How can we reach the hearts of pregnant women who are contemplating abortion? That is a difficult task, particularly since there is plenty of proof that women are often forced into having abortions by other people. Feminist Frederica Mathews-Green’s famous quote (which she cites in Real Choices: Listening to Women, Looking for Alternatives to Abortion) demonstrates the lie that abortion is all about liberating women:
No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice-cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.
It is relatively easy to feel compassion for a pregnant woman who feels trapped by an unfaithful boyfriend, college debt, parental disapproval, a serious medical condition, an abusive spouse, or any one of a hundred other real-life personal crises. Volunteers at pregnancy care centers have found many practical ways to help women in such circumstances. But it is more difficult for those of us who oppose abortion to know how to reach out to the men and women who actually perform and provide abortions. Surely it is impossible for those who are so diametrically opposed to us to ever understand and respect the human dignity of unborn children.
Amazingly, it’s not impossible at all. Ever since the legalization of abortion in this country, there has been a steady stream of abortion providers making a complete conversion of their lives and becoming ardent promoters of life. Take, for example, Dr. Bernard Nathanson (1926-2011).
Nathanson was an OB/GYN in New York City who helped found NARAL (National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, as it was known at the time). He advocated for the end of prohibitions against elective abortions, and he personally performed more than 5,000 abortions during his career.
But the emerging technology of ultrasound changed everything. In 1973, he watched an unborn child try to squirm away from the instruments he was using as he attempted to kill that child during an abortion. Shocked, he reduced the number of abortions he performed, and then he stopped completely in 1979. He spent the rest of his life trying to educate people about the reality of abortion, and the videos he produced awakened many others to the graphic nature of abortion and the humanity of the unborn child.
Nathanson also pointed out a common reason why so many doctors decide to perform abortions in the first place: money. Performing abortions on the side allows young doctors to make a lot of money to pay off their immense college debt. The secrecy surrounding most abortion decisions means that those doctors are rarely bothered by malpractice claims or follow-up care of those patients.
Some doctors, like Dr. Nathanson, began to perform abortions because they thought they were helping women. Other doctors, also like Dr. Nathanson, began to perform abortions after their own personal decisions to abort. That is, they began providing abortions to other women to justify the fact that they had aborted their own children.
Today, an internet search of “former abortionist” will turn up page after page of testimonies, videos, and essays in which women and men who used to regularly perform abortions now express their deep regret over ever being involved in such a practice. Interestingly, there are no web sites devoted to doctors explaining how they are sorry they ever performed an appendectomy or being ashamed that they made too much money treating allergies; something about participating in an abortion changes people.
Perhaps the most famous recent convert from abortion provider to pro-life supporter is Abby Johnson. Johnson was a highly successful director of a Planned Parenthood facility until she unexpectedly participated in an actual abortion. The experience turned her life upside down. Her biography and her conversion were described in the book and film Unplanned, and she formed a group called And Then There Were None to “help people in the abortion industry leave their jobs and rediscover the peace and joy they’ve been missing.”
Is there a common denominator among these stories of abortion providers becoming abortion opponents? To a Catholic, the answer is inescapable: God. Converting hearts, revealing truth, healing brokenness: those are the signs of God’s grace working in a soul. After the influence of the Holy Spirit, it is clear that advances in medical technology continue to open eyes to the truth about abortion. It is no accident that abortion providers will fight tooth and nail to avoid letting a pregnant woman see the ultrasound image of the child being aborted; those who work in an abortion facility, on the other hand, have to face the grim reality of abortion every day.
But there is one other common denominator in these conversions: that which is generally called “kindness” on a natural level and which Christians call “charity”. St. Thomas Aquinas would call it “willing the good of the other”, and how can we as Catholics want anything other than good for those involved in abortion? Rather than sending women away with a “quick fix” that often leads to broken relationships, tears, PTSD, and other sorrows, we want abortion providers to know the joy of helping a woman become a mother.
Nathanson became pro-life before he became a believer in God and then became a Catholic. Those most interested in listening to him speak about his pro-life conversion at the beginning were religious believers, which surely helped open his heart to faith. Abby Johnson’s conversion story, as described in Unplanned, revolves around the kindness shown to her by pro-lifers, who took the time to be genuinely friendly toward a woman working in an abortion clinic. Those caring people who reached out to Johnson were members of the 40 Days for Life campaign, and the 40 Days for Life campaign which started in 2007 has since spread all over the world, saving thousands of unborn children’s lives. These campaigns – or rather, the volunteers who have committed to simply show up and pray while standing on a sidewalk over a forty-day period – have also gently led more than 200 abortion workers, just like Johnson, to quit their jobs.
Throughout Respect Life month in October and the upcoming 40 Days for Life campaign (September 22-October 31), we can pray for pregnant women and their unborn children. But we can also pray for the people working inside that clinic to be moved to conversion over the truth about the dignity of life.
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