Susan Robinson was sitting on the patio of her Central Coast home, above golden hills and oak trees shimmering in the summer heat. She sipped homemade hibiscus tea as she patted the head of her mischievous border collie, Radar, and told me about the pride she takes in her work.
Robinson, 69, is an abortion doctor, one of only a handful in this country who perform abortions in the third trimester. She is in the business of ending pregnancies, yes, but more important, she is in the business of helping women assert control over their own lives.
“There is no other field in medicine where people come to you so desperate,” she said, “and you can really help pretty much everyone who walks through the door.”
Robinson used to fly to Wichita, Kan., every three weeks to work at a clinic owned by George Tiller, perhaps the country’s most famous late-term abortion doctor. Tiller was renowned for his kindness toward patients and his courage in the face of relentless physical attacks against him that culminated in 2009 with his murder by a Christian extremist.
“His murder changed things,” Robinson said. Tiller rarely gave interviews, insisting on keeping the focus on patients, and he instilled in Robinson the same ethic. But after he died, she decided to speak out.
“If you are secretive, you are sort of colluding in the stigma of abortion,” Robinson said. “Now when people ask what I do, I say, ‘My specialty is abortion care, and I love my job!’ ”
It is long past time to reclaim abortion as a social good, long past time pretending that it is a horrible tragedy for everyone who has one. One in three American women will have had an induced abortion in her lifetime. Women experience many emotions around the decision, but for most, it is a relief.
The secret video assault on Planned Parenthood is only the most recent attack on reproductive freedom. The videos show unwitting Planned Parenthood officials casually discussing how they provide fetal tissue for medical research.
Anti-abortion activists say that their videos prove the group profits from the sale of fetal tissue, which is illegal. But the videos released so far show only that the group expects to be reimbursed for its costs, which is standard practice.
The most recent surreptitious video in the slow-drip campaign against Planned Parenthood shows a clinic technician identifying parts of an aborted fetus in a glass dish to anti-abortion activists posing as procurement agents for researchers.
Contrary to the orchestrated outrage, this was not a display of callousness. It was a straightforward clinical approach. How could a lab technician identify fetal tissue for medical research without examining it?
Such exams take place after every abortion, when what the medical profession calls the “products of conception” are examined to make sure the procedure was complete.
Sometimes, Robinson said, patients also want to look.
About 10 years ago, at a Planned Parenthood clinic in San Rafael, Robinson said, a patient who had a suction abortion at 16 weeks asked to look at the remains. Robinson wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but she didn’t feel she had the right to say no.
“My patient looked at the basin for a long time, and I am thinking, ‘Oh my God, she’s going to start screaming and never stop. Why did I say yes?’ And she finally looked up and said, ‘Thank you so much. I’m so relieved that it’s so small.’ It was helpful for her. She felt closure.”
What is meant to be shocking in the context of a politically motivated sting video can be comforting to someone like that patient, for whom the decision to abort was personal and deeply felt.
As she did frequently during our conversation, Robinson recalled one of Tiller’s many mantras: “Women are spiritually, emotionally and intellectually capable of struggling with complex ethical issues and arriving at the correct decision for themselves and their families.”
Is there a single Republican running for president who could say that and mean it?
Robinson went into her house for a moment, and returned with two recovery room journals from Southwestern Women’s Options, the Albuquerque clinic where she has worked two weeks a month since Tiller died. (Lately, she has been recuperating from knee replacement surgery, and is not sure when she will return.)
“Have you ever seen one of these?” she asked. “It’s so touching.”
The journals were filled with heartfelt, handwritten messages from patients. They were grateful not to be judged, they wanted to encourage other women, they apologized to their unborn children:
This place is wonderful. They all understand.
It is hard, it is scary but this may have saved my family.
Everything happens for a reason. You are a strong, beautiful woman. Trust your choices.
God, I am asking for forgiveness. You do know my home situation and you helped guide me for my decision.
I know in my heart I made the right decision.
See you in heaven baby. I love you and I’m sorry.
Robinson’s eyes grew wet as she read some of the notes. She told me about an 11-year-old late-term patient who had been raped by her father, and about a 14-year-old she sent home after it became clear she wanted to keep her baby.
The effort to defund Planned Parenthood — and ultimately to outlaw abortion — is an attack on the autonomy of every woman in this country. There really is no middle ground.
As Robinson put it, “Either you believe that women are capable of making those decisions, or you don’t.”
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