The horror of abortion absolutism
Here in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz and the legislature just enshrined legal abortion for any reason and at any time during pregnancy. It mirrors exactly the position championed by Warren Hern, the notorious practitioner of late abortion in Colorado. Hern, who wrote an influential abortion textbook, has performed late abortions for some 50 years.
In a recent profile by Elaine Godfrey for The Atlantic (aptly titled “The Abortion Absolutist”), Hern speaks openly about his abortion practice. He does abortions through about 32 weeks, usually (but with some exceptions) avoiding abortions after that point only because of the serious dangers they pose to women.
“Hern is reluctant to acknowledge any limit, any red line,” writes Godfrey. “He takes the woman’s-choice argument to its logical conclusion.” He’s even done a couple sex-selective abortions—abortions performed solely because the parents did not like the sex of their child. Indeed, for Hern, “the reason doesn’t really matter.”
This is unlimited abortion. This is current Minnesota law. And if Godfrey’s article shows anything, it’s that the case for such absolutism is extraordinarily weak.
Many abortion defenders, for instance, say there shouldn’t be laws limiting late abortions because most of them happen in grave medical situations. Of course, even if that were true, it’s no reason to allow elective procedures as well. But is it true?
Godfrey talked to several of Hern’s clients who had chosen abortion (one at 35 weeks) after their children were diagnosed with health problems or disabilities. Some described this killing as “euthanasia” and “a kind of mercy killing,” Godfrey says. Yet Hern himself, she explains, “estimates that at least half, and sometimes more, of the women who come to the clinic do not have these diagnoses.”
Hern does destroy many sick and disabled unborn humans. But most who die in his clinic were healthy until they got there.
Other evidence, too, makes clear that a majority of later abortions are purely elective. “Data suggest that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment,” notes a study published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. Some of the best evidence comes from Arizona, where the state has collected data on health reasons for abortion at different stages of pregnancy (most states don’t parse data in that way). The Arizona data show that somewhere around 80 percent of abortions at 21 weeks or later are not related to health at all (whether fetal health or maternal health).
For Hern, as for many others, the real reason for absolutism isn’t health concerns or hard cases. It’s autonomy. It’s about “a woman’s willingness,” Godfrey explains. A woman and her wishes are “virtually the only thing that matters.”
Missing from that simplistic equation, of course, is the value of the human being in utero—who, in the case of late abortion, can feel excruciating pain and even live outside the womb—and the relationship of dependency between parent and child. A pregnant woman’s right to bodily autonomy is important. But it is not a right to attack or destroy the body of her vulnerable offspring. Just as bodily autonomy plainly does not encompass a right to harm an unborn child by taking drugs that cause birth defects, so it does not encompass a right to kill that child.
Hern knows what abortion is better than anyone. He performs his late abortions by inserting a lethal injection of the drug digoxin into the unborn human’s heart. He later delivers the dead child either whole or in pieces by dismembering her.
This killing “sometimes got to him,” Godfrey says. “He … needed time to process how the dead fetus looked, how removing it felt. Sometimes he’d sit in his office and think, What am I doing?” Once, Hern removed a child whose heart was still beating. “For a long while after,” writes Godfrey, “a vision of that fetus would wake Hern from sleep. He could see it in his mind, the inches-long body and its heart: beating, beating, beating.”
But Hern told himself that this psychological toll—this horror—was necessary for his work. And eventually his conscience numbed and the nightmares went away.
Many others have taken a different course when confronted with the reality of abortion. Dr. Anthony Levatino, like Hern, practiced abortion for a living. Then, one day, his daughter died in a traffic accident. When he went back to work to perform a typical D & E (dismemberment) second-trimester abortion, something was very different about his experience:
I started that abortion and I took that sopher clamp and I literally ripped out an arm or a leg and I just stared at it in the clamp. And I got sick. … For the first time in my life, after all those years, all those abortions, I really looked, I mean I really looked at that pile of goo on the side of the table [where the body parts are collected] that used to be somebody’s son or daughter and that’s all I could see.
Dr. Levatino quit doing abortions because he finally saw unborn children for who they are. They are sons and daughters. They are what we are.
Abortion absolutism can only persist as long as we don’t really look.
This article appears in the June 2023 issue of NRL News.