In Necessity and Sorrow: Life and Death in an Abortion Hospital

By Magda Denes
247 pp., New York, Basic Books.

Reviewed by Dexter Duggan

Editor’s note. As we approach the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we are looking back at particularly powerful stories that National Right to Life News carried in the early days. This book review appeared in a 1978 issue of NRL News. Its focus is on the hideous saline abortion technique, used commonly then, infrequently today. One of this technique’s successors is partial-birth abortion.

The book remains the most incredible description of abortion ever written — and by a pro-abortionist!

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InNecessityandSorrowGave no info, re:fetus.”

That somewhat cryptic notation in an abortion client’s hospital records could summarize the pro-abortion campaign as it has been waged in the United States and elsewhere.

Don’t give factual information about the fetus, the unborn child being destroyed.

But Dr. Magda Denes, a New York City clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, thinks the abortion dilemma can’t be dealt with truthfully unless one confronts the most distasteful facts.

She quotes the particular notation above from the record of a remorseful young woman who wrote to a New York abortion hospital–yes, an entire hospital specializing in abortion–and asked for information about her child who had been destroyed there a few months earlier. The hospital ignored this request.

Dr. Denes plainly states that she favors completely unrestricted abortion throughout the world. But she has little patience with the abortion milieu’s evasion artists and self-deluders who say, among other things, that abortion is all right as long as it’s kept within some vague limits (an early abortion is all right, but a saline abortion is unthinkable), or who refuse to face the facts of the mangled baby’s body, or who think abortion is good for some people (like your son’s girlfriend), but not others (like your own daughter).

Yet Dr. Denes seems to have at least as much ambivalence about abortion as other people whose attitudes she criticizes. She likens the abortion hospital to “a death factory” where hearts are crushed forever with one blow, but insists that the work of such factories should be funded by the state and supported by the church. She says the faces of her own two young sons were the best argument she had against obtaining an abortion herself, but she did have that abortion and dedicates this book only “to all wanted children.” She is demanding about people facing the facts, but she can’t become friends with one hospital employee specifically because that employee considers a saline abortion delivery to be “a pictorially pleasing event.”

As strange as her warring beliefs may seem, they probably aren’t highly unique in this day when women are repeatedly told that abortion is one of their most essential rights and prized freedoms, and yet their own sensitivities and sense of justice rebel against such slick assurances. A similar attitude had been voiced more than a year ago in the Village Voice by Suzanne Gordon (see February 1976 NRL News), who wrote that she hadn’t felt any qualms about abortion until psychological stresses after her own abortion began preying on her mind. Still, she considered abortion to be a part of modern liberation, and she approved of liberation.

After Dr. Denes had her own abortion several years ago as a matter of personal choice, she was drawn back to the abortion hospital in dreadful fascination to research why other women were motivated to have abortions and what they thought about them.

The result, in Necessity and Sorrow, got an important send-off when an advance excerpt was printed in the October 1976 issue of Commentary, one of the United States’ leading intellectual magazines. (The excerpt was reprinted in the December 1976 issue of NRL News.)

Some pro-lifers have been debating whether Dr. Denes’ book is more likely to help or hurt the pro-life cause.

On the one hand, she makes no secret of the terrible truths of abortion, and this should be a plus for pro-lifers in the realm of public debate. They can cite such facts when counteracting Planned Parenthood-style rhetoric that abortion is no more serious than pulling a tooth–perhaps even practically an enjoyable experience of personal fulfillment.

On the other hand, Dr. Denes, an accomplished and attractive person, is insisting that this terrible experience be easily available to any woman in the world who wants it.

Pro-lifers were wondering if the pro-abortion movement was finally coming out of the closet to be candid. Had pro-abortion campaigners decided that the Supreme Court’s decisions are finally so safe and secure that they could stop fooling around and start proclaiming grisly truths without fear the public would recoil?

Initial public reaction by pro-abortionists indicates that they resent the Denes attitude and book very much. Even though the doctor announces herself as one of them, they seem to think she’s pretending. In other words, unless Dr. Denes lavishly and uncritically praises abortion, she is pulling a crooked trick. If she presents unpleasant facts, she can’t really be abortion’s friend.

Illustrative of this reaction was an unfriendly review in the January 9, 1977, New York Times Book Review magazine by pro-abortionist Dr. Norman Zinberg of Harvard Medical School, who confessed that he felt no rapport with Dr. Denes and accused her of writing “a highly emotional anti-abortion tract” and of merely adopting “the pretense” of doing objective work.

In the same vein, a pro-abortion letter to the editor in the December 1976 issue of Commentary called on Dr. Denes “to declare more openly where she stands” because she “adroitly presents the abortion question in such a way as to provoke guilt in the reader who is in favor of legalized abortion.”

Noting that Dr. Denes had described the bodies of saline-aborted fetuses in her “final, unabashed pitch,” the displeased letter writer, Helga Weiss Tanenbaum, demanded, “How much more clearly can she call pro-abortionists murderers?”

In the same issue Dr. Denes replied, “My opinions are not `slanted,’ `veiled,’ and `hidden.’ I do think abortion is murder–of a very special and necessary sort…. I think of abortion as a very painful, very paradoxical, exclusively human dilemma embedded in our tragic condition of limited freedoms and total responsibilities. Also I know of no other species which voluntarily aborts…. Abortion is a private decision of dreadful daring….”

