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2½ provocative books on abortion

More reading during this time of social isolation (fourth in a series)

2½ provocative books on abortion

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

Parental advisory: This article includes vivid descriptions of aborted babies

Of the books in my bookcase about abortion, 19 are against it, 28 for it, and six are in-between. Some WORLD readers are familiar with pro-life ones I’d recommend, including John Willke’s Handbook on Abortion (1979), John Noonan’s A Private Choice (1979), Frederick Dyer’s The Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion (1989), my Abortion Rites (1992), Ramesh Ponnuru’s The Party of Death (2006), and Clarke Forsythe’s Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade (2013). But I also recommend reading three whose authors support abortion.

The first, Magda Denes’ In Necessity and Sorrow: Life and Death in an Abortion Hospital (Basic, 1976), is an amazing journalistic feat by a psychiatrist who barely survived the Holocaust. Robert Caro got to the heart of Lyndon Johnson’s rise by moving to the Texas hill country and living there long enough to make the residents feel he was one of them. Denes with her tape recorder hung around for months at a New York City abortion center: Doctors, nurses, and others eventually told her what they never would have told a reporter who just parachuted in for a day or two. 

Denes avoided death as a child in Hungary by squeezing into hiding places as did Anne Frank and Corrie ten Boom. Fascists forced her brother into the Danube River and shot him. The abortion killing field seems oddly familiar to her: “I look inside the bucket in front of me. There is a small naked person in there floating in a bloody liquid—plainly the tragic victim of a drowning accident. But then perhaps this was no accident, because the body is purple with bruises. … Oh yes, I am no stranger here—I have seen brains spilled on sidewalks and crushed forever with one blow. Who says you can’t go home again? A death factory is the same anywhere.”

Denes on the saline abortion floor keeps forcing herself to relive her childhood “disbelief, sorrow, horror, compassion, guilt. The place depresses me, yet I hang around.” When she watches an abortion, “I am drenched in sweat. I have a bellyache.” Later, “I take the lid off all the buckets. All of them. … I lift the fetuses, one by one. I lift them by an arm or leg … I carry on the examination, whose sole purpose by now is to increase the unbearable anguish in my heart. … ‘Nurse, nurse,’ I shout, taking off my fancy gloves. ‘Cover them up.’”

You may be wondering at this point: How is In Necessity and Sorrow a pro-abortion book? Its title is the thesis: Denes calls abortion “a human event of great sorrow and terrible necessity. … A given fetus lives or dies as the mother’s needs dictate. And so it should be.” She learned as a child “the rulelessness of this world … the mightiness of its disorder.” Her definition of living: a “visceral blow, [a] turbulent uncontrollable tremor within the gut.” Denes writes, “Humanity, I love you in small doses and from a distance. Because from up close your maggot-eaten, vulture-picked wounds stink to the high empty heavens.” Empty. 

Since Denes believes there is no God, she logically asks, “Who is to say what is the right path?” Let individuals choose—although all the choices are bad. Denes describes the women waiting for abortions: “Their pinched faces are full of determination and terror. Big-eyed, bird-like, pale, hawk-handed in fright, they seem like lost souls before the final judgment.” But she suggests abortion is right for them because they would be incompetent mothers: “Disorder, dismay, and detachment are the chief characteristics of Rose’s life. … Talking with Teresa feels like traveling downward on a narrow, serpentine mountain road, built on the side of a precipice, in a conveyance whose brakes have failed. … [Chris is] self-indulgent, narrow, neurotic.”

“I look inside the bucket in front of me. There is a small naked person in there floating in a bloody liquid.”

Denes apparently does not view adoption as a realistic option, or the way that motherhood matures many. In Necessity and Sorrow is a book-length version of Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream. Denes describes one patient: “Her drained face is indistinguishable from the white sheet on which she lies. She claws at her bedclothes, tosses her body about, and wails in agony. Alarmed, I inquire about her from the nurse on duty. I am told not to worry. ‘She’ll be all right. She is just hysterical. A screamer.’” 

Shaul Schwarz/Edit by Getty Images

Dr. Jose Luis Mendoza Delgado performs an abortion on a patient nine weeks pregnant in Mexico City. (Shaul Schwarz/Edit by Getty Images)

The abortionists are no better. Dr. Benjamin Kalish, 47, at first says, “Most women seeking abortions are young … you can solve their problems.” Then he moves from abstraction to specifics: “When you put in the needle, theoretically you go in the sac and take out fluid and put in saltwater. But there are times when you hit the fetus and you can feel the fetus wiggling at the end of that needle and moving around, which is an unpleasant thing.” Why do Kalish and others speak so frankly? Each is one more “hidden addict to attention, like all of us, all bribable by interested eyes focused on the dull bones of our bare existence.”

