Compassionate Abortion?

Let me show you a better way.

By Donna Harrison

A few years ago, a friend shared with me that her pastor and his wife were expecting a baby, a blessing that the whole church had celebrated. Then, at an ultrasound scan, the baby was diagnosed with a defect. As an obstetrician, I knew that surgery could easily correct the problem and would not cause suffering for the baby. I had seen children thrive under much tougher medical circumstances. Yet the physician told the parents that the baby was “incompatible with life” and that continuing the pregnancy would cause them and the baby to suffer. After praying, the pastor and his wife concluded that obtaining an abortion would spare the baby and themselves from further pain. To them, it was the compassionate option.

The story has many troubling aspects, not least of which is the parents’ decision based on inaccurate information about the child’s chance of surviving and thriving. But what troubles me most is that I encounter fellow Lutherans who have bought the narrative that it is better for babies with physical imperfections to be aborted rather than embraced and loved for whatever time the Lord allows them to live. I offer four problems with that mindset.

First, we all have imperfections. What degree of physical or genetic imperfection is sufficient to warrant death? Some say “a severe defect.” But severity varies from person to person. I knew a Lutheran ICU nurse who adopted three “severely” handicapped children who had been labeled as “incompatible with life.” She raised them until they died — between 5 and 20 years. These children’s limitations never stood in the way of her love for them. Nothing in Scripture tells us to kill our physically or genetically limited neighbors. Rather, even though our culture might consider the man lying beaten and near death on the road to Jericho to have a life-limiting condition, the Good Samaritan spared no expense in caring for him.

Second, we need to reflect on the concept of “relieving the child’s suffering.” We know from surgeries performed on children in the womb that they exhibit the same kind of responses to pain that we do. They withdraw from sharp objects touching them; they show an increase in heart rate and stress hormones. When doctors operate on patients in utero, they give them anesthesia that is separate from their mom’s. Unborn children feel pain from at least 12 weeks’ gestation. However, children in the womb with “life-limiting” diagnoses do not exhibit the normal signs of pain from those illnesses. In fact, the womb is the most comfortable place for them, as the mother provides for all the baby’s bodily needs. Cutting short these children’s lives to end their suffering makes no sense. In fact, performing an abortion causes intense suffering for the child. In this case, the real driver for abortion seems to be the assumption that it will end the psychological suffering of the parents rather than compassion for the child.

This leads to the third point: Aborting pregnancies with fatal diagnoses does not result in less suffering for parents. Studies comparing the outcomes of aborting such pregnancies versus carrying them to term using a service called perinatal hospice have found that parents who choose to carry the baby to term suffer less complicated grief and have less regret than parents who abort. In fact, overall, women who abort unplanned pregnancies have a greater risk of suicide, drug abuse and major depression than women who carry those pregnancies to birth.

Parents who are encouraged to abort their child with a “life-limiting” diagnosis are being told that this child is an “it,” a disposable clump of cells. But, in reality, women bond to the children in their wombs and grieve their loss. When a woman decides to end her child’s little life, it compounds and complicates grief. In contrast, perinatal hospice acknowledges that the parents of a child with a “life-limiting” diagnosis are parents. And this child in the womb is a son or daughter, a grandson or granddaughter, a brother or sister — a human being in God-given relationships with family members who love them. Giving birth to these little ones also gives extended family members the opportunity to acknowledge that relationship and grieve that tiny life. Why would we cut that life short?

The fourth point: What if the diagnosis was wrong? I had a son with a fatal congenital heart defect; he died at age two and a half. With my next pregnancy, the prenatal ultrasound showed that my second son had the same diagnosis. Two cardiac ultrasounds confirmed that he would share the fate of my first. Needless to say, the pregnancy was difficult. However, when he was born, he did not in fact have the fatal defect. Medicine is not perfect, yet we make life-ending decisions based on imperfect information. Am I against prenatal testing? No. But we must understand that no test is perfect. And perhaps we should recognize that God has given this child as a chance to show the beauty of this human being for as long as it pleases Him to share that baby’s life with us.

This view of all human life as a gift leads us as Lutherans to treat those in the womb as our tiniest neighbors. When we face difficult situations that call for us to lay down our lives for our neighbors, we are strengthened by seeing the meaning behind the suffering that we are asked to bear for one another. That is why killing our neighbor to avoid suffering has no place in Lutheran theology. It is why, for the last 2,000 years, the Christian church has consistently opposed abortion.

Bearing suffering is undeniably a part of living in Christian community. And there are certainly times when pregnancy involves suffering. To the secular world steeped in self-idolatry, suffering for one’s neighbor seems nonsensical. They often see pregnancy as a disease and abortion as its cure. However, we suffer as part of the love we show to our neighbor. God has given each mother a little neighbor, chosen specifically for her, formed from her body. The suffering involved in loving this neighbor is part of God’s good and gracious will for our lives.

As a physician, I have seen women heroically embrace the difficulties of pregnancy and then experience great joy at their children’s births. I have also treated situations where the mom’s life is threatened by her pregnancy. Sometimes — rarely — it is necessary to separate the mom and the baby to save the mother’s life. Most of these situations happen at gestational ages where the baby can survive the separation. But even more rarely, they occur at gestational ages where the baby cannot survive. In those tragic situations, physicians must still separate the mom and baby — otherwise, both will die. But good doctors understand that they must give parents a chance to hold their baby, whether alive or dead, and give them time to grieve. To do this, we separate in a way that maximizes chances of the baby’s body remaining intact. These separations are not done at abortion clinics. Abortion clinics cannot take care of mothers in life-threatening situations. Abortion clinics are designed to end healthy pregnancies for nonmedical reasons. In general, abortion procedures, especially after 14 weeks, produce baby pieces, not an intact, recognizable baby, and thus deny parents the ability to hold and grieve their child.

