Attitudes towards abortion have not changed significantly since the landmark Supreme Court ruling declaring a constitutional right to an abortion. Some people still feel there is no justification ever for abortion, which they regard as the killing of another human being. This includes some people who have themselves had an abortion. A majority feels that it should be permitted, at least under dire circumstances, such as when the pregnancy is the product of rape or incest, or when the mother’s life is threatened by the pregnancy. There is, of course, a religious background to this debate. Some religions forbid abortion, others forbid it after quickening, usually in the fifth month of the pregnancy. Historically, attitudes toward abortion have varied from culture to culture. Even infanticide was encouraged at various times. Certainly, abortion in one form or another has taken place throughout recorded history. I know that there is nothing I can say that will change anyone’s mind about this issue, one way or the other; but I think one doctor’s experiences with abortion might be interesting to someone reading this blog.
As a psychiatrist, I have been asked to provide consultation to women considering an abortion. Most women who contemplate an abortion do not feel there is reason to consult a psychiatrist, so this smaller group may not be representative. Still, I have found it appropriate in these situations, each time, to recommend to the woman that she do what she thinks is right. Invariably, there is pressure being applied on her by family and others to have an abortion or not to have an abortion. When the woman accedes to these pressures, she is likely to regret it later on. I knew someone whose only pregnancy was aborted, under extreme pressure from her mother, and she regarded this decision as the central tragedy of her life. There are others who plainly feel their life was blighted by having a child prematurely; and they resent those who insisted on their giving birth. It is in the nature of a mother-child relationship that these mothers come to want that child, whom they have loved since birth, but they recognize still that they, and sometimes it seems to them, their child would have been better off if that child had not been born.
I don’t remember having an opinion about abortion when I was a young man. It was a time when abortion was illegal; in fact, in some states contraception was illegal. If I heard that a particular young woman had had an abortion, I suppose I had the vague feeling that she was probably promiscuous. Medical students don’t necessarily know a lot about sex, or about people in general, for that matter. Later on, however, I had a few experiences which formed my opinion about this matter.
When I was an interne and on call to the emergency room, a young woman came in bleeding from her vagina with the absurd story that she had sat on a soda bottle. It turned out she had almost amputated her cervix in a misguided attempt to abort her pregnancy. She soon went into shock. Her life was saved only by the heroic efforts of a team of gynecologists and other physicians. She was still pregnant.
When I was a child fellow in psychiatry, I had to help take care of a terribly crippled child. He was mentally ill, mentally retarded and severely neurologically disturbed. He could walk with difficulty, but he couldn’t talk. His mother had tried to end her pregnancy with him with quinine, an abortifacient. She didn’t cause an abortion, but she did terrible harm to him. Now, taking care of him was a full-time job. She had no time to have other children. This child’s birth prevented the birth of all the other children she had intended to have.
Also, when I was a resident, one of my teachers had a terrible experience which could not happen now. He gave birth to three Tay-sachs children in a row! Tay-sachs is a disease, mostly of Jews, in which a child is born looking healthy and then during the first years of life slowly develops neurological defects and slowly dies. These children are doomed. And, of course, the parents are doomed to watch them die. For each set of genetically vulnerable parents, the chance of such a birth each time is one in four. The chance of three such children in a row is one in 64! There is a test now that can diagnose this disease early in pregnancy. Then the child can, and, I think, always will be, aborted. A few months later there is the chance to get pregnant again with a normal child. Whether or not a Down’s baby should be aborted in utero is a matter of some controversy.
So, guess how I feel about abortion. (c) Fredric Neuman M.D.