by Grattan Brown, STD and Matthew Harrison, MD
When the US Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade permitted elective abortion in 1973, most medical professionals continued to treat medical complications in pregnancy but did not expand their services to include elective abortion. During the decades governed by Roe, some of those professionals emerged as pro-life doctors, nurses, and midwives, committed to practicing medicine without the ethical and practical distortions of a Roe-shaped profession.
Their stories deserve an audience. Truth be told, it is rare that they even have to perform a procedure that ends the life of the child in order to save the life of the mother. They strive to treat and save both patients and are usually successful.
In the following story, Matthew P. Harrison, MD describes how he cared for a frightened young woman who regretted starting an abortion. His effort taught him the care of the whole woman, body and soul, the right risks to accept, and the Roe-shaped distortions about care and risk that remain in the profession.
Here is Dr. Harrison’s story in his own words.
I was working the evening shift at the hospital, admitting patients that came into the emergency department who were too sick to go home. I received a phone call from some sidewalk counselors who were assisting a pregnant mother who was desperate for help.
She was almost 20 weeks along and had gone in for an abortion. The doctors had placed laminaria into her cervix in preparation for an upcoming surgical abortion. Laminaria are dehydrated seaweed sticks that swell over the course of several days as they absorb vaginal fluids and dilate the cervix enough for instruments to be inserted. Sometimes placing the laminaria alone will rupture the amniotic sac and produce infection.
This mother was regretting her decision for abortion, so she reached out to the counselors for help. I wasn’t sure of the possibilities and needed to see her for evaluation. The counselors sent her to the emergency department where I was working, and I told the emergency room doctors that I would see her. I knew that emergency room doctors might tell her it was too late and that she would need to complete the abortion.
I saw her in the emergency department. She was scared and anxious. I reassured her and got a nurse for a pelvic exam. When I examined her I noticed that she had the laminaria exiting her cervix and clear signs that an infection was starting. I did an ultrasound and saw that there was plenty of amniotic fluid around the baby, who was moving and appeared completely healthy.
I told her that I could remove the laminaria in hopes that the cervix would close and the pregnancy would continue, but there was no guarantee. I also told her that an infection was starting and could cause serious complications for the baby and for her.
After being fully informed of the risks, she wanted to proceed with trying to save her baby. I removed the laminaria, took cultures from her cervix, placed her on antibiotics, and had her follow up in my office. When I next saw her, she was doing well. A visual cervical exam revealed a closed cervix and no signs of infection. She went on to deliver a healthy baby and was very grateful for the support to keep her baby alive.
This experience drove home to me the reality that in today’s emergency departments and obstetrician offices, doctors often give up too easily. They practice medicine too focused on minimizing liability. They are much less likely to get sued if the baby dies after a completed abortion than if they try to save the baby and the baby has birth defects or complications. Such practitioners have become so accustomed to practicing reduced-risk medicine, they hardly realize they are doing it. They become so intent on reducing risk for the mother and for themselves that they do not recognize how they make another human being, the baby, shoulder most of the risk.
Instead, physicians should be ready to take prudent chances in these life-threatening situations, just as they take similar risks in other areas of medicine. For example, in intensive care units and emergency departments, the best treatment carries relatively high risks of failure or complications, but we often proceed with those treatments because no other treatment would be better. When a pregnant woman shows up with an emergency, a doctor should not just throw up his or her hands and terminate. Rather, the doctor should prudently weigh the risks and benefits to the baby and the mother and try to save both.
These moments of decision can be crucial turning points for doctors who practice pro-life medicine. There is a change in perspective about how they view all of their patients, especially the weakest and most vulnerable women and children. It is always the right answer to give the best, safest and most effective care to the mother. That is usually the best way to take care of the baby as well.
Dr. Matthew Harrison, MD is a Family Medicine Specialist in Salisbury, NC and has over 24 years of experience in the medical field. He graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University / Medical College of Virginia School of Medicine in 1998.
Do you know a pro-life medical professional who might have a story to share? Do you have a story? Contact Grattan Brown.