WASHINGTON – As he walked up Pennsylvania Avenue on the northeast side of the Capitol Thursday afternoon, Dr. Anthony Levatino looked back at thousands of people behind him in the bright sunshine and felt a jaunty solidarity with his fellow marchers.
“They never judged anyone. They never judged anyone with a deformity,” Levatino said, standing a few feet from the white marble steps of the Supreme Court. Forgive the overstatement. Levatino’s life has undergone a 180-degree change. Levatino was an abortion doctor. Now he is a pro-life gynecologist.
Levatino said he is at peace with the transformation. Standing on a makeshift podium at a rally after the March for Life, he acted like a man at peace with his fellow pro-lifers, especially those who once were pro-choice. When people in back got too close and jostled him, he looked at them, stuck out his elbows playfully, and laughed. When a female speaker who said her name was Tammy told the crowd about her “private prison of torment” after undergoing three abortions and ended her speech, Levatino told her “Good job, Tammy.” When another woman told an emotional story of undergoing an abortion and started saying the Lord’s Prayer, Levatino closed his eyes and chanted the words with them. When other speakers addressed the crowd, Levatino clutched a 2x3 foot placard that said, “I regret performing abortions.”
Levatino has walked in the March for Life before, but until Thursday he had not been a featured speaker. “This is really a different experience for me. It was healing,” he said minutes after he stepped down from the podium. On the podium, wearing a ginger-colored long overcoat and black turtleneck, the silver-haired Levatino was reminded of his past and perhaps his future. Thirty or 40 feet ahead of him were marchers holding a 6x8 foot salmon-colored placard of the late Bernard Nathanson.
In the late 1960 and 1970s, Nathanson performed or oversaw the performing of 75,000 abortions. Nathanson said seeing images of an unborn child via fetoscopy and ultrasound helped change his mind and heart. In the late 1970s and ‘80s, Nathanson wrote a best-selling book, Aborting America, about his late-in-life change of heart and mind and narrated “The Silent Scream,” a controversial and seminal 28-minute anti-abortion film released in 1985.
Although less dramatic, Levatino’s story is similar. Levatino reckoned that from 1981 to 1985 he performed nearly 1,200 abortions. At the same time, his attitude to life changed. He and his wife were unable to conceive and their adopted daughter, Heather, died in a car accident in 1985. Now a gynecologist in New Mexico, Levatino is active in the pro-life movement. He appeared in a pro-life film released in 2011, “The Gift of Life,” and serves on the medical board of advisors for Priests for Life, whose leaders asked him to speak for their “Silent No More” and “Shockwaves” campaigns at the March for Life this year.
Nathanson and Levatino are not the only physicians who have stopped performing abortions. In 2008, the country had nearly two in five fewer abortion providers than its peak in 1982, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research organization. (In California, nurses too can perform abortions).
For some progressives and abortion-rights spokespeople, anti-choicers’ harassment of providers is to blame for the decline. For some conservatives and a few progressives, Gosnell-style corruption is to blame. But for some would-be and former abortion providers, the brutality and destructiveness of the procedure, especially after the first 11 weeks of pregnancy, is the reason to exit the business.
In 2012, Levatino testified to Congress that performing an abortion on a 24-week unborn child was painful not only for the child but also the doctor. “(I)f you think that doesn't hurt, if you believe that that isn't an agony for this child, please think again,” Levatino told a House Judiciary subcommittee, speaking in support of the bill dubbed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.
Abortion-rights bloggers jumped on Levatino’s remarks. “This is incredibly offensive to anyone who has ever had an abortion, especially later in her pregnancy,” Alesa Mackool wrote for RH Reality Check, a website that supports reproductive rights. “Anti-choice activists like Levatino are most successful when they have us all cringing instead of thinking rationally.”
Yet some abortion-rights leaders have made remarks similar to Levatino’s.
In a Washington Post Magazine profile in 2008, a former medical director for Planned Parenthood of Maryland warned medical students at Johns Hopkins University Medical School to prepare for emotionally and morally jarring moments as an abortion provider. “What's your limit with birth defects? Beth Meyers asked. "Would you do an abortion at 28 weeks if the baby had a club foot? How about hemophilia? … How are you going to feel about a patient who admits she has picketed the clinic in the past? What about the woman who comes in for her third abortion and doesn't want to hear about birth control? How are you going to feel about that?”
Meyers warned the students that the circumstances of abortion, such as birth defects, may pose a moral dilemma, but other abortion providers emphasize that performing abortions after the first trimester is difficult. In a 2008 article for Reproductive Health Matters, Lisa H Harris, an assistant professor in the departments of obstetrics and gynecology and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, described being 18 weeks pregnant while terminating the pregnancy of an 18-week old woman. Harris described the incident this way:
With my first pass of the forceps, I grasped an extremity and began to pull it down. I could see a small foot hanging from the teeth of my forceps. With a quick tug, I separated the leg. Precisely at that moment, I felt a kick – a fluttery ‘‘thump, thump’’ in my own uterus. It was one of the first times I felt fetal movement. There was a leg and foot in my forceps, and a ‘‘thump, thump’’ in my abdomen. Instantly, tears were streaming from my eyes – without me – meaning my conscious brain - even being aware of what was going on. I felt as if my response had come entirely from my body, bypassing my usual cognitive processing completely. A message seemed to travel from my hand and my uterus to my tear ducts. It was an overwhelming feeling – a brutally visceral response – heartfelt and unmediated by my training or my feminist pro-choice politics. It was one of the more raw moments in my life. Doing second trimester abortions did not get easier after my pregnancy; in fact, dealing with little infant parts of my born baby only made dealing with dismembered fetal parts sadder.
Harris did not say if she stopped performing abortions, but Lesley Wojick, the medical student portrayed in the Washington Post Magazine, changed her mind and decided not to terminate any pregnancies.
For some pro-life activists, getting former abortion doctors to tell their stories helps the cause. Father Frank Pavone, the head of Priests for Life, told an audience at a session on media at the March for Life Conference and Expo on Wednesday that Levatino would speak and stood in the front row of the crowd as he spoke Thursday.
After coming down from the podium Thursday, Levatino did not echo Pavone's talking points, though. Levatino said he talked with a female black police officer at the march after she asked him why the people were demonstrating. "I said, 'Do you know some people are treated as property just like blacks used to be? She had no idea at all. ;I said, Do you know you can get an abortion at any time?' She had no idea. People don't get that it's a right."
Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia.org. He is the author of Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party (Encounter Books). Follow him on Twitter at @MarkStricherz.