Volume > Issue > On Abortion

On Abortion

HARVARD DIARY

By Robert Coles | October 1983

For many years I have struggled hard to figure out what I believe to be the morally correct view with respect to abortion. I am, in that regard, still struggling, and I beg the reader’s patience, as I take up this subject, and in future issues other equally controversial matters — on none of which I’ve writ­ten before, because for years my wife and I have talked about them with one another, often with much confusion and many mixed feelings. In any event, this periodical surely invites some written effort to declare one’s attitude on moral issues all of us ought consider carefully — and the “Harvard Diary” enables, I believe, the only manner of ex­pression my mind finds unintimidating as it ap­proaches a discussion of abortion, or indeed, school prayer, pornography, homosexuality, and the so-called sexual “liberation” movements, sub­jects I’d like to discuss in the months ahead.

I am a physician and a psychiatrist, and I have had my share of experiences which keep the mind awake and in some considerable anguish through the nights, never mind working days. I remember, for instance, during my residency years of child psychiatry, admitting a 14-year-old girl to the hos­pital, who had been raped by a stranger, and who was, needless to say, upset. She was from a devout Catholic family, and they all were stunned, horri­fied. Yet, she decided she did not want an abor­tion, nor could her parents find it in themselves to suggest she have one. I was horrified myself — a fine, decent girl, terribly abducted and raped, and now to bear a child she did not “want,” only felt she must have out of her religious faith. At the time, the 1950s, she would not, of course, have easily obtained a (legal) abortion: her life was not in danger, nor was she “psychiatrically ill” in any honorable sense of that expression. When the baby was born she signed the little girl over to a church adoption agency, and then became extremely up­set. I saw her for a year, worked with her as she cried and cried, and asked (in the tradition of Job) haunting, unforgettable questions about what life means, and why we are asked to experience some of its terrible moments.

Such a medical encounter, of course, provides a rather unusual point of departure for any discus­sion of abortion. We are now in the 1980s, when abortion is, sadly, a fact of our everyday American life. No committee of doctors would be necessary to review that quite young woman’s eligibility for a so-called “therapeutic abortion,” and Lord knows, given changes (for the worse) in the lives of many American Catholics, one wonders whether she and her parents would now feel as strongly as they once did about the “sinfulness,” as they then put it, of abortion. As for myself, I have to declare, candidly, the direction of my own thinking: back then I wondered why in the world this “child,” as she seemed, and in many ways was, couldn’t have an immediate abortion, then later work out her “feelings,” as my kind drearily put it — along with, it seems, everyone who writes in those “Living” sections of our papers, and everyone who reads what is written there and elsewhere (all the awful books telling people to pay attention, pay infinite attention to their, again, “feelings”). Now I think I would sit in awe of that youth’s, that family’s con­siderable courage and integrity — and consider my­self blessed by God to be in the position of listen­ing to them, learning from then, never mind trying to be of some personal help to them.

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