Column by David Elliott: Abortion is an essential component of reproductive care | Columnists


By David Elliott

First, a confession: I am pro-life. I believe that God imbues each new human life with a soul at conception, or shortly thereafter.

However, I am also pro-choice. It is not a contradiction. I respect both sides of the abortion argument. Before you dismiss me as tasteless, let me explain.

Since scientific data cannot agree on a single developmental moment marking the beginning of human life (with or without a soul), the way a woman deals with her pregnancy – whether to abort it or carry it to term – is a private moral decision. It is a matter of personal religious faith.

Despite personal beliefs, no one really knows when the unborn child receives his soul. Is it by design? The first trimester? The third? Neither the Torah, nor the Koran, nor the Bible provide a clear answer.

This is one of the great mysteries given to us by God. A government that prohibits abortion because it maintains that fetuses are sacred at conception imposes its religious views on people, usurping personal religious freedom.

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And I’ve seen the deadly consequences when safe abortion services are banned or unavailable, and when men impose their beliefs on pregnant women.

I have worked with Doctors Without Borders on 15 missions around the world, helping to bring emergency humanitarian aid to those without access to medical care. This often includes comprehensive maternal and newborn care, which is usually provided by midwives.

But as a surgeon, I often get involved in caesarean delivery and other gynecological procedures on demand. These highly competent and astute midwives enlightened me that unsafe abortions cause 13% of maternal deaths worldwide, totaling more than 65,000 women per year.

When safe abortion services are unavailable, girls and women desperate to end an unwanted pregnancy will resort to risky procedures that frequently result in hemorrhage, septic shock and death. These midwives showed me patients in their maternity wards. They told me stories of past patients – mostly victims of rape and incest, all treated as common property – who would have been shunned, starved, exiled or outright killed if they hadn’t found a way to secretly end unwanted pregnancies before their fathers or husbands find out.

So I learned the stark truth: providing safe abortions actually saves lives, protecting the lives of mothers and enabling them to have children later – when and if they feel safe and willing to do so.

Safe abortion care is an essential component of comprehensive reproductive health care. Termination of pregnancy is as important a part of reproductive health care as prenatal examinations, vitamins, education, contraception and delivery by a skilled midwife or obstetrician.

So, while I may personally believe in the sanctity of the fetus, it has no bearing on a woman’s personal choice for or against terminating her pregnancy. This decision is their right and responsibility, based on their faith, personal circumstances, and discussions with their healthcare professional.

History repeatedly demonstrates the harmful results when governments attempt to legislate morality. We have all seen the consequences of tyrants and religious fanatics dictating personal beliefs.

Telling a woman that she must carry her fetus to term is no different from mandating church attendance; prohibit girls from receiving an education; or exterminating “heretics”, “blasphemers” and “infidels”. Remember that our founding fathers considered personal religious freedom one of the cardinal principles of our nation.

On an interpersonal level, it seems reasonable and appropriate to peacefully discuss religious views with expectant mothers if they wish, just as we might with someone who practices a faith different from our own. However, shaming, shouting, blocking access to medical facilities and threatening legal action is frankly wrong.

I am convinced that the issue of abortion is, from one point of view, one of individual religious beliefs and, from another point of view, one that should be left to women and their medical providers. Governments and men (myself included) should have no say, except perhaps to help protect a woman’s right to choose.

Therefore, I am firmly “pro-choice”, just as I remain “pro-life”. If more Americans embraced this dual perspective, we could encourage a much more civil and rational national discourse on the subject.

David Elliott, MD, is a surgeon with Doctors Without Borders, a native of Glen Allen, and a retired US Army colonel. The opinions and beliefs expressed above are its own opinions and not those of Médecins Sans Frontières. Contact him at: [email protected]

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