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Why I Abandoned "Choice"

[an essay included in One-Eighty, published by House Studio, 2010]


I was the first feminist in my dorm. It was 1970, and there wasn’t a lot of feminism in South Carolina, noteven at the state university. I was proud to be one of the pioneers.

One of our goals was to repeal the laws against abortion. I had a bumpersticker on my car: “Don’t labor under a misconception: Legalize abortion.” A couple of my friends who had unplanned pregnancies went to New York for an abortion, at the time the closest place where it was legal. I cheered them on. Abortion was to me proof of feminist commitment, evidence that you would lay your body on the line for the cause of liberation.

Fast forward to January, 1976. I was home from grad school for winter break, and picked up my Dad’s copy of Esquire magazine. I came across an essay with an arresting title: “What I Saw at the Abortion.” It was written by Richard Selzer, a surgeon and author. In the brief 2-page essay he described how he’d asked a colleague if he could come along the next time he performed an abortion. As a right-thinking progressive, Selzer supported abortion rights, but he’d never seen a procedure and wanted a better grasp of how it was done.

It was not a typical termination of pregnancy. Most abortions take place in the first 12 weeks, but this patient was 19 weeks pregnant, in the midst of the 2nd trimester. Selzer described the woman lying on her back on the table, the gentle bulge of her pregnancy evident. The doctor injected her uterus with a hormone to cause labor contractions, and left the syringe standing upright there.

Then, Selzer wrote, “I see something other than what I expected here…it is the hub of the needle that is in the woman’s belly that has jerked. First to one side. Then to the other side. Once more it wobbles, is tugged, like a fishing line nibbled by a sunfish.”

He realized that what he was seeing was the fetus’s struggle for life. Whatever it may have lacked, it did have one thing any human can recognize: a will to live.

As Selzer continued to watch, the agitation of the syringe slowed and then stopped. It seemed he was the only person in the room aware that a death had taken place.

Selzer concluded, “Whatever else is said in abortion’s defense, the vision of that other defense will not vanish from my eyes. And it has happened that you cannot reason with me now. For what can language do against the truth of what I saw?”


The “truth of what he saw” disturbed me deeply. I felt strongly about non-violence, and opposed war and capital punishment (as I still do today). Had I made an act of violence part of the very foundation of my feminism? If so, it was in ignorance; I really had believed the line that a fetus is “just a glob of tissue.” But this was incontrovertible evidence that the fetus had a life independent of its mother.

Though shocked, I could not imagine becoming openly pro-life. Everyone who was cool was pro-choice. I knew pro-lifers only as oddballs, possibly dangerous oddballs, on the evening news.

With time I found the courage to admit my opposition to abortion. I believe that it cost me professionally, that I have lost some opportunities to write because of my pro-life paper trail. But I did what I could, and have now spoken on hundreds of college campuses about the feminist, secular argument against abortion. I have written a book on alternatives to abortion, and hundreds of articles on the injustice of abortion. I don’t think I’ve had any measurable impact. It’s still not cool to be pro-life. There’s a limited number of people who will take a stand on an unpopular cause, just because they believe it’s right. But it’s hard to think of any injustice more outrageous than violence against the most helpless human beings.

Meanwhile the numbers keep growing; in 2008 it passed the 50 million mark. Even in my most ardent pro-choice days I never dreamed the numbers would grow so high. I believe that future generations will judge us on this. It will eventually be impossible to deny that abortion is violence against the helpless. The kind of hatred leveled at slaveowners and Nazis will fall on us as well. The time to get on the right side of history is now.

By the way, they don’t use that injection abortion method that Dr. Selzer saw any more. The problem was that too often fetuses were born alive. Most were immediately suffocated or drowned, but it still caused a lot of problems. So that method was replaced with “dilation and evacuation”—the doctor reaches into the uterus with forceps and pulls the unborn apart, like pulling a drumstick off a turkey. But sometimes the ragged ends of the limbs would scratch the inside of the uterus, so “intact dilation and evacuation” was developed, in which the fetus is delivered alive, feet first, then the skull is punctured and drained. That method, also called “partial birth abortion,” caused a lot of controversy, so it’s back to the dismemberment method.


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