Head vs. Heart in the Abortion Debate

Reviewed by Emily Bazelon
Sunday, January 20, 2008


My Journey as an Abortion Doctor

By Susan Wicklund

Public Affairs. 268 pp. $24.95


A Defense of Human Life

By Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen

Doubleday. 242 pp. $23.95

In the 35 years since Roe v. Wade, human stories and hard science have been the dueling weapons of the abortion wars. Abortion opponents have presented emotional accounts of the destruction of fetuses -- and, more recently, tales of distress from women who regret their abortions. Supporters of legal abortion have often countered with data on the decline in backstreet abortions and improvements in women's health and welfare.

So it's a welcome change to see two new books in which the pro-life and pro-choice camps switch their usual tactics. In This Common Secret, Susan Wicklund tells riveting stories about patients she has treated during nearly 20 years as an abortion provider. Meanwhile, in Embryo, Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen argue on scientific and philosophical grounds that from its first moment as a one-cell organism, the embryo is a living human being and, thus, entitled to legal protection. If Wicklund's book is the more effective, perhaps that's because she's not claiming to prove one objective truth, just conveying her own experience -- and because she has good, multifaceted stories to tell.

As a 26-year-old single mother working part-time and getting by on welfare and food stamps, Susan Wicklund became one of the first members of her large Wisconsin family to go to college. Before she decided to become a doctor and specialize in women's health, she had her own abortion to surmount -- a 1976 procedure that she did not understand, and that she sobbed and fought her way through until a doctor told her to shut up and drugged her. This horror story could come straight out of an anti-abortion pamphlet were it not for the determination Wicklund drew from it as she began medical school: "I could make sure my patients were treated differently than I had been -- with respect and decency. The memory of my own abortion troubled me, but it also hardened my resolve."

Such clear-eyed depictions of abortion services, and the close-up descriptions of the women Wicklund has treated, are the source of the book's power. This is a doctor who spent years working 100-hour weeks, crisscrossing the West to reach remote clinics and pregnant women. Over the years, Wicklund endured stalking and physical threats. She wore a bulletproof vest and carried a gun. One desperate morning in 1991, she woke to the sound of protesters chanting, "Susan kills babies!" outside her rural home. They stayed for weeks; Wicklund's daughter had to ride to school in a police car. And her marriage fell victim to the work and strain. "I have to recognize the truth," she writes. "My commitments have demanded a great deal from the people I love."

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