There is a long history of stigma against abortion doctors in the medical community.
By Sarah Terzo
Abortion stigma, aimed at abortion providers, has been prevalent in the medical community for many, many years.
Traditionally, abortionists were looked down on and perceived as being bad doctors.
Historical Opposition to Abortion
In 2005, Frederick N Dyer wrote The Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion, a book with quotes from many pro-life papers and articles written by doctors from the mid-1800s to the early 20th century. In the book, he discusses the history of the early pro-life movement, which was led by doctors.
In the early 1800s, abortions before quickening (the time when a pregnant person can feel the baby move) were legal. Doctors led the push to ban them and succeeded in passing anti-abortion laws state-by-state.
I have previously written about doctors who opposed abortion in the 1800s and what their motives were.
Even when abortions were banned, however, doctors of the time believed that they were common. While estimates of the number of abortions varied widely, most doctors believed they were most common among married Protestant women who didn’t want any more children. (Catholics of the time tended to be very pro-life and seldom got abortions).
Abortion Stigma in the 19th Century
Many pro-life doctors condemned abortion providers in extremely strong terms. For example, Detroit physician Morse Stewart wrote the following in 1867:
What language can express the utter baseness of that man, whose education has been that of a physician, whose standing in society is that of a physician (a word, which should be held by every man in the profession as synonymous with honor, honesty, integrity, and an earnest, single-hearted purpose to preserve human life) what shall we say of such a man, dishonoring his profession, making it a stench in the nostrils of society, debasing his own conscience, by becoming a murderer?
Stimulated to murder by no hot and fiery passion, he breaks the Sixth commandment for what? For greed! He sells his own soul; he demoralizes all with whom he comes in contact; he sells that boon which no wealth can buy, for 30 beggarly bits of silver.
May the doom of the arch-traitor fall upon him! “Let his days be few, and let another take his office, – let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.1
Dr. Stewart, along with many other doctors of the era, believed that abortionists were motivated by greed.
The Committee on Criminal Abortion, initiated by pro-life doctors, researched the number of illegal abortions being committed and analyzed the effectiveness of anti-abortion laws. The goal of the committee was to reduce the number of illegal abortions taking place. Their 1871 report minced no words:
… [The abortionist] stands by the bedside of his victim, with poisoned cup or instrument in hand, ready to proceed to the work of destruction.
Does any compunction assail his corrupt soul, as he gazes on the field of his labors? Does he measure the extent of the foul deed he is about to commit? Or does he not fear that the uplifted hand of an all-avenging God will suddenly fall on his guilty head?
No; Judas-like, he solaces himself with the prospect of 30 pieces of silver, and this forms the climax of his aspirations!2
Abortionists Not Allowed in Medical Societies
In the late 19th century, medical societies across the country publicly condemned abortion even while some physicians secretly performed hundreds of them. William Henry Parish wrote an article in the Medical and Surgical Reporter saying the following:
The medical profession looks upon this crime as one of the most heinous, and as closely allied to infanticide.
He who is believed guilty of such a crime could never be received into membership in this or any other medical society; or if a member should so far forget his high calling to be guilty of this crime, his expulsion would quickly follow upon the presentation of adequate evidence of his guilt.3
Surveys of Doctors Do Show Support for Abortion
There were few physicians calling for unrestricted abortion in the early 20th century. Not until many years later were abortion laws challenged.
The American Medical Association is now a strong supporter of abortion. A recent study of doctors reveals that most of them believe abortion should be legal. In fact, according to this study, some doctors are afraid to take a public pro-life stand. They worry about alienating colleagues.
But abortion stigma against abortionists themselves persists. While many doctors support abortion in the abstract, some of them look down on those who actually make a career doing abortions.
A number of abortionists have spoken out about the way other doctors look down on them.
Unable to Get Admitting Privileges
In an article in the Daily Mail, late-term abortionist Susan Robinson says
If you do abortions, it is very hard to get the privilege to work in a hospital, because they don’t like abortion providers…Being an abortion provider is very stigmatized. Other doctors look down on you and think of you as like the lowest of the low.4
The Stigma Is Greater Now
In a 2012 Jezebel article, retired abortionist Robert Livingston described the chagrin of his children, who were doctors, when he spoke about writing his memoirs:
Livingston said he thought the stigma of being an abortion doctor is greater now than it was in the 1960s and that public opposition is stronger than he’s ever seen — including during the 1970s, when his office was surrounded by protestors on a daily basis… and when he broached the idea of writing an autobiography with his children, they asked him not to because they worried it would ruin their medical practices (they’re all doctors) and anger some of their anti-choice spouses.5
Being Taught to Condemn Abortionists
Another doctor, who received his medical training before Roe v. Wade, recalls what he was taught about abortionists:
I was taught that abortion was not only illegal but immoral, and that no self-respecting doctor who considered herself part of the medical community would perform an abortion…
Abortionists were “bums,” “murderers,” real “lowlifes,” and very inept physicians who could not make a living any other way. They were objects of contempt and scorn.6
While the situation doesn’t seem to be exactly the same today, if the previous quotes can be believed, the old abortion stigma hasn’t completely died out.
