The case of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortionist who stands trial for murder, raises serious questions about the psychological impact on the medical professionals who perform abortions. Was Gosnell an isolated incident of cruel indifference to suffering and pain, or is there a psychological explanation for why he did what he did?
Although there is a considerable body of research surrounding the question of the psychological impact of abortion on women who undergo the operation, and the men who are the fathers of aborted babies, very little research has been done on the impact of performing abortions upon abortionists. The issue is so politically charged that it would be extremely difficult to find an unbiased study.
Rachel MacNair is the director of the Institute for Integrated Social Analysis in Kansas City, and author of Perpetuation-Induced Traumatic Stress: the Psychological Consequences of Killing (2002), which examines several groups that kill, including war veterans and executioners. Her research found symptoms similar to Post-Traumatic Stress among groups that were required to kill, including abortionists.
Only two scientific studies have actually been conducted to study the psychological impact of abortion, which MacNair summarizes: M. Such-Baer’s Professional Staff Reaction to Abortion Work in a 1974 issue of Social Casework, and K. Roe’s Private Troubles and Public Issues: Providing Abortion Amid Competing Definitions in a 1986 issue of Social Science and Medicine. MacNair, summarizing Roe’s study, found that “’almost all professionals involved in abortion work, reacted with more or less negative feelings.’ Those who have contact with the fetal remains have more negative feelings than those who do not, and their response varied little: ‘All emotional reactions were unanimously extremely negative…Particularly striking was the fact that discomfort with abortion clients or procedures, was reported by practitioners who strongly supported rights and expressed strong commitment to their work. This preliminary finding suggested that even those who support a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, may be struggling with an important tension between their formal beliefs and the situated experience of their abortion work.”
Seeing the psychological parallels between abortion providers and other groups experiencing Perpetuation-Induced Traumatic Stress, MacNair concluded that emotional support groups would be an obvious answer to the problem. Yet at the time of writing, she was unable to find such groups, in large part because abortion providers are unwilling to appear conflicted about the work that they do. In a revealing meeting of the National Abortion Federation in 1993, conversations “illuminate[d] a rarely heard side of the abortion debate: the conflicting feelings that plague many providers: the notion that the nurses, doctors, counselors and others who work in the abortion field have qualms about the work they do is a well-kept secret.” (Gianelli, American Medical News 1993)
MacNair’s research is not sufficiently rigorous to draw a correlation between providing abortion and the criminal activity of Kermit Gosnell, but it does suggest the deeply traumatic psychological impact on health care practitioners. Is it possible that repeatedly performing a traumatizing act causes a psychologically stable person to become unstable? Is there a parallel between the soldier who “goes off the deep end” and the abortionist? Regardless of where a person stands on the legality of abortion, the psychological ramifications of performing abortions are a topic worthy of serious scholarly inquiry, and a field of clinical practice that ought to be cultivated. After all, there is an entire population of medical professionals who are not receiving the treatment and compassion that they need. Imagine the good that could come about by addressing their needs.
 MacNair, Rachel Perpetuation-Induced Traumatic Stress: the Psychological Consequences of Killing (2002)