oh, God, doctor, I was hoping it was cancer.”
Those words so affected Dr. William Harrison that for years, he said, he could not repeat them. They made him break down in tears.
The woman who spoke them — black, poor and middle-aged — had come in 1967 to the Arkansas hospital where Dr. Harrison was a medical student in obstetrics. A doctor, after examining her swollen belly, had told her she was pregnant.
"I was hoping it was cancer." That's a lot of distress. That's a lot of stress. That's a major crisis.
But is the first or most obvious response necessarily the right one? It's long been known that stress hampers the decision making process. Let's examine some of the impact of stress on decision-making:
When pregnancy is such an intense stressor that the woman is contemplating abortion, she is making her decision under great stress. This means that she is likely to make a risky, premature, ill-thought-out decision based on what seems like the quickest way out of the immediate crisis. This does not mean that the pregnant woman is uniquely vulnerable; it means that she is just as likely to behave like a stressed-out person when the stress is due to pregnancy as she is if the stress is due to any other cause.
A difficult pregnancy is, we can clearly see, a time of particular vulnerability for the woman. She is not likely to be in an emotional state that will lead her to gather all the information she needs. She is not likely to be thinking clearly. She is not likely to think past the first choice that looks as if it will solve her immediate problem and get her out of this crisis.
We have all had this experience in our own lives, in ways both big and small. We've yelled at our kids when we should have handled the situation calmly. We've quit jobs when we should have effectively addressed a problem at work. We've tried to fix things ourselves, breaking them in the process, when we should have waited for expert help.
There is not one of us who has not, in a time of stress, done what seemed like a good idea at the time, then come to regret it.
The regret of having chosen abortion isn't simple buyer's remorse. It can be profound, soul-crushing distress that can end in suicide. A study in Finland, where government health care enables them to track all pregnancy outcomes and the aftermath, found the suicide risk of women who had undergone abortions to be six times higher than that of women who had given birth.
And just why is it that abortion can leave the woman so wounded?
Because before the abortion, her focus is on her immediate distress, to the point where there's something she's not seeing. Something she has the entire remainder of her life to see clearly -- but only after it is too late.
Women are hard-wired for relationship, particularly their relationships with their children. And after the immediate crisis is over, and it's to late to have a do-over, the reality of what the abortion did has time to sink in. What the abortion did, hidden inside her body and invisible to her because of her focus on the immediate distress, is horrifying:
It's easy to support abortion as long as you're able to ignore the reality of what happens inside the woman's body.
And it's amazing the lies people can tell themselves to allow themselves to continue to dismiss the destruction:
Dr. Harrison readily admitted that he destroyed life, but denied that he killed babies. His view was that an embryo was far from being a human being with a brain.
Just so we're clear, the human brain is already "highly complex at just 8 weeks into life. Let's look at what The Visible Embryo says about a 42-days-into-pregnancy (six weeks into gestation, four weeks into life) embryo -- the youngest that, for most of Harrison's career, that you could abort a baby:
Brain is well marked by its cerebral hemispheres. The hindbrain, which is responsible for heart regulation, breathing and muscle movements, begins to develop.About two days later, "The nasofrontal groove becomes distinct and an olfactory bulb (sense of smell) forms in the brain."
And Harrison performed abortions throughout the entire first two trimesters of pregnancy. He was willing to do the destruction himself past 22 weeks -- a time when the fetus "recognizes maternal sounds such as breathing, heartbeat, voice, and digestion." And after 24 weeks, right up until term, he'd refer women to George Tiller.
The higher moral value to Dr. Harrison was salvaging the future of an often disadvantaged girl or woman.
But Harrison simply assumed that the abortion was salvaging her future. He wasn't there after her baby was dead -- unless she, like half of all abortion patients, was returning for another abortion, and perhaps another, and another, and another. The abortion that was to free her may just have returned her for another cycle of poverty and abuse and abortion.
Or she might manage to avoid another abortion, but still continue to suffer. Even women who remain firmly "prochoice" after their abortions often report devastation:
It is the worse feeling in the world, to know lying on that table, that you can't take it back. I have struggled with depression, flashbacks, anxiety and a big sense of loss. I also struggle with guilt, the guilt of having actually taken a life, yes a life. I believe now that life begins at conception. No it didn't look like a peanut, or a glob of jelly; it had arms, legs and eyes and moved around, although it was too early for me to feel.
I was 9 weeks. I lost my life after i lost my child, i had to give up my apartment because i was too unstable to stay alone, and the memories, well they were overwhelming. I nearly lost my job, and it will be a constant reminder, babies and pregnant women everywhere,every day, commmercials, movies etc. It haunts me, and it goes right into the night. I like most women who have this thing called PASS: experience nightmares, terrible terrible ones, dead babies,crying babies, you name it; visit the dream board.
I am just letting you know my personal experience. I am a 29 year old woman,who wouldn't recommend this to anyone.
Slowly I began to notice little babies, and grief started to eat into my calm exterior. Pain such as I had never felt before worked its way into my vulnerable mind, and I realised that I was crumbling. The numb feeling that had protected me for so long was ebbing away, and I didn't know what to do. The reality of the termination had hit me in the form of grief and despair and above all guilt. I tried to reason with myself that I had no option, but that grief was being translated into anger. .... I couldn't sleep at night and during the day I alternated between self pity and pain. Worst of all were the frequent moments when tears just poured uncontrollably down my face.
I'm so sad... I'm so regretful for what could have been. .... Will I ever get over my regret? I want my baby back. .... I wish I would have thought through it more. I wish I would have taken the time to visit old friends I haven't seen in a long time... who have little children in their thirties. But I didn't... I was feeling pressed for time. As the more time that went by, the more attached I got. I was confused, I felt fat already and uncomfortable in my clothes. I wasn't married. Didn't want to get married... But would love to hold another big, fat healthy baby. I knew, with this one, there would be no arguing, no divorce or custody issues. I would be with this baby each and every day of its life. But its life never came to be... I'm still so sad... I feel I made the wrong choice. I believe in Pro-Choice... but why aren't those clinics given more counseling requirements. Why couldn't they be forced to make me wait another day or week? Perhaps I would be a very happy expecting mother... Now I'll never know whether or not I made the right choice. I'm still so sad.
Abortion-minded women do change their minds, if given the chance. (Some of them do so when given a second chance because an abortion attempt fails.) Dr. Alec Bourne, whose activism effectively paved the way for abortion on demand in the UK, later wrote:
"Those who plead for an extensive relaxation of the law [against abortion] have no idea of the very many cases where a woman who, during the first three months, makes a most impassioned appeal for her pregnancy to be 'finished,' later, when the baby is born, is thankful indeed that it was not killed while still an embryo. During my long years in practice I have had many a letter of the deepest gratitude for refusing to accede to an early appeal."
Planned Parenthood Medical Director Mary Calderone wrote, in "Illegal Abortion as a Public Health Issue":
[Members of the 1955 Planned Parenthood conference on abortion] agreed, and this was backed up by evidence from the Scandinavians, that when a woman seeking an abortion is given the chance of talking over her problem with a properly trained and oriented person, she will in the process very often resolve many of her qualms and will spontaneously decide to see the pregnancy through, particularly if she is assured that supportive help will continue to be available to her
It's probably easy to feel as if you've solved the woman's problem when she staggers out the door, no longer pregnant, no longer facing whatever it was she was so scared of. But I think if Dr. Harrison had run into some of his patients a decade later and asked, "Well?" he'd have gotten a very different story.
HT: Live Action