Over the years, other doctors have talked about abortion stigma.
Not Wanting to Be Known As an Abortionist
A man who does some abortions explains why he does not want to be known as an “abortionist”:
I hate doing [abortions], but I do them every once in a while. But the real reason we try to avoid them is that I don’t want to be known in the community as a local abortionist. I want to be known as a doctor who loves mommies and their babies.
I don’t care what is said, there is a stigma attached to doing abortions. There are political reasons not to earn the reputation as the local abortionist, I mean to be known as the physician who performed abortions whenever asked.7
The Stigma of Becoming Known as an Abortion Provider
Former abortionist turned pro-lifer Dr. Bernard Nathanson talks about the stigma and the negative responses of other doctors when he became an abortionist:
I was publicly identified with a cause which in the past had been associated with the stereotypes of failed, defrocked doctors or the filthy old women in grimy kitchens or hotel rooms. Through in the radicalism of the late ‘60s abortion was crossing over into acceptability, I felt that I was being eyed with the same circumspection as one who had come down with active TB.8
At the Fringes of Medicine
In an article in Maine Family Planning from March of 2011 which, unfortunately, has been taken down, an abortionist is quoted saying:
It is an unfortunate irony that abortion work has been cast to the fringes of medicine. Many of my colleagues, if they know at all what I do … think that abortion work is for doctors who can’t do anything else. They would rather not know about me or our patients, preferring to imagine that none of this goes on either for me or them.
This makes for what is, in many ways, the hardest part of abortion work — the isolation. It is hard to find people outside of immediate colleagues and family to share the stresses and difficulties of the work.9
An Infamous Late-Term Abortionist Speaks
Infamous third-trimester abortionist Warren Hern was interviewed for Esquire magazine. The reporter, John H. Richardson, summarizes Hern’s views:
Nothing pains him more than the disdain of other doctors. Sometimes the young ones ask to come in for an afternoon so they can learn to make a little money while their careers get started–they think it’s as simple as changing a tire. There’s no sense that this is an important operation that has to be done well, that a person’s life depends on it.
But let’s face it, abortion is the lowest-status activity in medicine. That’s why they always call their clinics Family Planning Centers or Women’s Wellness Facilities or some crap like that.10
Survey Reveals Abortion Stigma
A 1993 survey of abortionists conducted by the late Mark Crutcher of Life Dynamics, though older, gives some insights about abortion stigma. The survey found:
· 69% of abortionists say they are not respected in the medical community.
· 65% feel ostracized.
· 50% have problems retaining staff.
· 20% have been denied hospital privileges because they do abortions.
· 64% say that the non-abortion part of their practice has suffered because they do abortions.
While the stigma against abortion providers may not be as strong or as vehemently expressed among the medical community today as it was in the 19th century, it has persisted throughout the years.
1. Morse Stewart, “Criminal Abortion,” Detroit Review of Medicine and Pharmacy 2 January 1867 6 in Frederick N Dyer The Physicians’ Crusade against Abortion (Sagamore Beach, Massachusetts: Science History Publications, 2005).
2. “The Abortion Business,” Medical and Surgical Reporter 25 (October 14, 1871): 348 – 49.
3. William Henry Parish “Criminal Abortion,” Medical and Surgical Reporter 68 (April 29, 1893) 644 – 649.
4. “After Tiller: Meet the only four doctors in the U.S. who still perform third-trimester abortions despite constant threats to their lives” Daily Mail January 21, 2013
5. Katie JM Baker “Retired Doctor Says It’s Harder to Be an Abortion Provider Now Than Before Roe V. Wade Jezebel September 3, 2012
6. Rickie Solinger Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001) 49
7. Jonathan B Imber Abortion and the Private Practice of Medicine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986) 68
8. Mary Kenny Abortion: The Whole Story (London: Quartet Books, 1986) 194
9. TONY “I am an Abortion Provider” Maine Family Planning March 24, 2011
10. John H. Richardson “The last abortion doctor” Esquire September 1, 2009