Another common view on abortion is that denying women elective abortions will harm their mental health. Popular media frames abortion bans as forcing a woman to give birth and claims that simply carrying an unplanned pregnancy to term will cause psychological pain and trauma. But the scientific literature shows the opposite. Abortion advocates primarily quote the Turnaway Study, which analyzes outcomes for women who sought abortions but were denied by the clinic. Ironically, this study shows that within five years, these women’s mental health was the same as that of women who obtained abortions. Furthermore, several other studies find the opposite of what the media claims: obtaining abortions in fact harms women’s mental health. From 1993 to 2018, at least 75 studies examined the link between abortion and mental health. Two-thirds of those studies showed a correlation between abortion and adverse mental health outcomes. Studies show abortion significantly increases the risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal behavior when compared to women with unintended pregnancies who choose to carry the baby to birth. A Finnish study found that women were six times more likely to commit suicide after abortion when compared to women who gave birth. Most social scientist scholars agree that at least 20–30% of women who have an abortion suffer serious, prolonged negative psychological consequences. Women deserve better than the psychological damage caused by abortion.

As a physician, I have also been astounded at the perversity of pro-abortion medical professional organizations sowing confusion about what abortion is and what abortion bans forbid. For purposes of state laws, abortions are defined as procedures done or drugs administered with the intent to kill a living human being in the womb. That’s it. This is critically important to understand because it explains what is not an abortion. The treatment of a miscarriage is not an abortion because the baby has already died. Separating the mom and the baby when the mom’s life is threatened is not an abortion, and that includes treatment of ectopic pregnancies. OB-GYN doctors should know this. They are trained for years in residency to recognize and act when there is a life-threatening situation. If your doctor is confused about what a life-threatening situation is, that reveals a problem with the doctor, not the law.

One last common pro-abortion claim worth exploring is that abortion bans will increase maternal mortality. The fact is, however, that hundreds of pro-life hospitals around the country have an excellent track record on maternal health. Ninety-three percent of OB-GYN doctors do not perform abortions in their practice yet give excellent care. And the international data from countries that have enacted abortion bans in recent decades demonstrate that such laws do not increase maternal mortality. Chile’s 1989 abortion ban did not affect the steady decline of its maternal mortality rate, which today is the lowest in South America. In fact, the nations with some of the world’s best maternal mortality statistics, Malta and Poland, have abortion bans in place. Abortion bans do not inherently worsen maternal mortality.

The meaning of words is important. We must combat the attack of serpents who sow fear and confusion; we must offer instead a clear understanding of what abortion is and is not. Do not be deceived by accusations that we lack compassion or that we are forbidding women from getting life-saving treatment. Neither is true. Elective abortion is never life-saving treatment.

I write with compassion for those who have been and are being deceived into supporting the killing of human beings in the womb for no medical reason but out of a misguided belief that somehow it helps women. Nothing could be further from the truth. Elective abortion is not and never has been medical care. Pro-life states in the USA only ban elective abortion — not life-saving medical care and not treatment of miscarriages. I hope that as Lutheran brothers and sisters we can exercise our authority as citizens to stand up for the least of these human beings, whose lives are precious in God’s eyes.

This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of The Lutheran Witness.

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5 thoughts on “Compassionate Abortion?”

  1. Thank you, Donna, for sharing your insights here. Today, Jan 20, there is the 50th annual March for Life event in Washington D.C., which I have been watching on Newsmax. It is so encouraging to see many young men and women, as well as older folks, at this pro-life celebration. It is something that will not be covered by the “death cult” of pro-abortion mainstream media voices who advocate for unrestricted infanticide. I pray that this movement for life grows more steadily, regardless of permissive laws, and that the hearts and minds of Americans will reject abortion across the land. Soli Deo Gloria

  2. Thank you, Donna, for your thoughtful and informative article. The issue of abortion should be a rallying point for American Christians everywhere, but sadly it is not. They say Americans are divided about abortion, but how can Christians be divided on the sanctity of life? As I see commercials on TV for the Shriner’s Children’s hospital, I see the smiling faces of beautiful children, each one born with an imperfection, with frail skeletons, and limbs missing, birth defects, and yet….they are loved, and they love back. The Lord loves His children. And consider that millions of American children since Roe were destroyed in the womb, or left to die on a stainless steel table in some inner city clinic. It should grieve us deeply, as it grieves the Lord, how segments of the population find the unborn worthy of death, despised because they are inconvenient and unwanted. If there is a cause worth supporting and defending, it is the maligned and hated pro-life movement. I pray that in 2023, more of our fellow Lutherans, and Christians everywhere, will make it a point to stand for life, and that includes regular monetary donations to pro-life groups and organizations supporting unwed mothers. We must act. We must act now. Soli Deo Gloria

  3. Thank you very much for this worthwhile information and the truth that the abortion industry does not want persons to hear or read.

  4. This is the the most powerful written word on this subject I have ever read. I am the director of the Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center in Washington DC and we see the pain women and men face after abotions – abortions for any reason. Since I cannot speak for every person who has had an abortion, I cannot state that everyone has moments of regret of suffering because of their abortion. However, I can tell you that many have needed healing
    and I am grateful that we have a strong post abortion healing ministry. We will be incorporating this article into our client advocate training. It states the issue clearly and concisely.

  5. Bravo!

    From a retired L&D nurse who is repulsed by the lies ~ especially from the professionals who know the truth and refuse to tell it.

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