‘We have to get beyond the damn rhetoric,” Dr. John Bruchalski, tells a group of medical students on a recent stop in his second annual National Medical Students for Life Tour.
He’s talking about the a-word, abortion — the one many of us just don’t want to have to talk about. Including in med school.
“Dr. B,” as his patients know him, reads from an article the Washington Post ran a few years ago about a pro-choice med student who talks about a struggle, of wanting her actions to be consistent with her ideology. When she witnessed her first abortion, though, she had to admit it was “definitely gruesome.” “You could make out what a fetus could look like, tiny feet, lungs,” she reflected, “but it didn’t look like a person,” she added, as if to help herself.
He refers to the article because he is impressed with the student and the article, saying he holds her in “high regard” for her attempt at discernment. “I think she’s getting at what it means to have a conscience,” he tells the lunchtime student audience.
At a time when conscience is in the news — the president having forced the issue by not adequately protecting it in his health-care law and its attendant regulations — the doctor’s testimony makes it all a bit more real; as real as it is for every clergy administrator or Catholic businessman who truly can’t comply with the HHS mandate forcing contraception, sterilization, and even abortion coverage.
Bruchalski is pro-life, which he is upfront about, but wasn’t always so, having once performed abortions: “I went into medical school because I was politically pro-choice — a woman has a right to her body, for any reason, at any time, throughout her pregnancy.” But he watched what it did to women, and listened to their stories, as any good doctor would. And he realized that it was not making them happy and healthy.
Making the transformation from pro-choice doctor to founder of a pro-life medical practice has neither hardened nor polarized him, and he is able to tell his students with utmost sincerity that “it’s not easy to do abortions. No matter what the rhetoric is.” He wants folks on opposite sides of the debate to see one another. He wants individual doctors to see both themselves and their patients — all of them.
Respecting his audience, he seeks to draw them into what he’s found. “As doctors, we have to listen to our patients,” he says. And he doesn’t insult them by being quiet about the fundamental issue that should be of concern to doctors: “You have to come to grips with the humanity of the fetus.” Echoing both the reality that most doctors don’t perform abortions in the United States and his own experience, Dr. B tells the students: “Doing the procedure, the actual transmission through the instrument to your hand to who you are as a person is a difficult thing to do.”
With some exceptions — a student in the room who is also a religious sister being an obvious example — the crowd did not seem to be all with him, even on the most basic of definitions. Conscience, one woman said, is what we put aside as doctors for the good of our patient. And yet, they nodded in seeming agreement more than once, when Bruchalski talked about listening to patients. (Even when he talked about the two patients involved in a pregnancy.)
Listening to him, what resonated in the room was another word: consistency. It’s what converted him and convinced him to stop performing abortions, and started a process that lead to his founding the Tepeyac Family Center in Fairfax, Virginia.
But it’s not just the humanity of the fetus with which Bruchalski’s talks are concerned. There is also, he says, the humanity of the doctor and the woman. “We need to understand the individual woman’s narrative.” He repeats twice his motto that “health is based on the relationships found in community.” And he’s not shy in telling the students gathered that the primary relationship not only for the person but for society is the relationship between a mom and her unborn baby. At Tepeyac, they do not operate as if “children are sexually transmitted diseases.”
“If you’re going to choose an abortion because you can’t pay for it or if someone’s going to kick you out of the house,”Bruchalski says,“we’ll try and help you. We’ll walk you through.”
Love and protect the patients. “You can love enough that you make abortion unthinkable,” he has said. Tepeyac will never perform or refer for abortions, but sometimes women do go and get them. “I wanted to practice excellent medicine. The way you do that is you offer real options to women other than abortion. You walk them through,” he says.
“This conscience issue is real crucial. It affects all of us,” he tells the students. To pro-lifers, he will say even more explicitly: If you are pro-life, you don’t have to hang your conscience at the door.
And if you consider yourself pro-choice, then why don’t we talk openly about the inconsistencies and silences we tolerate on certain “women’s health” topics to spare upsetting political coalitions and hiding open wounds instead of treating them? How can doctors tolerate the politicization of medicine?
Dr. B wants to “change the dynamic of the debate” about abortion in America, specifically among the next generation of doctors. Medicine, he says, “is an act of mercy” on each patient — even the ones whose little arms and legs are just beginning to form. It may not look like your niece yet, but she’s one of us. And if you’re a doctor, she’s your patient, too. Doctors know it, and Bruchalski is one doctor who wants to see the next generation take back medicine from the politicians.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.