Dr. John Bruchalski would rather close the doors to his medical practice than violate his conscience.
That’s what he said in a recent interview as the Obama administration was considering rescinding a Bush administration rule on protecting the consciences of physicians who refuse to perform abortions and prescribe contraceptives.
Bruchalski remembers his father’s words the day Roe v. Wade was announced. “Johnny, it’s Black Monday,” he said. “The Supreme Court legalized abortion.”
It would have been a blacker day if Bruchalski’s father could have peered into the future just 15 years: His son would become an obstetrician-gynecologist providing the full array of contraceptive services, including sterilizations and abortions.
“I believed that I was giving my patients the possibility of greater happiness and better partner relationships along with permanence and exclusivity,” he explains.
Belief bumped against reality. Women kept returning with worrisome pelvic infections, ectopic pregnancies, venereal diseases, including AIDS (two dying from it), not to mention the heartache of broken relationships and the attendant depression.
Bruchalski is the founder of Fairfax, Va.’s Tepeyac Family Center, a nonprofit obstetrics and gynecology practice that provides state-of-the-art care to women with and without medical insurance. It is part of the Divine Mercy Care nonprofit health-care organization.
Register correspondent Nona Aguilar spoke to Bruchalski about his transformation to the committed pro-life obstetrician-gynecologist that he is today.
You grew up in a Catholic home, praying a daily Rosary, attending Mass at least weekly, and you were also an altar boy attending daily Mass. And yet you performed abortions. How did that happen?
I think I can summarize the reasons in two ways. First, a good Catholic upbringing is not sufficient. In addition, I didn’t have a good Catholic education.
Through all those years of Catholic “education,” I never understood my faith as I do now: as something that you bring into your heart so that you have a personal relationship with the living presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. Instead, it was just a subject for study.
I learned about world religions, trying to understand Eastern religions in particular; the dissenting positions on Catholic Church teachings; situational ethics — I don’t recall that any of the insight or understanding of St. Thomas was ever brought to the fore; and new approaches to “understanding” Christ’s miracles as psychological manifestations felt by the crowds, not as true miracles.
I will also add this: I learned about the primacy of conscience. I left school believing that whatever I might consider doing was fine if my conscience was okay with it. Conscience trumped everything.
Didn’t your conscience trouble you about performing abortions?
Not for a long time, I’m sorry to say.
I did not understand that one has to seek the truth and want to seek the truth in Scripture and in the Catechism. You have to do a fact and background check of your various choices. So when I was planning to perform an abortion, I should have asked: “Is a human life present? What does the Catholic Church have to say about it?” If I wasn’t sure, then I should have prayerfully reflected on the matter, including possibly talking to friends and people whom I knew and respected. But if at every one of those points one hears dissent or an alternative to what is actually being taught by the teaching Church, one’s conscience becomes tainted. Certainly mine was. I felt that if I were helping women — and thought I was — anything I did toward that end, as I now realize I misperceived it, was okay.
What changed your thinking?
In my clinic I saw nothing but medical problems and personal unhappiness caused by widespread, nonmarital sexual activity and broken, sick relationships. I thought all religions were pretty equal at that time and started attending an Assembly of God church that supported a local pregnancy center. I watched people pray and tell others that it is much healthier to be chaste, deferring sexual relationships until there is permanence and exclusivity, and a total gift of self.
It was in the late 1980s, and suddenly lots of good things were happening. Theology of the Body and the new Catechism were published. Many really good apologists — Scott Hahn is an example — began giving Catholics a clearer, a more personal and disseminated truthful teaching of the faith.
Is that when you visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City?
Yes. I went to help out a priest friend and also visited the shrine, approaching it as a sociological study: I knew that Guadalupe was central to the experience of the Mexican people. I was certainly not prepared for — or expecting — what happened to me.
Describe that experience.
While quietly sitting in the basilica, taking it all in, I heard a clear, distinctive female voice ask: “Why are you hurting me?”
How did you react?
I looked around to see who was speaking. Had I stepped on a woman’s foot? Or bumped into a woman and hurt her somehow? But there was no woman around, and no English-speaking person, either.
Over time I came to understand whom I was hurting — and how and why. The how? My work dispensing contraceptives, performing sterilizations, supporting in vitro, and doing abortions. Women and embryos were objects to be manipulated, not welcomed as persons. The who? The mystical body of Christ. The why? My terrible formation.
You have said that you’ve drawn some important lessons from your poor formation experience.
Yes! Thanks to that experience I understand to the depths of my being why we must fight FOCA — the so-called Freedom of Choice Act, which is an oxymoron. There is no freedom; there is no choice. It is designed to coerce medical professionals to turn their backs on their faith and their consciences in order to provide a service that it, the government, deems appropriate.
How should we fight this?
In three ways. First, we must storm heaven with prayers and fasting — really storm it along with reading and studying Scripture, which, incidentally, helps to form our consciences properly. Each of us must pray to learn what we are supposed to do in our individual, particular circumstances and use the wisdom of the Catholic Church.
Next, I believe that the tried and true works. We must each work one on one with someone in our midst to help change his or her heart. Pick a friend, family member, someone in the neighborhood — whomever. It has to be a discipleship of love, gentleness and truth one on one the same way that the early Church moved beyond the Upper Room with only 12 people.
Finally, we must support two areas: pro-life legislators and pro-life medical people — doctors, pharmacists, nurses — who integrate their faith into their practices. If these people disappear, then the government knows that it has more influence over the members of the Catholic Church than our bishops have.
The renewal of health care involves more than universal coverage and lower cost; it needs a return to the vow to promote the dignity of the human person, which we have lost. Each of us in the medical field must not leave our faith at the front door of our practice. Authentic Catholic health care that practices excellent medicine, while seeing the underserved and following the wisdom of the magisterium of the Church, is not only the answer to the crisis in health care — but is the answer to the disgust and pessimism and cynicism of providers and patients and is, ultimately, how we become holy.
Nona Aguilar writes
from New York City.
INFORMATION For more information, visit TepeyacFamilyCenter.com and DivineMercyCare.org