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Witnessing Abortion

Kathleen Reeves

Merely to be in the clinic — in the waiting room or procedure room — is not to understand the choice a woman makes.

In reporting her recent profile of LeRoy Carhart for Newsweek, Sarah Kliff tapped into her own complex emotional response to the subject of abortion. She describes her experience witnessing abortions in a Newsweek online piece, which LifeSiteNews seizes as proof that abortion is complicated and people’s reactions to it are complicated—not the anti-choice website’s usual message.

When Kliff visited LeRoy Carhart’s Nebraska clinic, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to enter the procedure room. The closest she comes is a room next to it, from which she can view the abortions through a window. Though Carhart is known for performing late-term abortions, he didn’t perform any on the day that Kliff visited.

I’ve witnessed abortions not as a journalist but as a volunteer at Planned Parenthood. I assist the doctor, scrub technician, and anesthetist with room set-up and other simple tasks during the procedure, and I support the patients before, during, and after the abortion—taking their blood pressure, encouraging them to breathe deeply if they’re upset or in pain, holding their hands.

It’s true that it’s an intense emotional experience, especially the first time you witness it. First, it’s overwhelming for someone outside the medical profession, like Sarah Kliff, and me, to be present for a surgical procedure. Second, abortion is controversial, as Kliff points out. For me, this manifested most in how I thought about the patients. What did these women have to go through to get to this clinic? Did this woman, in front of me, have a supportive mother but an absent boyfriend? Or an anti-abortion family that refused to participate, and a friend who’s driving her home?

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Kliff observes that

Abortion involves weighty choices that, depending on how you view it, involve a life, or the potential for life.

Indeed, the women I’ve seen in the clinic have in common their commitment to their choice. But this choice is the only thing that binds them; they are living very different lives. One woman may be 20 and the manager of a clothing store; the next is 32, married, with two children, and just beginning graduate school. It’s because of this that I can’t identify with what Kliff says about her anxiety before visiting the clinic:

Would I . . .Encounter women whose choices troubled me? Whom I disagreed with? I was uneasy about coming in such close contact with such substantial decisions.

It’s hard to imagine that Kliff would know enough about a woman to understand, and thus be troubled by, her choice, even after interviewing her. To be in the clinic—in the waiting room or procedure room—is not to understand the choice a woman makes. And to understand the choice one woman makes, even if you could, is not to understand the choice any other woman makes.

To be fair, Kliff doesn’t second-guess any of the women she ends up meeting. She’s left with a feeling of “discomfort,” to which she’s entitled. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, after my first day at Planned Parenthood. I think it’s wise that Kliff, after writing about abortion for years, has finally seen the procedure. If she’d like to further explore her emotional reaction to it, I’m sure her local Planned Parenthood would be glad to have her help.