If I Had Known Then…

When I started medical school nearly 40 years ago, Roe v. Wade was only a decade old. At that time, there was little if any talk of abortion, but prevailing medical thought accepted legal abortion as a procedure that saved women’s lives.


Patti Giebink, MD

When I started medical school nearly 40 years ago, Roe v. Wade was only a decade old. At that time, there was little if any talk of abortion, but prevailing medical thought accepted legal abortion as a procedure that saved women’s lives.


Then came the years of the Clinton Administration, when the mantra was “safe, legal and rare.” Did we ever imagine that abortion would grow into the industry it has become, in which abortion on demand would eliminate generation after generation-perhaps 50 million lives lost and counting? How do we reconcile that? Is it tragedy, genocide, holocaust, “a woman’s right to choose” or simply reproductive freedom?


I was once asked why I did abortions. My answer: “If I had known then what I know now, I never would have done them.” Even after studying embryology and stages of development in medical school, I was told, “It’s just tissue,” making it easier to settle my conscience. Initially, when early ultrasound pictures were more like a snowstorm than the detailed images we see today, fetuses seemed less human. But it’s still no excuse. I pray that my story of reconciliation and transformation, chronicled in Unexpected Choice: An Abortion Doctor’s Journey to Pro-life, might help anyone who is struggling with the pain of abortion, contemplating abortion or curious to know how the other side thinks.


Kudos to the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG)[1] for recognizing and rejecting the pro-choice/pro-abortion stance of the venerable American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Around 1972, just prior to Roe v. Wade (January 22, 1973), a fledgling group of pro-life doctors formed their own organization. AAPLOG has since become an established source of evidence-based information countering the biased professional resources produced by ACOG.


In childhood and well into adulthood, I didn’t know the Lord. I was the fourth child of seven (the invisible middle) and routinely the peacemaker attempting to balance the scales of fairness within turbulent sibling rivalry. And though I attended Sunday school and was baptized at age 12, I had no relationship with Jesus. My family leaned toward the liberal side of social issues, and we often discussed politics. I think it paved the way for my freethinking tolerance and broadmindedness.


My dad served as a combat surgeon in World War II. After his tour, he returned to Minneapolis, Minnesota and dedicated his skills to orthopedic surgery. His stories of internship at Hennepin County Hospital made a lasting impression. Interns rode in the ambulance to retrieve and treat women in septic shock due to illegal abortions, and of the countless horrible things he saw in his career, these experiences were the most memorable.


Initially, I thought I would follow in his footsteps and go into ortho/sports medicine. Instead, I became interested in women’s healthcare. At the time, OB/Gyn was dominated by men, but more and more women were entering the field, and it seemed to fit my growing independent streak.


Throughout my OB/Gyn residency at Indiana University Medical Center, I never thought I would be doing abortions as a career, let alone eventually become the sole abortion provider at Planned Parenthood in Sioux Falls, the only abortion clinic in the state of South Dakota. At first, they had another full-time abortion doctor, and I only worked one day a week while mostly focusing on my busy private OB/Gyn practice in Sioux Falls. At the time, the dichotomy never hit me: working hard one day to save the lives of my patients, both mothers and babies; then going to Planned Parenthood the next day to terminate pregnancies. Perhaps my medical education blinded me to the obvious. Or was I refusing to allow myself to see the truth?


After nearly two years of working part-time, Planned Parenthood offered me a full-time position. Their abortion doctor wanted to fully retire after decades of being the primary abortion provider in the state. Hiring me was his exit strategy. Sometimes in life, we arrive at a junction where we could go one of two ways, and years later we might even wish we had a do-over. This was one of those times.



Looking back, I can see the hand of God even then, protecting me, leading me on a path to Him. But it would take more than a loss of a stable job before my stubborn human will would bend and eventually submit.


God’s plan soon had me filling in for physicians in the scenic little town of Chamberlain in central South Dakota on the Missouri River, serving a rural community and two Indian reservations. For me, it’s been a place of peace and spiritual discovery. Serendipitously, a friend invited me to a small church where-after a long, painful and reluctant process-God captivated my heart and transformed my life. And eventually He led me to speak out about this topic that is so fraught and contentious.


My years working in the abortion industry taught me that most women don’t choose abortion because they are bad mothers. They are desperate and feel they are unable to be good mothers given their circumstances.


