The making of a pro-life man

Following the loss of his child, Dennis Wolterding joins the anti-abortion campaign.

128 Grand Street, Albany,

June 13, 1983:

It was too small a bathroom and too hot a day for so much blood.

You could see it-almost smell it-on the tile floor of this just-renovated Victorian townhouse that was to be the happy home of the yuppie family of Dennis, Kathy and the child.

Kathy Smith Wolterding, 13-weeks pregnant, was on the floor with the blood-its source-doubled-up in fetal position with the cramping pain of a first-trimester miscarriage (in medical circles, a "spontaneous abortion"). Below the organic hurt were the sobs of an ancient grief, of Rachel weeping for her children that are no more.

I, the Dennis in this home, was looking down on events, barely less paralyzed than my wife, hoping the baby was all right, knowing he was dead. The trip to the local hospital, the ultra-sound, the futile flurry of residents and pelvics only led to the inevitable: our tall, blonde, lady obstetrician's low-throated lecture about the absence of fetal tones or parts, the empty gestational sac, the "non-viable, blighted ovum."

So Ignatz, our nickname for the in-utero child we had come to love, was no more-in fact, never was. And in a day everything at Grand Street changed.

People who study this kind of thing 1 will tell you that pregnancy loss is the death of a child and that few things test a marriage more than that. And while misery is not a competitive sport, the husband and wife typically grieve differently, individually, and out of synch. Men are especially prone to a "belated reaction" in which "...the husband may feel intense emotions not unlike what his wife felt immediately after the trauma."

Such is the fine forensic analysis. The experience, as Rose says in "Titanic," was somewhat different: I stopped sleeping; or rather slept not a drop over three hours. Fairly jolted awake at 3 a.m., by unknown forces, I'd steal to my film lab (which was to have been the nursery) and continue the quest for Why. I panned for solace like a miner does gold; I conned OB-GYN texts by night, interrogated the doctors by day. I pursued the empathetic by phone, my sister, my friends, those who simply had to listen.

In desperation's flight from despair, I even sought out support groups with squishy acronyms like RESOLVE and SHARE.

Nothing, or maybe everything, helped, but mostly it was time that muted and transmuted the slough of loss. And, slowly, something else, that I do not understand but have seen in others, began to happen.

Unconsciously, in the place where sonnets like "On Abortion" are knit, I had always cherished the unborn. Scientifically-trained, I had never doubted that human life began at fertilization when sperm and ovum fused and the DNA genome came into being.

What I had not appreciated before is the speed with which the prenatal child is so fearfully and wonderfully made; how quickly he joins the infant clan complete with hiccups and thumb-sucking-an embryo with heartbeat at 3 weeks post-fertilization; measurable brain waves at seven; movement at about the same time; fingerprints at nine weeks. 2,3

I loved Ignatz. And I came to realize that, "my God, they are all such as he" and not blighted but growing. And they are being butchered in the United States at the rate of three a minute, 1.5 million a year, and all very lucrative and legal-like.

No, I didn't go from epiphany to picket sign right away. There was the delicate matter of evolution, of questioning my right to get involved, of, my God, dealing with those "right-to-lifers" whom one writer, before he, too, became a Pro-Life advocate, characterized as "...the kind of people whose eyes are too close together..."4. And there was the crossing of the cultural divide between so-called left and right, a treading no less perilous than Donner Pass in October.

And in this one story of transition there are scores of others: the half-concealed horror of my upscale friends, who saw me on T.V. picketing "against abortion rights"; the slow estrangement of my wife, who, though she tried heroically, could not accept my new direction as a sign of health; her own isolation from her feminist friends who simply would not believe that a wife might differ with her husband on such an article of faith as abortion and distanced themselves.

Then, there was the Pro-Life community with its own totems and taboos that had no notch for this tough-talking-liberal-non-Christian-non-Catholic-environmentalist-scientist who should be on the other side, but was ardently and volubly on theirs.

Lastly, there was me. A paradigm shift, whatever else it betokens, is a study in anxiety, for as it sends the old order packing, yet it steals the familiarity that makes the new one comfortable. And, behold, in my Pro-Life world all things were become new.

I learned that in the abortion wars the first casualty is life, the second is truth and the third is justice.

I dipped into Burtchaell's masterwork on the controversy, "Rachel Weeping" 4 and discovered that in almost every important particular, the conventional wisdom on abortion is wrong: No, 5,000 American women a year never died of illegal abortion, more like about 167 in 1967 when the first state, Colorado, legalized the surgery. No, unwanted pregnancies do not become unwanted children prone to child abuse; in fact, abortion may promote child abuse and abuse incidence has increased over 1,000 percent since abortion became the law of the land 6. No, the polls show the majority of Americans favor restrictive abortion laws - not the laissez-faire killing of Roe vs. Wade - which is why state limits on abortion, such as informed-and parental-consent, continue to pass despite ruthless hostility to them in the courts. No, abortion rights advocates all know it's a baby, not a blob of tissue, which is why they continue to fight bans even on partial-birth abortion, that grisly matter of delivering the second-or third-trimester kid in breech position, stabbing his skull with a catheter and sucking out his brains 7; and Figure 1.

Yet, there was one myth I never took seriously, so flimsy did I find its moral and intellectual pinnings to be: that a man has no right to enter this woman's domain, to "fight abortion."

The retorts are many and obvious: Of the yearly 1.5 million killed, about 750,000 are little boys. As one of their gender, I claim the right to save them.

Or there is the matter of disenfranchised fathers, all million-and-one-half of them, who under Roe vs. Wade and its progeny have zero say in the death of their sons and daughters (even when they're married to the lady).

What about the hypocrisy of the feminists, who gleefully accepted their Constitutional right to a dead baby in 1973 from nine old penises on the U.S. Supreme Court forgetting that men did this for them.

Or how about the abortionists themselves over 90% of whom continue to be male - doctors not only killing but making a killing on women in trouble?

Need something high-minded? Consider the quaint guarantee of the U.S. Constitution's Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the right not to be killed without due process of law and the right to equal protection of the laws?

Oh, they're all good arguments. I give them to you freely if you want to join up.

But for me there is still Jesse, the name we came to give our child whose microscopic remains were quietly buried by the Catholic hospital--along with all the other miscarried-in Calvary Cemetery. Jesse, rhyming to the moon, who is with me at every step, at every street picket, in every debate, at court when I am sued, in the classroom when I am welcomed, in the quiet of night as I write to you.

Jesse whispering, "I love you, Father. Save them."


References Cited (For more information, see

1. Friedman, R. and Gradstein, B. (1982) "Surviving Pregnancy Loss." Little Brown and Company.

2. Moore, K. and Persaud, T. (1993) "The Developing Human." W.B. Saunders Company.

3. Hamlin, H. (1964) "Life or Death by EEG." Journal of the American Medical Association, October 12, 1964

4. Burtchaell, J. (1982) "Rachel Weeping and Other Essays on Abortion." Andrews and McMeel, Inc.

5. Ney, P. (1979) "Relationship Between Abortion & Child Abuse." Canada Journal Psychiatry, Vol. 24.

6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center of Child Abuse & Neglect; National Analysis of Official Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting (Reported cases in 1973 are 167,000; in 1987 are 2,025,200).

7. Haskell, M. (1992) "Dilation and Extraction for Late Second Trimester Abortion" in 2nd Trimester Abortion from Every Angle", Proceedings of the National Abortion Federation Conference, September 13-14, 1992

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