Denes calls Dr. Michael Christie, 45, “an embittered man” and quotes him admitting, “I feel that I’m actually killing them. And that kind of feeling I don’t like to live with,” but money is “a big factor in why I do this. And I think that most doctors who do abortions also do them for the money.” She quotes director of nursing Maureen O’Neil, 42: “In some ways it is very boring, these abortions, the same thing day after day after day,” but “the 20-week ones are a challenge … I agree with the staff in one way that they feel a little repulsed when you get a big fetus. It is very traumatic for the staff to pick this up and put it in a container and say, ‘Okay, that’s going to the incinerator.’” 

Denes summarizes her interviews with doctors and nurses: “None who work here can witness the extinction of a segment of the future generation without guilt and fear. The word murder surfaces again and again, and it sticks on the tongue like a searing coal.” 

But that’s the nasty nature of reality: “Not even breathing is easy business if you are human. … For a wild moment I am overcome by total panic. … Next morning I am back on the floor, by duty possessed.” Denes herself had two children but aborted the third, and pities a 42-year-old woman who is aborting her only child: “The loneliness of Erika Ney creeps into my bones. Has she decided well, I wonder. Will she not regret tomorrow losing this last chance to have someone of her own to love?”

In Necessity and Sorrow’s last sentence: Abortions “are heart-rending, ambivalent events of absolute necessity.” It left me pondering: How could Denes eyewitness this terror and still favor abortion? Then I read her other, equally vivid book, Castles Burning (Norton, 1997), which documents her just-barely survival during the Holocaust. It came out just after she died at age 62, a heart attack victim, but it seemed that her heart had been squeezed so hard in Hungary when she was a little girl that, apart from God’s overcoming grace, she possessed neither faith nor hope. 

Matthew Busch/Bloomberg via Getty Images

An assistant arranges tools prior to an abortion in San Antonio, Texas. (Matthew Busch/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

I wonder whether Denes, in her abortion book, was echoing Chapter 19 of the Gospel of John, consciously or unconsciously, when she wrote about women coming out of anesthesia after aborting: “All through the afternoons, from this room and that, one can hear again and again hoarse, drugged voices mutter in anguish … ‘Has it been done?’ ‘It is finished,’ the nurses answer. ‘It is finished.’”

THE SECOND BOOK by a writer on the other side that pro-lifers should read is William Saletan’s Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War (University of California Press, 2003). The title surprises conservative pro-lifers: What, we won? Why didn’t anyone tell me? But the first chapter, concerning a 1984 attempted Arkansas constitutional amendment, clarifies Saletan’s thesis.

The amendment would have stopped any government funding of abortion in Arkansas. It also stipulated that the state’s public policy should “promote the health, safety and welfare of every unborn child from conception to birth.” Polls predicted a landslide win, but the amendment failed by 519 votes out of 633,000 cast. Why?

The answer lies in the effective messages the abortion lobby developed: (1) “The government is threatening to take away our right to own a gun and telling us where to send our children to school, and now they want to say women can’t have an abortion—even if they’re raped.” (2) “I’ll be hanged if I’m going to surrender my rights over family decisions to the government.” (3) Following rape, “You, your doctor, your preacher, your daughter have no say in this personal, private tragedy.”

Saletan shows that these appeals upset those on the cultural left. After all, for those who think abortion is a good problem-solver, treating rape as a special case discriminates between women who choose to have sex (they’re seen as guilty and must pay the price) and those who do not (they’re innocent, so they deserve a “get out of jail” card). For others, though, winning the referendum came first. The ACLU was willing to jettison the general issue and repackage the debate as a crime issue: “Protect Victims of Rape and Incest. Vote No! on Amendment 65.”

Feminist leaders prioritized winning the referendum, even though they realized that a rape exception to general limitations on abortion would give alleged rapists a new defense: They could say a woman was yelling rape so as to have an abortion. Feminists also compromised on claims to feminine autonomy when polls showed most Americans disapproved of abortion if the only reason given was “a woman wants to have an abortion”—but adding the words “and her doctor agrees to it” produced a 30 percent swing among respondents. Postulating a deciding pair created a pro-choice majority, even though a woman typically met the doctor who would perform the abortion only moments before it began.

Bearing Right also helps to explain why the abortion lobby castigates those like Magda Denes who support abortion sorrowfully, realizing that it means the killing of a human being. Saletan notes that, according to Roe, mothers’ rights during the first trimester absolutely outweigh unborn babies’ rights: “To prevent the latter from surpassing the former, pro-choice groups were determined to reduce the value of unborn life to zero.” Saletan also undermines the notion that “parental consent” is a vital pro-life tool: He points to studies that show parents with pregnant teenage daughters prefer abortion 4-1 when they first learn of the pregnancy, and 10-1 at the time of the abortion.