Too often it is not even a voluntary choice. Young women are coerced into this decision more often than we recognize or want to admit. The teenager whose parents insist she either get an abortion or find a new place to live. The husband who puts a gun to his wife’s head and says, “Choose: your life or the abortion.” The boyfriend who pays for the abortion, threatening to leave if she doesn’t follow through…and then leaves anyway.


God commands us to care for widows and orphans. I like to think these women fit His definition. Have we as churches shirked that responsibility? How can we make our churches and our neighborhoods safe places for everyone no matter what they’ve done? A place where we can share burdens and spread kindness?


Words can hurt or heal, curse or bless, show kindness or cruelty. To judge is not a Christian’s responsibility, but that of God who knows all, sees all, hears all. As believers in Christ-the one who sacrificed His life for everyone, when we were but sinners-it is our job to love, period!


Imagine a woman who has been hurt by abortion sitting in your local congregation. (Believe me, it’s more than likely you’ve encountered one or more people suffering in silence.) When the topic of abortion comes up at your church, what is the tone? Are the words that ring out compassionate and forgiving? Do they invite a loving response? Or are they loud vitriol, adding to that woman’s anxiety and humiliation?


Before my previous life was revealed as an abortion doctor, I sat silently in church, cringing every time the topic of abortion came up. I felt firsthand the guilt, shame and regret of my actions, as well as the fear of being discovered. But God helped me overcome those feelings by healing me of my past. I was an unbeliever in the throes of a battle, and only by His grace did I find the light.


That same grace is extended daily in pregnancy help centers throughout the world. These centers provide emotional support and encouragement, as well as parenting classes, mentoring programs, baby clothes and necessities.


They need our help-not only our finances, but also our time and talent. Volunteering offers several opportunities in all kinds of activities: gardening, painting, decorating, doing mailings for newsletters, etc. Many of these centers need medical directors. Find out what’s in your community and see how you can serve.


My concern for the underserved was honed working with Indian Health Service on the two nearest Indian reservations, Crow Creek and Lower Brule, both Lakota. Eventually I became interested in missions and have worked with several Christian organizations, taking me to Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. The first time I gave my testimony to a CMDA Global Health Outreach (GHO) team was in the guesthouse in Kabul, Afghanistan. I was “outed” by a team member who heard an interview I had done with Janet Parshall on Moody Radio the month before the trip. Fast and enduring friendships form on these intense GHO travels.


In our highly polarized society, it is difficult to communicate with those who do not share our beliefs, but it is more critical than ever that we make the effort. Moshe Dayan, a famous Israeli freedom fighter and minister of defense, said, “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.” We cannot guarantee how our listeners may respond, but we can always communicate with patience and gentle instruction.


How can we become sensitive about what we say and how we say it? The answer comes from my own life experiences, detailed in Unexpected Choice. I have walked out on pro-life meetings because they were too brutal, hurtful, inflammatory. Ironically, they were filled with well-meaning people, many who were and are my friends. But as a dear friend once told me, “Patti, not everyone has been to the foot of the cross.” She was wise enough to see that the lack of compassion usually comes from the lack of common life experience.


That’s what I tell myself when I hear people with their own stories of abortion-whether unapologetic or repentant. In both cases, I extend grace and then more grace while remembering that “Mercy triumphs over judgement” (James 2:13). After all, I was complicit too, and God’s grace saved me.


In order for us to preserve the sanctity of life, we must safeguard our capacity to feel. John Newton said it best: “The awareness of our own depravity is the root of perpetual tenderness.” To change minds, we must first change hearts. That is the message God shared with us 2,000 years ago. Jesus appealed to our need for love, not our ability to understand. Our desire for Him to care for us. To bear our faults, endure our mistakes and reveal to us the way we’re to go.


Patti Giebink, MD, is an OB/Gyn physician who has more than 30 years of experience delivering babies in the U.S. and in hospitals overseas. While working in her private practice in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she began working part-time performing abortions at Planned Parenthood, the only abortion clinic in South Dakota. Eventually she closed her practice to work full-time at Planned Parenthood but left one year later in September 1997.  She has not performed any abortions since. Her book, Unexpected Choice, chronicles her career, her journey and her transformation and gives readers insight into both sides of this divisive issue. Dr. Patti now spends her time helping people find compassion and sensitivity to those affected by abortion. Dr. Patti lives in South Dakota along the Missouri River with her cat. Her hobbies include bicycling, reading and prairie gardening. Unexpected Choice is her first book.


[1] APPLOG’s website at is a wealth of user-friendly and reliable information.