Those Who Ignore History Are Doomed to Repeat It

For most of my career, I have been able to care for women without fear of major complications or death from abortion. However, I have not forgotten those days when safe abortion was generally unavailable. I was delighted when I delivered my first baby in 1968. But at that time in our history, the exciting events of bringing babies into this world were often countered by the tragedies of illegal abortion.

Enough time has passed since the legalization of abortion in the US that it appears much of our society has forgotten the dangers of unsafe pregnancy termination and the desperation of women encountering an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy. It is estimated that approximately 13% of maternal deaths worldwide are due to unsafe abortion. The death rates are even higher in some countries where abortion has been totally banned.

No one has a greater appreciation for the value of human life than those of us who dedicate our lives to the wellbeing of mothers and the delivery of their babies. No other profession has a better knowledge of the complexity of the reproductive process, the potential complications, and the tragic circumstances that can sometimes accompany pregnancy than obstetrics and gynecology. We understand the current science of embryology and factors associated with both normal and abnormal human development. We know and deeply appreciate when a human embryo reaches a stage of fetal development where survivability outside the mother becomes a possibility. We know that a safely performed outpatient pregnancy termination in the first trimester has a complication rate of approximately 0.3%, of which most are minor.

We also know that in many cases, pregnancy termination any time prior to fetal viability is far safer than proceeding with the pregnancy. We respect the ethnic, cultural, religious, social, and moral differences that might factor into a decision to end a pregnancy. Termination of any pregnancy is difficult, but under many circumstances, it is the best alternative for a woman. She has that freedom of choice.

During one of my many trips to Washington, DC, my wife and I took a walk to the Jefferson Memorial. After you enter the memorial, you can read Thomas Jefferson’s passionate words on religious freedom. His words prompt questions that may be answered differently according to the reader’s perspective.  Was Jefferson’s expression of separation of church and state intended to entitle persons to make their own religious choices and beliefs within the moral framework of society? Should government interfere in such a personal choice as whether or not to bear a child? A birth certificate legally records our day of birth, but should the government even attempt to arbitrate the debate of scientific versus religious interpretation of the beginning of life?

Somehow, I believe Jefferson would be greatly offended by the current legislative and judicial interference into the highly personal patient-physician relationship. Our specialty of obstetrics and gynecology ardently supports the dignity, rights, and autonomy of all women. I also believe all of us who deliver babies have an intense reverence for life. However, we must not ignore or misinterpret our country’s history of personal freedom and the history of tragic consequences of illegal, unsafe abortion. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

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About John C. Jennings, MD

John C. Jennings, MD is the president of ACOG through April 2015. He is professor of ob-gyn at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at the Permian Basin. Dr. Jennings was in private practice in San Angelo, TX, for 12 years before entering academic medicine. He has served as head of gynecology and program director of ob-gyn at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC; professor and program director of ob-gyn at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston; chair and program director of ob-gyn at TTUHSC at Amarillo; and regional dean of the school of medicine at TTUHSC at the Permian Basin.

3 thoughts on “Those Who Ignore History Are Doomed to Repeat It

  1. Thank you for such a moving statement AND thank you, ACOG, for developing an app everyone can use to stay up to date with ACOG recommendations and opinions!

  2. Well said. Thank you, Doctor. Please get as noisy as you can consistent with your professional dignity.

    ‘In 2014, four decades after the Supreme Court upheld a woman’s right to choose, pregnant women once again find themselves crossing the border to Mexico and haunting back-alleys in search of medical care.’
    – Laura Bassett

    I had an epiphany the other day. Roe v. Wade was an attempt to regulate abortion because the abortion situation was entirely out of control in 1970.

    Women were dying in ugly and public ways from illegal abortion. Lots of women.

    Clergy were directing women to safe though still illegal abortion and advertising the abortion referral service in the New York Times. Rest in peace, Reverend Moody.

    NOW was giving parlor teach-ins conducted by nurses to instruct women in the art of ‘menstrual extraction’ and how to make the device to extract with.

    The JANE women’s collective was doing safe cheap abortions by the thousands.

    Nobody was waiting for the government to approve abortion. And there was absolutely no control at all. Everybody was doing illegal abortions – the Mafia, your local Nurse moonlighting, doctors with a conscience, etc. It was a Vonnegut style circus.

    All by themselves, screaming they are moral, the forced birth cultists have deregulated abortion in America. The back alley abortion is back. There will be no regulations for safety or time limits on when a woman can abort. Gosnell City is here. And the ‘pro lifers’ built it.

    I would be laughing except I remember what it was like the last time abortion was illegal. My teen Sister self aborted with quinine. Even my Catholic Mother got an illegal abortion. We could have lost her. I know someone who lost her Mother at age 9 to unregulated illegal abortion.

    How many women will get maimed or die this time around the block? How many women will go to jail and leave their children to foster care? How many peaches will you get if you harm the tree? If you think I exaggerate, familiarize yourself with recent events in my backward state of Pennsylvania:

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