But Dr. Zinberg, the Times reviewer, didn’t want to hear about abortion being a necessary tragedy. Apparently thinking it should be boosted Chamber of Commerce-style, he complained that Dr. Denes hadn’t presented any cases of abortion undertaken for “enlightened self-interest,” and only two cases that he considered could show its “usefulness.”

Indeed, readers could only wonder if Dr. Zinberg had the slightest idea what he was writing about, even though he’s a Harvard medical man. In the review, he identified one of “the old superstitions” about abortion as being the idea that dismemberment is involved.

Dr. Denes knows better.

Apparently tired of hearing that, although saline abortions may be objectionable, the earlier-term abortions are very desirable, Dr. Denes includes a description of her observations in the D and C and suction chambers as well.

“’Forceps, please,” Mr. Smith slaps into his hand what look like oversized ice-cube tongs. Holtzman pushes it into the vagina and tugs. He pulls out something, which he slaps on the instrument table. There,’ he says, `A leg. You can always tell fetal size best by the extremities. Fifteen weeks is right in this case.’ I turn to Mr. Smith. `What did he say?’ `He pulled a leg off,’ Mr. Smith says. `Right here.’ He points to the instrument table, where there is a perfectly formed, slightly bent leg, about three inches long. It consists of a ripped thigh, a knee, a lower leg, a foot, and five toes. I start to shake very badly, but otherwise I feel nothing. Total shock is painless.

“`I have the rib cage now,’ Holtzman says, as he slams down another piece of the fetus. `That’s one thing you don’t want to leave behind because it acts like a ball valve and infects everything…. There, I’ve got the head now. Also a piece of the placenta.’

“I look at the instrument table where next to the leg, and next to a mess he calls the rib cage but that I cannot recognize, there lies a head. It is the smallest human head I have ever seen, but it is unmistakably part of a person.”

Yet, Dr. Denes tells us that abortion must be allowed at any time of gestation, on demand.

Obviously what other pro-abortionists distrust about her is her stark presentation.

Truly her stories are horrible, but when reviewer Zinberg fumes that she “tells horror story after horror story,” he hopes to indicate that her stories are unrepresentative of the facts of abortion, whereas they are typical.

Such adverse reaction to a book which challenges fashionable assumptions may be responsible for a dearth of reviews in major journals.

During the second week of January, a representative of Dr. Denes’ publisher, Basic Books, was contacted in New York by NRL News. He said that although the book’s publication date was October 22, 1976, and advance copies had been sent to reviewers before then, the unfavorable New York Times review a few days earlier had been the first review in a major newspaper.

Such lack of attention would seem especially noteworthy after the book had been showcased in excerpt in the influential Commentary.

The representative said that although the lack of major reviews to that point didn’t necessarily indicate something wrong, he would agree with the statement that the reviews seemed to be a long time appearing. He said reviews had appeared in some less important newspapers. He also pointed out that favorable reviews had appeared in limited-circulation professional publishing magazines, such as those read by librarians. One such magazine he cited, Library Journal, said in a November 15 review by Virginia W. Marr of the Milton Academy Library in Massachusetts:

“Psychologist Denes, `a pro-abortionist with a bad secular conscience,’ has written an extraordinary and very important book…. Her vulnerability personalizes all that she describes–the varieties of self-justification that hide the pain of patient and practitioner alike, the `conveyor belt’ approach which diminishes the individual, the doctors who hate women, the excruciating details of an actual abortion. Each example reiterates her theme: `what is done must be done, and yet what is done surely injures a higher order’…. Her revelations, starkly exposing the limiting unreality of dogmatic positions, transcend any political, religious, or social stance. Essential….”

Two recurring themes among both staff and patient are that the humanity and life of the unborn child must be put out of mind, and it simply has to be assumed that if the child were born, he or she would have an absolutely miserable life, for certain.

By the time the book was published this hospital had shut down. It flourished when New York was relatively alone in providing permissive abortion, but although Dr. Denes knows abortion has been made easily obtainable around the nation now, she apparently doesn’t realize the details of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The abortionists themselves speaking are not only a study in equivocation, but revealing as to what they expect their trade to bring to the nation. One delivers the massive understatement, “In my own case I never had any psychological adverse reaction. Except an occasional feeling that one was destroying life.” Another expects abortions to “level off” in the United States at one abortion for every full-term birth.

One of the most arresting scenes occurs when a nurse loses her wedding ring in an operating room and, nearly in tears, begins searching frantically for it in a pile of small, bloody body parts. Dr. Denes has repeatedly warned of the desensitization that abortion can cause, and yet during the search, she herself is cheering the nurse on, forgetting the larger context and thinking how terrible the small band’s loss would be.

“Hours later when the scene reasserts itself in my mind, I do not recognize myself. Is inhumanity a habit? Is indifference the result of the attrition of meaning? If so, one must watch the self like an enemy.”

The answer is suggested by a pro-lifer’s letter in the January 1977, Commentary magazine by Ira Glickstein, who writes:

“Magda Denes has written a powerful and compelling anti-abortion statement…. The parallels (with Nazi death camps) are obvious, and ironic. Otherwise viable human beings are legally placed in a non-human category, and then efficiently, rationally, and scientifically exterminated….

“We were sold abortion as a humane solution to rape, incest, and other social tragedies. We were not told that the fetus was a real human body, we were led to believe it was a formless lump of protoplasm, with no feeling, no reactions. Now, having read Dr. Denes’ vivid account, we know about the violent death trauma, hours of pain, agony, and unheard screams from our own sons and daughters drowning in a caustic salt solution. If we are human, we will hear their cries….”