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Ex-abortion providers: conversion tales
By PATRICIA LEFEVERE, Special Reports Writer

NEW YORK -- The storytellers at this gathering of antiabortion activists did not appear terribly concerned with new “inclusive” antiabortion strategies.

Their stories are haunting and, at times, hard-edged, the testimonies of those once deeply involved in performing abortions and who, for varying reasons, were jarred by what they were doing. They felt compelled to not only leave their practices but also to work against abortion.

They see themselves as turning, in the language of Pope John Paul II, from the culture of death to promote a culture of life.

* Dr. Bernard Nathanson performed some 60,000 abortions and supervised another 10,000 before scientific evidence -- especially the use of ultrasound -- convinced him that he had been promoting and participating in what he now calls “the most atrocious holocaust in U.S. history.”

* Dr. Anthony Levatino “had no moral qualms at all” about the 1,200 abortions he conducted as a young obstetrician gynecologist. “I was there to assist my patients; this was no different from doing a D&C or a hysterectomy,” he said, until he suffered a terrible personal loss in 1984.

* Joan Appleton, head nurse at a Virginia clinic, assisted at some 10,000 abortions because she believed “passionately in a woman’s right to choose.” Outside her clinic, activist Debra Braun used her megaphone, her arrests, her prayers, her telephone and a five-year correspondence with Appleton to help her change those convictions.

* Dr. Marie Peeters Ney entered and left pediatrics, hematology and genetics as she gradually observed that all three medical specialties “passed on their dirty work to abortionists.” She and her psychiatrist husband, Dr. Philip G. Ney, have examined the motivating factors behind physicians’ choosing to do abortions and say they have counseled many who suffer post abortion-provider guilt.

The stories of these abortion practitioners turned pro-life activists filled Holy Innocents Parish hall here in November.

“You’re the people who are changing America,” said Joseph Scheidler, referring to the speakers and the audience of approximately 60 antiabortion activists, many of them nuns and priests. Scheidler is executive director of Pro-Life Action League, Chicago, which, along with the New York-based Legal Center for Defense of Life, sponsored the gathering.

Scheidler called Nathanson “a modern day St. Paul.” Nathanson, with feminist Betty Friedan and abortion promoter Lawrence Lader, founded in 1970 the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws -- NARAL -- now the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

Raised an atheist Jew, Nathanson lost some friends when he became a Catholic. He was baptized in December 1996 by New York Cardinal John O’Connor. But Nathanson already felt the wrath of some in his profession when his book Aborting America, a personal confession and an exposé of the U.S. abortion industry, was published in 1979.

He followed it with the stark video, “The Silent Scream,” the sonogram of a live abortion and later with “Eclipse of Reason,” which inserts a video camera in the womb of a mother preparing to abort a 19 and a half-week-old fetus.

The first U.S. physician to perform ambulatory abortions, Nathanson operated a lucrative upper East Side clinic. Now 71, Nathanson has been married three times and twice impregnated women who had abortions, one of which he himself performed.

While scientific evidence led him to crusade against abortion, he said his advancing years and the Christian doctrine of forgiveness led him to Catholicism. “I’m entering the Catholic church to give them warning,” he said.

Dr. Marie Peeters Ney said, “Abortion is changing the face of medicine. People have begun to disrespect medicine because doctors don’t respect life.”

She said that she and her husband, Philip, have worked with scores of persons affected by abortion. Together they founded the International Institute for Pregnancy Loss and Child Abuse Research and Recovery, based in Victoria, British Columbia.

Peeters Ney said that some 60 million abortions occur worldwide yearly. The Neys estimate that there are 100 million abortion “survivors,” or siblings of the unborn who, she said, “suffer from survivor complex because they survived and someone else died.”

“Abortion has created a generation of people with no sense of themselves,” she said. “If I have no value, then no one else has value and the only thing of value is what I possess.”

Peeters Ney urged compassion toward abortionists, adding, “We don’t know what’s been going on in their lives before they began this work.”

But leaving the abortion industry can be as painful as assisting abortions, noted Joan Appleton, head nurse at the Commonwealth Woman’s Clinic in Falls Church, Va. “I, too, suffer from post-abortion trauma,” she said.

It took a five-year friendship with pro-life activist Debra Braun of St. Paul, Minn. -- who prayed, picketed and got arrested outside the Commonwealth clinic -- before Appleton crossed over to the antiabortion side of the street.

In a video prepared for conferences held previously in Chicago, the audience saw and heard from many who described their careers providing abortions and their struggle to come out. Many of those filmed “have disappeared,” Appleton said, because “there are no support groups for former abortionists.”

Appleton turned to the Neys for healing. She also underwent therapy with a Catholic therapist and spent a few years drinking, on drugs and attempting suicide. Appleton said her reactions to coming out are not atypical of others who have left the abortion field.

“You stay in because of fear of the outside,” she said. “When you come out, you move geographically (she went to Minnesota). You do badly in relationships. You begin to get a little mentally ill.”

Recently Appleton founded the Society of Centurions for abortionists who want to leave. She named her group after the Roman soldier who was in charge of crucifixion and crowd control at Jesus’ death.

Prompted by Braun and her own soul-searching, Appleton returned to the church and to confession after a seven-year absence. But she reminded her pro-life audience here that she was “not the result of your rescues. I would like to have some peace and go to heaven,” she said.

So each morning -- in order to aid her spiritual and psychological healing -- Appleton imagines a child. “I name it. I pray for it. I ask a life for it,” she said. “I’ll do this for the rest of my days.”

In addition, Appleton said, she goes to abortion clinics twice a week and talks to the babies in the womb rather than to their mothers.

“I tell them I’m sorry they have to die today. I hope they’ll forgive us and go to God,” she said.

While she asked for forgiveness from the pro-life movement, she also told her pro-life audience that “they can be a very unforgiving group.”

“Abortionists and women who have abortions aren’t our enemies,” she said.

Dr. Anthony Levatino of Troy, N.Y., might never have stopped doing abortions had it not been for two “mysteries,” he said. Although he and his wife, Cecelia, were married 10 years before they ever discussed abortion, Cecelia, a surgical nurse, knew he performed such procedures.

“I also knew I was pro-life and a feminist,” Cecilia Levatino said. “Therefore I could be a fence-sitter. Who was I to tell another woman what to do with her body?”

Early in their marriage the couple learned that they could not have children. However, when a 15-year-old patient of Levatino’s decided she did not want to keep the baby she was carrying, the couple hurried to adopt it. Eleven months later Cecelia gave birth to the couple’s biological child.

Six years later the two children were playing in front of their parents’ home when a car struck and killed their adopted daughter. When Levatino returned to work, he discovered he could no longer perform late-term, saline abortions.

Shortly before his daughter’s death one of Levatino’s new patients had “adopted” the doctor. She began praying for him and at one point, after a gynecological examination, told him: “I am a Christian. I’m here to tell you that God loves you and doesn’t want you to be doing abortions. This is not what he intended for your life.”

Levatino’s wife noted the gradual and worsening disposition of her husband after their daughter’s death. “He was mean and angry at home and in the office. He was cool to our friends and would pick on everyone. Instead of emotional intimacy, there was a wall between us,” Cecelia said.

Afraid that her marriage would end, Cecelia confronted her husband. “I told him he had to stop doing abortions. ‘Nobody is doing this to you. You’re doing it to yourself.’ “

That was 12 years ago. After Levatino quit the abortion field, he added a law degree to his credentials and has been working with his wife opposing abortion. Currently they are planning to open a crisis pregnancy center, to be called Heather’s Place -- after their daughter -- and to set up a foundation to aid women in crisis.

“Crisis pregnancy centers are the only pro-life resource that give women a choice,” Cecelia said, adding that if pro-lifers want to end abortions they should adopt not only those who provide abortions but also the practitioner’s entire family.

National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 1998