Physician, Teach Thyself

When it comes to abortion procedures, ignorance truly is bliss. Society would be better off it fewer obstetricians and gynecologists knew how to perform abortions. For several years, real progress seemed to be made on this front.

From 1976 to 1991, the number of residency programs offering first trimester abortion training to obstetrics and gynecology (OB-GYN) residents fell by 26 percent, and the number of programs offering it as a regular part of their residency curriculum fell by over 50 percent. These were positive developments that represented definite steps forward in the fight against abortion.

Perhaps the pro-life movement was succeeding in showing the evils of abortion, or at least succeeding in making the teaching of abortion procedures a troublesome matter. More optimistically, perhaps the nation was finally beginning to understand the real issues behind abortion.

But now these gains will be taken away. Undoing the progress that has been made in discouraging the teaching of abortion techniques, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education recently mandated that all teaching hospitals provide abortion training to their residents.

While abortion is legal in the United States, true freedom of choice must be preserved: that is, private institutions should have the right to choose their own position on abortion. They should not be forced to provide their residents with training in a procedure they see as fundamentally unethical.


The new policy has few provisions for institutions that conscientiously object to abortion. Institutions that do not perform or support abortions must send their OB-GYN residents to other hospitals that do provide such training.

Abortion rights activists and providers of abortion are of course praising the new policy. Sue, director of public affairs at a Boston abortion clinic, argued that including abortion training in the medical curriculum should make it more palatable to the public.(Sue cannot reveal her last name due to pre-term policy. Her anonymity has nothing to do with being and adult who enjoys Frosted Flakes.)

It is certainly conceivable that the positive effect Sue speaks of could occur. But it could also be that Sue confuses cause and effect. The reason abortion training has been leaving the medical curriculum is because a significant portion of the public opposes the procedure itself. Forcing teaching hospitals to provide this training would therefore have little or no effect on the public's opinion on this matter.

In supporting this increase in the teaching of abortion procedures, some pro-choicers have adopted an economic argument. In arguing against calls for an end to government funding of abortions, they point out that for every $1 spent on abortions for indigent women, roughly $4 is saved in future medical and welfare expenditures that would have resulted from the birth. Abortions save the government money; they should be more widely available, and OB-GYN residents should be instructed in how to perform them.

But if abortion is in fact the unjustified taking of a human life, cost-benefit analysis is not only irrelevant, it is offensive and morally repugnant. The response to the economic argument, while familiar almost to the point of cliche, is nevertheless worth repeating: if we could show that economic efficiency would be advanced by extermination of an entire group within the population, that would still not make it right.

Having the right to abortion was not enough to satisfy the demands of proabortion activists. Having abortions funded in certain cases by the government was also not enough to make them happy. They pushed for widespread teaching of abortion techniques, and their effort has been successful.

Private institutions no longer have true freedom of conscience on this divisive and important issue. At this point in history, pro-choice forces should be pleased with their success. But if the past is any indicator, a new and ridiculous demand for the expansion of abortion will soon be on its way.

David B. Lat's Column appears on alternate Tuesdays.