"There was a leg and foot in my forceps, and a 'thump, thump' in my abdomen. Instantly, tears were streaming from my eyes." So writes abortionist Lisa Harris in a disturbing article relating her experiences as an abortionist, particularly her anguished and "brutally visceral" experience of dismembering an 18 week gestation unborn child, while 18 weeks pregnant herself.
In the article, entitled "Second Trimester Abortion Provision: Breaking the Silence and Changing the Discourse," Harris, an abortionist and assistant professor at the University of Michigan, explains the ethical position that she says helps her and other abortionists continue practicing despite the moral and psychological hurdles involved in what she describes as an undoubtedly "violent" procedure. The article was originally published in "Reproductive Health Matters" in May 2008.
"Abortion is different from other surgical procedures," Harris writes in her candid article. "Even when the fetus has no legal status, its moral status is reasonably the subject of much disagreement. It is disingenuous to argue that removing a fetus from a uterus is no different from removing a fibroid."
Harris says that there is a need to "cross borders and boundaries (including seemingly inflexible ones like 'pro-choice' and 'pro-life')" in order to "reflect seriously on the question of how providers determine their limit for abortion," and warned that the issues surrounding the question "may frankly be too dangerous for pro-choice movements to acknowledge."
Harris then describes how she once performed an abortion on a woman whose fetus was at 18 weeks gestation. Ironically, Harris herself was pregnant at the time, and her baby was also at 18 weeks gestation.
Consequently, she explains how she was "more interested than usual in seeing the fetal parts when I was done, since they would so closely resemble those of my own fetus."
"I went about doing the procedure as usual," she writes. "I used electrical suction to remove the amniotic fluid, picked up my forceps and began to remove the fetus in parts, as I always did. I felt lucky that this one was already in the breech position – it would make grasping small parts (legs and arms) a little easier."
With my first pass of the forceps, I grasped an extremity and began to pull it down. I could see a small foot hanging from the teeth of my forceps.
With a quick tug, I separated the leg.
Precisely at that moment, I felt a kick – a fluttery "thump, thump" in my own uterus. It was one of the first times I felt fetal movement. There was a leg and foot in my forceps, and a "thump, thump" in my abdomen.
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.
Doing second trimester abortions did not get easier after my pregnancy; in fact, dealing with little infant parts of my born baby only made dealing with dismembered fetal parts sadder.
Harris concludes that the "visually and viscerally different" component of a second-trimester abortion, as opposed to a first-trimester one, leads to questions such as: "What kind of dissociative process inside us allows us to do this routinely? What normal person does this kind of work?"
To answer the questions, Harris notes that the "violence" of abortion must be acknowledged, and relates a "bizarre" experience she once had of observing a premature baby struggling to survive immediately after dismembering an unborn child the same age:
The last patient I saw one day was 23 weeks pregnant. I performed an uncomplicated D&E procedure. Dutifully, I went through the task of reassembling the fetal parts in the metal tray.
It is an odd ritual that abortion providers perform – required as a clinical safety measure to ensure that nothing is left behind in the uterus to cause a complication – but it also permits us in an odd way to pay respect to the fetus (feelings of awe are not uncommon when looking at miniature fingers and fingernails, heart, intestines, kidneys, adrenal glands), even as we simultaneously have complete disregard for it.
Then I rushed upstairs to take overnight call on labour and delivery.
The first patient that came in was prematurely delivering at 23-24 weeks. As her exact gestational age was in question, the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) team resuscitated the premature newborn and brought it to the NICU. Later, along with the distraught parents, I watched the neonate on the ventilator.
I thought to myself how bizarre it was that I could have legally dismembered this fetus-now-newborn if it were inside its mother's uterus – but that the same kind of violence against it now would be illegal, and unspeakable.
Harris then goes on to explain that she rationalizes the bizarreness of the situation by the "location" of the baby, whether it is "inside or outside of the woman's body," and "most importantly, her [the mother's] hopes and wishes for that fetus/baby."
However, she says, "this knowledge does not change the reality that there is always violence involved in a second trimester abortion, which becomes acutely apparent at certain moments, like this one. I must add, however, that I consider declining a woman's request for abortion also to be an act of unspeakable violence."
Harris points out that the abortion lobby's discomfort with "the violence and, frankly, the gruesomeness of abortion" has led to a pro-abortion discourse that she says "contradicts an enormous part of" the abortionist's experience.
While pro-abortion activists may claim abortions "don't really look like" the graphic images often displayed by pro-life protesters, Harris notes, "to a doctor and clinic team involved in second trimester abortion, they very well may."
"Of course, acknowledging the violence of abortion risks admitting that the stereotypes that anti-abortion forces hold of us are true – that we are butchers, etc.," she adds.
Harris also touches upon the psychological burdens second trimester abortion care lays upon its providers, including "serious emotional reactions that produced physiological symptoms, sleep disturbances (includin
g disturbing dreams), effects on interpersonal relationships and moral anguish."
Harris tackles the "ethical and moral positions that allow for grey areas" in abortion provision by advocating the "gradualist perspective" – stating that "the respect owed to a fetus increases as pregnancy advances and the fetus becomes more like a born person." This, she says, serves to "close the gap between pro-choice rhetoric and the reality of doing a second trimester abortion," and "allows us to simultaneously acknowledge the value of early human life and be woman-centred, an ideal position for a second trimester provider."
While the "gradualist" approach raises the spectre of later abortions being "more serious" than early abortions, says Harris, the concern is allayed by the fact that "women have all sorts of compelling and legitimate reasons for choosing abortion" – particularly, she says, in second trimester abortions.
Still, for Harris, there remains the problem of abortionists "caught between pro-choice discourse that, while it reflects our values, does not accurately reflect the full extent of our experience of abortion and in fact contradicts an enormous part of it, and the anti-abortion discourse and imagery that may actually be more closely aligned to our experience but is based in values we do not share."
Harris conjectures that the needs of abortionists in this regard are not met because "frank talk like this is threatening to abortion rights." "While some of us involved in teaching abortion routinely speak to our trainees about the aspects of care I've described, we don't make a habit of speaking about it publicly. Essays like this bring the inevitable risk that comments will be misinterpreted, taken out of context and used as evidence for further abortion practice restrictions," she writes.
"We might conclude at this point that a provider who feels that abortion is violent is simply ambivalent, conflicted, is not really committed to women's abortion rights, and just shouldn't be doing this work," Harris writes. "'Pro-life' supporters may argue that the kind of stories and sentiments I've relayed spell the end of abortion – that honest speech acts regarding the reality of abortion will weaken the pro-choice movement to the point where it cannot sustain itself any longer.
However, she contests the point, arguing that, rather than weakening the argument for abortion, facing abortion with "honesty" can "be the basis for a stronger movement – one that makes it easier for providers and the teams they work with to do all abortions, especially second trimester abortions."
[Kathleen Gilbert, ANN ARBOR, MI, October 15, 2009 www.LifeSiteNews.com]