By John Klar
The tension over fetal definition is growing more pronounced in America, as witnessed in Vermont’s current political wrangling over two pieces of legislation: an extremely permissive abortion bill, H.57, and Proposition 5, the first effort to amend a state constitution to protect abortions (which recently passed the Vermont Senate, 28-2). Vermont is one of a handful of U.S. states that permit purely elective abortions until delivery: these laws seek to fortify that dubious distinction.
In many states (and under federal law: Unborn Victims of Violence Act 2004) a fetus is specifically recognized as a person entitled to protection under the criminal law. Currently, some 38 states have such fetal homicide laws. In others, including Vermont, there is no such protection: The killer of an unborn child, even if the crime is committed minutes prior to delivery, cannot be charged for homicide for that baby.
But the Vermont Legislature would not only deny recognition of fetal personhood for the mother who loses her child in utero because of another’s criminality. It also ignores the impact on medical professionals of increasing the availability of abortion procedures.
As one 11th Circuit Court judge recently observed: “Dismemberment abortions exact emotional and psychological harm on some who participate in the procedure or those who are present during it…. [and] the state has an actual and substantial interest in lessening, as much as it can, the gruesomeness and brutality of dismemberment abortions.”
Our society has struggled with capital punishment, where concerns over the mental health of executioners have mandated elaborate methods to spare individuals the personal responsibility for legally killing another. There is no such shield for those who perform or witness abortions — including late-term abortions.
In his book The Hand of God, Dr. Bernard Nathanson (who personally performed more than 15,000 abortions in New York City) states that “…the deliberate destruction of a living, demonstrably human being, is a practice anathema to all but the most morally insouciant physicians, and can justifiably be described as bearing low prestige in the medical community.”
But in addition to lost prestige, almost all those involved in abortion ‘procedures’ suffer emotionally and psychologically.
A 1974 study (Such-Baer) reported that “almost all professionals involved in abortion work, reacted with more or less negative feelings….All emotional reactions were unanimously extremely negative.” Those who had contact with fetal remains experienced ‘more negative feelings’ than those who did not, but ‘their response varied little.’
In 1978, doctors openly confronted this unavoidable conflict:
“No one who has not performed this procedure, can know what it is like, or what it means. But having performed it, we are bewildered by the possibilities of interpretation. We have reached a point in this particular technology where there is no denial of an act of destruction by the operator. It is before one’s eyes. The sensations of dismemberment flow through the forceps like an electric current”
Advances in technology have only increased our awareness. A January 2015 article in the Journal of Depression & Anxiety (penned by Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Medical Director of Employee Behavioral Health) notes that
“The psychological consequences of performing abortion may include obsession about it, depression, fatigue, anger, lowered self-esteem, and identity conflicts….Other stress factors ‘thinking that the aborted fetus deserved to live’ and ‘difficulty in controlling emotions during abortion care’ were associated with compassion fatigue. These findings indicate that providing abortion services is a highly distressing experience for nurses and midwives…. At issue, ultimately, is whether elective abortion is an appropriate medical intervention compatible with the medical commitment to preserving life and health…. In contrast to other countries with legalized elective abortion, in the United States it is an “industry” in its own right.
Vermont should heighten its protection of healthcare workers, given that it is one of only a very few states that permit physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and nurse midwives to perform abortions. Instead, it is seeking to amend its state constitution to preserve existing (elective, third-trimester) abortion liberties, add abortion clinics, and pressure existing hospitals to perform abortions.
American hospitals provide ‘maternity wards,’ where special efforts are made to create assuring, nurturing environments. Abortion clinics, reflecting the distasteful reality of the procedure for both women and practitioners, are largely located in discrete facilities separate from hospitals.
Recent demands by some for greater abortion ‘access’ in Vermont’s hospitals callously seek to combine these incompatible disciplines — a spokeswoman for a St. Johnsbury, Vermont hospital reduced it simply: “It’s legal, so why wouldn’t we offer it?”
Maternity wards are (rightly) filled with people who celebrate birth, and life. Shall the Infanticide Ward be placed next door? Shall staff dine and chat together? Can two stranger bedfellows be imagined than a woman at hospital to deliver a child, roomed with another who is there to abort hers? Let’s see how they coexist.
This image may seem inflammatory — but medical professionals cannot divorce the two procedures as simply as women can be moved to separate rooms. The two images must coexist in the minds of doctors and nurses devoted to helping others — they don’t have a right to choose.
Conflicting views of the fetus collide, the closer the procedure of abortion is juxtaposed to the miracle of birth. We must end our societal schism of treating that thing in the womb as both precious gift and pesky, unwanted nothingness. But also at issue is what rights health professionals possess to be disassociated from such procedures, and what free speech rights they enjoy when criticizing the institutions that employ them, or when talking to patients about the nature of that unborn baby.
Because healthcare workers are human too.
John Klar is an attorney and farmer residing in Brookfield, and pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield.