The Magazine

Weapon of Choice

Inside the mind of an abortion-rights warrior.

May 19, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 34 • By JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
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This Common Secret

My Journey as an Abortion Doctor

by Susan Wicklund

Public Affairs, 272 pp., $24.95

During three decades of protracted abortion wars, reproductive rights activists have sought to attain a singular goal: the rehabilitation of the abortion doctor from social outcast to modern hero. At one point, the mission looked achievable. A rash of clinic violence and killings stirred popular sympathy for the beleaguered physicians. But over time the public has never quite latched onto the idea. Today, fewer doctors are willing to associate themselves with this practice--whether out of moral scruples, or fear of retribution.

Yet if there ever were a case to be made for the abortion provider as moral icon, Susan Wicklund would be Exhibit A. Conscientious in her service to patients' needs, indifferent to bottom-line realities, selfless in the face of danger, Wicklund is an ideal standard bearer. And if readers see the good in her, then they will affirm the necessity of opposing laws that bind her capable hands. Surely this explains the "encouragement," from predictable quarters, Wicklund has received to write her spare memoir, awkwardly punctuated with factoids from abortion advocacy groups.

But even if This Common Secret shoots to the top of Planned Parenthood's bestseller list, the ordinary reader will find the protagonist a most peculiar and misguided creature. This tale has a moral, but it is not the one intended by the author and her throng of admirers. Instead, it reveals the destructive power of abortion in the lives of its full-grown victims, including the heroine herself.

A big-boned midwestern woman who grew up around guns and craves the solitude of wide-open spaces, Wicklund is not an obvious choice for the role of abortion-rights crusader. She is a late bloomer and ex-hippie who still doesn't own a stick of lipstick. She might have settled for a sales job in a health food store had she not found herself pregnant in early adulthood. Abortions were legal by then, and no physical harm resulted from her procedure. But the physician's uncaring treatment made the experience emotionally traumatic, provoking a search for solutions. Ultimately, Wicklund moved into the field of reproductive health care with the hope of transforming the abortion experience. Compassionate care and complete informed consent would contain the trauma.

When Wicklund embarks on her career, she has a young daughter from her first marriage and a new husband back in college to support. She finds work at three clinics in several cities. Daily life revolves around solitary commutes to small regional airports and long hours at the clinics. Dinner is often a bowl of cereal in her motel room. Soon, her daughter is in the full-time care of her increasingly remote husband, but Wicklund doesn't seem to notice. Her patients' troubles are mesmerizing, and she finds "joy" in shaping their most intimate decisions. Healing their pain, perhaps she will redeem her own life.

Wicklund's resolve will be sorely tested during countless years of anti-abortion protests. Confrontations with clinic protestors and sidewalk counselors become a daily occurrence and slowly broaden in scope. Wicklund's daughter must be driven to school in a police car as protestors move to block the driveway to the family home. The doctor is stalked by a crazed activist who is finally incarcerated. When extremists murder abortion providers, Wicklund doesn't call it quits; she packs a gun. Her worst moment arrives when she must reveal her true profession to her grandmother just before CBS airs a 60 Minutes feature on her work.

Still, Wicklund battles on, exhibiting a marked lack of interest in unborn life--even when it is precisely documented by ultrasound images displayed in her office. This tendency to compartmentalize the destruction of unborn human life is a practical necessity that produces a number of contradictory positions. For example, Wicklund calms her patients with the view that the embryo is nothing more than human "tissue" requiring no special protection; abortions should be regulated no differently than knee surgery.

Yet she writes at length about the need for "compassionate" care. Why all the fuss if an abortion is nothing more than a routine procedure? She defends her profession's commitment to the vulnerable, insisting that she never railroads patients into a procedure they may regret forever. Yet she opposes parental consent laws designed to prevent the exploitation and coercion of minors. She will be the keeper of "secrets." Parents must cede their moral authority to Wicklund and her like. But her only obvious credential--a willingness to perform abortions--cannot secure our trust.

Is Susan Wicklund a typical abortion doctor? She is certainly a curious figure. Contrary to the stereotypes advanced within the anti-abortion movement, she reveals not a whit of interest in making money or in securing her own happiness. When she tries to sell her clinic, once the fulfillment of her professional dreams, no buyers come forward. Her husband has drifted away. Wicklund's determination is beyond grim. What her supporters would have us applaud as inspiring dedication to an unquestionable good comes off as an unhealthy fixation on a deranged sense of duty.

Joan Frawley Desmond, who writes on religious and social issues for a variety of publications, lives in Maryland.