One Surgeon’s Epiphany

If there were a Hall of Fame for pro-lifers, James Patrick McFadden would have been unanimously elected on the first ballot.  He was the founder of the Human Life Foundation and Human Life Review which he edited until he passed the reigns to his most capable daughter.  He was an indefatigable champion of the unborn and an inspiration to many.

A friend once asked him why he threw himself into the abortion controversy as wholeheartedly as he did.  We are all going to be judged, he said, but “if we‘ve fought for the unborn and the disabled, at least we’ll have plenty of witnesses for the defense.”

McFadden’s remark raises an interesting question concerning whether the unborn are in any sense “pro-life.”  If, in the next world, they could make moral judgments, would they praise Mr. McFadden for having defended them?  We look to the empirical evidence.

Dr. Richard Selzer, a surgeon on the faculty of the Yale School of Medicine, asked to be present at an abortion.  He wanted to see what he had never seen.  The patient was in the 24th week of her pregnancy.  By the end of the fifth month the fetus can cry, suck, make a fist, and kick.  His eyelids can open and he may look up, down, or sideways.

Selzer, who is also a gifted writers makes the following observation:  “I see something!  It is unexpected, utterly unexpected, like a disturbance in the earth, a tumultuous jarring.  I see something other than what I expected here.  I see a movement—a small one.  But I have seen it” (Mortal Lessons:  Notes on the Art of Surgery). The fetus was struggling against the needle, like a fish trying the escape from the fisherman’s hook.  “It is the fetus that worries thus.”  But how can that be, he thinks.  It cannot be a mere reflex.  Could it be a struggle to stay alive?  Does the fetus, with every ounce of its energy, show that it wants to go on living?

Selzer can see the inside of the uterus.  He sees a creature curled upon itself.  It’s knees are flexed and it head is bent upon its chest.  It resembles, he says, “a sleeping infant”.  He is familiar with all the arguments for abortion:  too many people in the world, a woman’s right, the burden of raising an unwanted child.  But all those arguments fall like a house of cards against what he saw:  “life prodded, life fending off.  I saw life avulsed—swept by flood, blackened—then out”.  For Selzer, it was his epiphany:  “I did not think this until I saw.”

And what he saw remains permanently engraved in his memory.  “You cannot reason with me now,” he remarks, for what can language do against the truth of what I saw”?  The truth is triumphant.  But it is remarkable how easy it is for so many to hide from the truth.

Abby Johnson, while working for Planned Parenthood, did a good job in hiding from the truth until she finally witnessed an abortion.  What she saw revulsed her.  She left Planned Parenthood, became pro-life, authored a book, and converted to Catholicism.  She is now a major force in the pro-life movement.

“Blessed are those who have eyes and can see.”  For those who have eyes and do no see, the truth awaits them.

We think that it is reasonable to believe that Jim McFadden would be welcomed into the next world by all those unborn children he staunchly defended.  But he would not need them as advocates.  His charity would speak for itself.

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is is the author of 42 books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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