Womens Health

Dr. Gosnell Is Not Me

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“Safe Abortions Save Women’s Lives!” flashes through my head whenever I see more news about the case against Dr. Kermit Gosnell of Philadelphia.

I first read the slogan on a bumper sticker on the back of a rusty Volkswagen in Maine in the early 1980s. It was only a week after an ambulance had carried off my friend from the trailer next door. She had nearly died from massive bleeding when she ended her pregnancy with a coat hanger.

I was a high school student at the time; I’d grown up Catholic. I taught Sunday school every weekend. I was taught that abortion is murder, so I expected to feel sad, angry, and horrified by my friend’s behavior. But I had a hard time condemning her for ending her pregnancy. She was only 15 years old, not equipped to be a parent. I certainly did not want her to die for having made a mistake one night with her boyfriend, or for her desperate attempt to correct her mistake. I was relieved that she was alive.

I began to question what I had learned in church about abortion and started to observe on my own what abortion means in our society.

Now, two decades later, “Safe Abortions Save Women’s Lives!” sums up why I have become a primary care doctor committed to providing abortions. I offer safe, accessible abortion care so that none of my patients must go through what my friend went through back in rural Maine.  

This sentiment also reflects the reason why so many heroic physicians have taken on the issue of abortion since the 1970s. These doctors grew tired of watching women die due to botched abortions. And so they have dedicated their careers to making sure safe abortions are accessible. Once abortion became legal, physicians were able to conduct medical research and advance techniques, as we do with all medical procedures. They could openly discuss the complicated social issues surrounding abortion in our country and work on expanding access to reproductive health care.

I now belong to a wonderful community of primary care doctors who are dedicated to improving women’s health and the treatment they receive, including abortion. We see abortion as inextricable from the full spectrum of medical care a woman might need in her lifetime. We continue to research and refine abortion care while helping to break down barriers separating women from high-quality services.

What a contrast to the Dr. Gosnell case—I was absolutely shocked by the news of an abortion provider who, if the charges prove true, has strayed so far from the principles of our field and the ethics of medicine in general. The news of his clinic’s practices horrifies me. I am sad and angry that Dr. Gosnell’s patients did not benefit from the expertise and empathy I know in the reproductive health world.

When a woman comes to me with an unintended pregnancy, I counsel her thoroughly. If she decides to continue her pregnancy, I talk about vitamins, scheduling prenatal ultrasounds and preparing her older children for the newcomer. When a woman chooses to end her pregnancy, we talk extensively about what to expect, whether she chooses to take medication in the privacy of her home, or have a procedure performed in my office. There are sometimes long discussions about her unique situation, often handholding, and always personal, safe care.

Three months ago, a patient came to my clinic in tears. She was 45-year-old single mother of three teens. She had recently fallen in love and thought she was too old to get pregnant. She got pregnant. The idea of adding another life to her struggling family was too much for her to bear. She, like me, had grown up Catholic. She was disturbed about wanting an abortion. She said she was on her way to work when she thought seriously about throwing herself under the train as it arrived.

She came to my office instead, crying, and asked me to help her end her pregnancy. “I would have killed myself if you were not here!” As I listened, she talked through the conflict between what she was raised to believe and what she believed now was the right thing to do for herself and her family.

When her pregnancy was over, she cried again, this time in relief. Then she hugged me as she left to return to her children at home. I was thankful that I had been there to provide safe care for my patient in crisis.

Dr. Gosnell’s story reminds me that too many women in this country can’t get the kind of care my colleagues and I offer. I am more dedicated than ever to making safe abortion an option for everyone. “Safe Abortion Saves Women’s Lives!”