THE HALF-BOOK to get to my “2½ books from the other side” is Cynthia Gorney’s Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars (Simon & Schuster, 1998). Gorney was a Washington Post writer and did not separate herself from its pro-abortion position, but she nevertheless empathizes with the book’s major pro-life character, Sam Lee of Missouri. I’m giving Articles of Faith a ½ because it’s 575 pages long and its exegesis of particular pieces of legislation is dated, but its dive into pro-life debates about strategy—see Chapters 4, 6, 8, 10, and so forth—remains valuable.

Gorney understands the pro-life strategic dilemma and summarized it well in a November 2004 Harper’s article: “In right-to-life ethical reasoning, a seven-weeks-pregnant abortion is as unacceptable as a thirty-weeks-pregnant abortion. [It’s like] distinguishing between the killing of two-year-olds and the killing of eight-year-olds.” And yet, Gorney continued, many Americans make that distinction, and many also make distinctions based on whether a woman is pregnant via consensual sex or force. So, should pro-lifers be all-or-nothing, or should we be willing to accept incremental improvements, if that’s all we can get? 

“I feel that I’m actually killing them. And that kind of feeling I don’t like to live with.”

Gorney also recognizes the importance of personality in politics. She clearly admires Samuel Lee, who practiced nonviolent civil disobedience at abortion businesses starting in 1978, gained a long arrest record, and then realized “sit-ins worked only when they could rouse a community to action.” Lee learned how the Missouri Legislature worked and began humbly working for incremental legislation from an all-or-something position. In 1989, when Lee went to Washington to hear oral arguments in the Webster case his work generated, he slept the night before on the Supreme Court steps, and afterward watched “the newspaper people with their notebooks and tape recorders, the television people thrusting their microphones” toward the highly publicized leaders.

Gorney ends that chapter with this: “For a while Sam stood at the edge of the plaza, watching, his hands in his pants pockets and his spiral notebook jammed up under one arm. Then he walked down the courthouse steps and headed for the subway by himself.” The contrast of Lee’s humility with the personality of Randall Terry, who led Operation Rescue in 1989, is clear: “Terry appeared to be laboring under the impression that he had invented the concept of the large-scale clinic sit-in; … Terry lent himself to caricature, how precisely his carriage and language suited every secular cliché of the heavy-breathing right-to-lifer. He had worked as a used car salesman, a detail reporters repeated frequently and with obvious delight; he was partial to apocalyptic statements about ‘America’s future’ and ‘whether we’re ultimately going to be an ash-heap and a rubble-heap and live and die like jackals.’” 

Gorney also notes how her press associates were complicit in hype: “All the O.R. blockaders put together added up to a tiny fraction of the right-to-life volunteers across the United States, but the media loved them; a rescuer transported by prayer made a snappier front-page photograph than a lawyer dictating reply briefs or a middle-aged homemaker folding flyers into envelopes.” Hype and hate created a wrong impression, but over time persevering compassion has become a larger part of the pro-life movement. 

ALL THREE OF THESE BOOKS display the ability of the human heart to suppress unwelcome knowledge. One example from Articles of Faith: In 1979 a first-trimester abortionist, Michael Freiman, is learning how to do second-trimester killings by watching a fellow abortionist do one. Suddenly “a small arm with a hand on it dropped into the surgical pan. … He felt momentarily short of air, as though someone had punched him hard in the stomach. … What was wrong with him? Why was he suddenly thinking about Nazi Germany?”

The good news is that Freiman refused to do second-trimesters. The bad news is that he evidently kept doing early abortions, where distinct arms don’t drop into pans. Freiman died of lung cancer in 2014, and one woman posted this online: “He killed my unborn baby in 1978.”

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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  • VolunteerBB
    Posted: Fri, 05/08/2020 03:10 pm

    When describing the women sitting in the waiting room of an abortion clinic, “Their pinched faces are full of determination and terror. Big-eyed, bird-like, pale, hawk-handed in fright, they seem like lost souls before the final judgment.”  I am reminded of most of the women I have counseled in Post Abortion Bible studies.  Many of them retelling their stories of sitting in the waiting rooms and screaming on the inside.  Many saying if only one person had said something to them, they would have walked out.  That is why prolife people talk to women going into clinics, why pregnancy centers exist, we must continue the fight.  This is so hard to read, yet we must.  I pray for every single one of them.  May they find the freedom that Christ paid for at the cross.  

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sat, 05/09/2020 04:50 am

    Wow! Gut wrenching! An effective rebuttal to Calvinist redefining of sovereignty as well.