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Rethinking Abortion — Two Unexpected Witnesses

Looking across the moral landscape of the last half-century, one issue looms larger than all others — abortion. Considered from a historical perspective, the intensity and duration of the abortion debate came as something of a surprise. Handing down its infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, the majority of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court declared the abortion question settled and closed. They were wrong.

Almost four decades after Roe v. Wade, Americans are still torn over the issue of abortion. Indeed, the intensity of the abortion debate in 2009 exceeds that of 1973. The controversy over abortion is not only unsettled and unresolved — it is still developing before our eyes. To the great consternation of abortion-rights proponents, Americans have not accepted abortion on demand as a permanent reality. As a nation, we have debated any number of issues beyond abortion in recent years, but abortion remains the controversy that is most central, unavoidable, and deeply personal.

The personal dimension of the abortion controversy came to light this week from two unexpected witnesses. The first is Sarah Kliff, a reporter for Newsweek magazine. In a very personal column, Kliff describes her experience visiting Omaha, Nebraska and the abortion clinic of Dr. LeRoy Carhart, now perhaps the nation’s sole specialist in late-trimester abortions. As Kliff writes, her experience covering abortion for the magazine over the past two years has led her into contact and conversation with a range of persons on both sides of the abortion debate. She recognizes that, “both sides feel abortion is an issue worth waging war over.”

Given her journalistic experience, Kliff describes herself as “well-versed in abortion policy, the pro-choice and pro-life arguments, the latest legislation.” Her next sentence delivers the surprise: “But I’d never actually seen an abortion; I’d never watched the procedure that activists vehemently defend or deplore.”

But that is exactly what happened when Kliff went to Omaha to research her article on Dr. Carhart. Even as she anticipated observing the abortion, Kliff confessed to hesitancy and reluctance. She observed a first-trimester abortion, even though Dr. Carhart does perform late-term abortions. Why was she so ambivalent?

In her words:

Why was I reluctant to watch? To be fair, I’d never observed a surgery and knew myself to frequently flinch at ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ But abortion isn’t like the complex, bloody operations you see on television: medically speaking, it’s a simple and common procedure. About 1.2 million were performed in 2005, the same, numberwise, as outpatient cancer surgeries. I was nervous, I think, to watch something so controversial; no one protests outside cancer clinics. I didn’t know how I’d react. Would I find the surgery repulsive? Encounter women whose choices troubled me? Whom I disagreed with? I was uneasy about coming in such close contact with such substantial decisions.

Observing the abortion, Kliff writes of seeing a woman prepared for the procedure and then of the suction tube that was inserted within her. Her report is both chilling and honest. “Carhart used a suction tube to empty the contents of the uterus; it took no longer than three minutes. The suction machine made a slight rumbling sound, a pinkish fluid flowed through the tube, and, faster than I’d expected, it was over.”

As Kliff recounts, she felt no physical discomfort observing the procedure. Nevertheless, she did experience a very strong emotional reaction. After describing this emotional reaction and her encounters with patients in the abortion clinic, Kliff tells of returning home only to discover that her friends who supported abortion rights “bristled slightly when I told them where I’d been and what I’d watched.”

In a profound statement, Sarah Kliff acknowledges that Americans just do not talk about abortion as they talk about other surgical or medical procedures. “Abortion may be a simple procedure medically,” she explains, “but it is not cancer surgery.”

Sarah Kliff does not condemn abortion in her article and she does not articulate a pro-life understanding of the abortion issue. Indeed, she speaks of abortion as involving a weighty choice that, “depending on how you view it, involves a life, or the potential for life.” This is a very weak way of describing the moral question of abortion, but it is at least a start. Sarah Kliff’s honest reflections on her experience of observing an abortion are, perhaps more than she knows or recognizes, a witness to the horror of abortion. Her description of “pinkish fluid” flowing through the suction tube is almost impossible to force out of one’s mind.

Another unexpected witness this week is actress Kourtney Kardashian. Her recently announced unplanned pregnancy became part of Hollywood’s scandal and publicity circus. But what caught the attention of the media this week was her decision to keep the baby and the straightforward logic behind her decision.

Kardashian has not adopted a pro-life position on the abortion question. Indeed, she told People magazine: “I do think every woman should have the right to do what they want, but I don’t think it’s talked through enough.” The actress told of many friends who just assured her that abortion was the easy way out. “Like it’s not a big deal,” the actress recalled.

Interestingly, Kardashian’s decision to keep her baby was at least partially prompted by her experience of reading the testimonies of women who regretted their abortions. “I looked online, and I was sitting on the bed hysterically crying, reading these stories of people who felt so guilty for having an abortion,” she explained.

“I was just sitting there crying, thinking, ‘I can’t do that,’ . . .  And I felt in my body, this is meant to be. God does things for a reason, and I just felt like it was the right thing that was happening in my life.”

As she thought about her decision, Kardashian concluded that “all the reasons why I wouldn’t keep the baby were so selfish.” She also received encouragement from her doctor. “My doctor told me there is nothing you will ever regret about having the baby, but he was like, ‘You may regret not having the baby.’  And I was like: That is so true.”

The Culture of Death looms as a massive threat, but its foundations are crumbling. Unexpected witnesses such as Sarah Kliff and Kourtney Kardashian help us to see how moral insight can emerge from unexpected experiences, reflections, and witnesses. Some of the most profound witnesses to the horror of abortion and the sanctity of human life do not even know that they are so. The evil of abortion cannot be hidden once it is seen, and a voice for life cannot be forgotten once it is heard.