Okay, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and write a post that literally scares the bejesus out of me. The other day, I was doing a podcast interview with Owning Pink blogger Stacey Curnow, and she asked me how it feels to write stuff like I did in my upcoming book What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend, which is more about me and my vagina than you probably ever wanted to know. In this book, I write about the sexual dysfunction I suffered with my ex-husband, the HPV I contracted from my current husband, the porn my hubby and enjoy from time to time, the elective C-section I decided to have, and yes -- I write about the painful decision I had to make as an OB/GYN about whether or not to do abortions.
Why? Well, it’s such a hot button issue -- and it can be so divisive. When you start talking about abortion, people who have been respectful, open-hearted, and friendly with each other suddenly turn into sharks. And I’m afraid of bringing that into our Owning Pink community.
But I also don’t want to live in fear, and I don’t want to be silenced. So thank you Stacey, for inspiring me to speak my truth and help me believe that we as a community can tackle anything, as long as we respect each other’s right to agree or disagree with kindness and to honor what another says as true, without attacking.
It’s hard enough when you’re not an OB/GYN to make peace with where you stand on the abortion issue. But when you’re an OB/GYN, it’s even harder. I was raised in a family with three Methodist ministers, attending church at least once or twice a week for my entire young life. Countless Sunday school teachers and pastors taught me that abortion was sinful, and while Methodists tend to be relatively liberal about supporting a woman’s right to choose, that choice was supposed to apply to the faithless, not the church-goers.
As a teenager, I abstained from sex, not because I didn’t think my cutest-boy-in-school honey was hot, but because I feared eternal damnation and didn’t want to face my mother if I got pregnant. I was raised to be Pro-Life all the way. And when I finished high school, I was. I wanted all pregnant women to keep their babies -- no matter what.
But over time, I learned that this was not always in everyone’s best interest. What about the woman who conceived as the result of rape and incest? What about the welfare mother who already had twelve neglected children? What about the crack-abusing mother whose child would surely end up in foster care with a crack-baby brain? What about the twenty-five year old whose baby had no brain?
Once I made room for accepting the nuances of these situations, I found great compassion in my heart for the other women who found themselves with unplanned pregnancies. What about the sixteen year old who wanted to be a marine biologist, or the forty-three year old whose fetus had Down’s syndrome, or the married mother of three who was finally ready to live her own life? What about the thirty-one year old with the cheating husband or the twenty-one year old who used condoms and birth control pills and still got pregnant? At what point does the decision stop becoming a morality quiz and start becoming a real choice?
Of course, I don’t know the answer, but I have learned that it’s not my place to ask the question. I came to truly believe that a woman has the right to choose what happens to her body -- no matter what.
By the time I finished college, I considered myself firmly pro-choice. Which is easy enough to say for lay people, but as an OB/GYN physician in training, you’re forced to put your money where your mouth is. Most people can just stand on one side or the other of the political divide, but not OB/GYNs. We either do abortions -- or we don’t. And in my opinion, if you’re an OB/GYN and you don’t do abortions, you’re a hypocrite who should have chosen another field. No offense, but as OB/GYNs, it’s our job to advocate for women and their choices. If someone doesn’t want to do that, that’s cool with me. But they should choose another field, as far as I’m concerned.
When I was a twenty-five year old medical student, applying to OB/GYN residencies, I honestly hadn’t thought a lot about the issue of whether, as an OB/GYN, I would perform abortions. Most of the best programs offered training in pregnancy termination but towed the party line of “residents may opt out of the training on ethical or religious grounds.” But almost all of the residents at Northwestern did it. An unspoken pressure discriminated against those who didn’t.
I was twenty-seven years old when I had to decide, and I rocked back and forth between my beliefs. On the one hand, I believed that, as an OB/GYN in training, I should provide safe, compassionate care for women wishing to terminate their pregnancies. On the other, I wanted to please my mother. Mom begged me not to do them, but Mom lost, and we made a silent pact never to speak about it again.
The first time I performed an abortion at Northwestern, I held the suction catheter in my trembling hand, while a voice in my head screamed “Baby killer! Baby killer!” And here I was, about to stick a plastic suction catheter inside the uterus and suck out all the potential this fetus might embody. When I was done, this fetus would be nothing more than cells and tissue ground up in a plastic bucket. I dashed out of the operating room and vomited.
Minutes later, head hanging, I returned, and the matronly scrub nurse winked at me and gave me another gown and a new pair of sterile gloves. I asked for another number 8 suction catheter and jammed it into the uterus like I was spearing a steak. I called for the nurse to turn on the suction and crimson and ivory tissue and fluid gurgled and gristled through the plastic tubing. When I was done, I snuck into a call room and sobbed.
Once I finished residency, I figured my duty was done and I’d never have to do abortions again. But the Universe rarely lets you off the hook that easily. When I started my job in San Diego, I discovered that nobody in the practice I joined did abortions. If a patient found herself with an unwanted pregnancy, she was told that we “didn’t do that sort of thing,” and she was handed a business card for someone who did. I was horrified.
Thank God, I never had an unplanned pregnancy, but I imagined that, if I did, I wouldn’t want to be shipped off to some stranger who “did that sort of thing,” as if the doctors were too high and mighty to get their hands dirty. We all make our own decisions in life, and certainly, the other doctors in my practice had the right to make their own choices. But I knew I couldn’t work at a practice where our patients didn’t feel supported in their times of greatest turmoil. So I surprised myself by announcing, “Fine. I’ll do them.” The minute it slipped out of my mouth, I felt a pang of regret. What had I done? But I swear -- it’s the weirdest thing -- I honestly feel like God made me do it. I know it sounds crazy, but I felt a true calling to provide loving support and tender compassion, without judgment. My mother never understood, but I was being true to my own authentic self, even though it pitted me against her.
For eight years, I performed abortions on every patient in my practice who asked me to. I held their hands, wiped their tears, heard their stories, and loved them unconditionally. I knew that they never planned to wind up with unexpected pregnancies, and they needed compassion, not judgment. If my choice made one woman’s painful journey more peaceful, then it was all worth it.
But it wasn’t easy. A few months after I started my job, I found my name on the front page of the Catholic News as the “new abortionist in town.” I prepared myself to face angry picket lines at work the next day, but praise God, they never came. I never quite felt comfortable in the skin of a doctor who aborts babies. I tried to resolve my confused conscience by extensively counseling my patients to make sure they understood all of their options, practiced smart birth control, and realized the fact that abortions are not without their consequences. The women whose pregnancies I terminated were often more grateful than those whose babies I delivered. I think many of them had already beat themselves up. The last thing they needed was another beating, so I tried to provide a compassionate ear and a shoulder to cry on.
Now, in my office practice, I don’t do surgeries at all anymore, so I no longer perform abortions. In some ways, it’s easier this way. I don’t have to feel conflicted about how to stay true to my integrity in the face of a duty I find hard to perform. But I have no regrets about the time I spent serving my patients in that way. I would do it all over again, but I’d still struggle. Sometimes it’s not easy to stand up for what you believe in. But it’s always worth it when you know you’ve been true to who you are.
What about you? Have you stood up for something that made you feel conflicted? Have you gone against the grain of how you were raised? Have you stayed true to your authentic self, even when doing so meant you risked being rejected by those you loved?
True to myself, even when it’s hard,
When you comment on an Owning Pink blog post, we invite you to be authentic and loving, to say what you feel, to hold sacred space so others feel heard, and to refrain from using hurtful or offensive language. Differing opinions are welcomed, but if you cannot express yourself in a respectful, caring manner, your comments will be deleted by the Owning Pink staff.