'What I Saw that Day Shouldn't Be Allowed in this Country'

Why ob-gyn nurse Brenda Pratt Shafer changed her mind about ‘a woman's right to choose’

Brenda Pratt Shafer stood in the delivery room as her first grandchild was born last summer, overcome with joy.

But at the baby's birth, “it all came flooding back,” she says of the haunting three days in September 1993 when she assisted at Dr. Martin Haskell's Dayton, Ohio, abortion clinic.

Pratt Shafer, 40, coos lovingly at her granddaughter, then says that “whenever the baby startles, it's that same move-ment”—arms outstretched, tiny fists and toes clenching and unclenching, the movement Pratt Shafer saw the babies make as Haskell plunged scissors into each of their skulls before their brains were extracted, so their collapsed head could be delivered through the birth canal.

She once asked a doctor if he could hypnotize her to make these horrific images disappear.

Haskell and the now-deceased Dr. James Mc-Mann pioneered the notorious procedure known as partial-birth abortion, a procedure Pratt Shafer became alltoo-familiar with. “I watched the abortions,” she says, “because he wanted me to help. He was having trouble keeping nurses.”

When the nursing agency where Pratt Shafer was registered asked her to take the job at Haskell's clinic, she was looking forward to the assignment. She agreed to work there for three days before leaving to get married. If things worked out, she thought, she would return to work there after her honeymoon.

Although she'd never seen an abortion, she “bought into all the lies about how a woman has a right to choose.”

As a single mom raising a son and two daughters, she had always told her girls if they became pregnant, she would make them get an abortion—until she worked at the abortion clinic.

“During that first day, I started seeing things,” she says, “and I thought something's not right here. I was getting mad at the women. I was supposed to be comforting them, but their attitudes—they were laughing and joking, like they were just having a fingernail clipped. Then others were very, very depressed and cried the whole time.”

“I really wanted to grab one of the little feet and say, ‘Look what you just did.’ The biggest lie that I thought myself was the babies were dead (before being aborted). I look back now and think, what would have killed them?”

She recognized the truth her second day on the job. “[Haskell] used the ultrasound during a dilation and extraction (abortion),” she says, explaining that abortion-ists use the sonogram to make certain they only pull out the baby and “not a piece of the uterus.”

Pratt Shafer saw what she thought was the baby's heartbeat on the ultrasound monitor. Stunned, she asked Haskell what she was seeing.

“He says, ‘Oh, that's the heartbeat,’” she says, adding, “You could see the baby move around while he ripped off her leg.”

The third day, she witnessed three partial-birth abortions (see sidebar).

After that, Pratt Shafer never returned to the clinic.

“When you look life and death right in the face like that, it does something to you,” she says. “I loved being an ob-gyn nurse, but to see that little baby brought out and murdered before my eyes was too much.”

Shortly thereafter, Pratt Shafer's younger daughter, now 18, and her stepdaughter, now 17, were doing a report on abortion for a school project, so Pratt Shafer stopped by the local crisis pregnancy center to get some pictures for them.

While there, she mentioned that she had worked with Haskell, and the counselors told her there was a bill in congress to outlaw the partial-birth abortion procedure she'd witnessed. With her permission, they passed her name and number to Douglas Johnson at the National Right to Life Committee in Washington, D.C.

“He asked me to come to D.C. to give some interviews, talk to senators,” says Pratt Shafer, who'd never even voted in her life. “Doug told me I was putting myself into the line of fire and to think long and hard about it.”

So she and her husband, who attend the Church of Christ in Centerville, Ohio, talked and prayed.

She knew what she had to do. She went to Washington. And she kept returning, 20 times that first year.

“I was devoted to it,” she says, not realizing what a commitment it would entail.

Initially, former Congresswoman Patricia Shroeder (D-Colo.) and her associates strove to discredit Pratt Shafer, saying she'd never worked for Haskell. Then, they said Pratt Shafer had misrepresented what she saw.

“Alot of people out there say I didn't see what I saw,” Pratt Shafer responds. “Believe me, I saw it and I've had a lot of nightmares. This is one way of healing, of trying to get over this, and teach people the truth about what really does go on. I wish I hadn't seen what I saw, in a way, because it was very terrifying. What I saw that day shouldn't be allowed in this country.”

Pratt Shafer began speaking all over the country, taking extensive time off her job as a home health nurse. Eventually, with bankruptcy looming, she and her husband realized she would have to start charging for her appearances.

She remains in great demand as the battle over partial-birth abortion heats up once again.

Oct. 8, Congress sent Clinton a bill that would make it a crime for doctors to perform the late-term abortion. Two days later, Clinton, as promised, vetoed the bill, which had passed the House with more than the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto.

Twice the Senate has passed the bill, most recently on May 20 of this year, when three more votes were needed to override the veto. The bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.), does not expect a vote to override the veto until 1998.

Pratt Shafer urges people to write their senators, thanking the ones who voted to ban the procedure and urging the others to override Clinton's veto.

“I've met almost every single senator and congressman,” she says, “and they say people never thank them for [voting for the ban]. That's important to keep their votes, because they could change their minds.”

She points out that Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York initially voted to keep the procedure, but later changed their vote “because of the pressure people put on them.”

She also asks people to tell others about partial-birth abortion, “because one person can make a difference,” she says.

Spreading the awful truth about partial-birth abortion has not been easy. “Since committing to do this, it's been a spiritual warfare,” she says. In addition to a death threat and verbal attacks, she has faced the tragedy of her brother's suicide, which came the same day she learned her oldest daughter was pregnant. The young woman has since married and given birth to Pratt Shafer's first grandchild, but the experience, she says, showed her that God has a sense of humor.

“People always threw it in my face that I didn't know what I'd do if one of my daughters was pregnant,” she says. “The devil tries to knock me down, I get up, dust the seat of my pants off, and I get [going].”

God, she says, is protecting her. “My kids have told me that if something happens to me, they'll pick up the cross and carry it for me—and they would.”

To order a videotape of Pratt Shafer's story, Inches From Life, call 1-800-296-2336.

Tracy Moran is based in San Diego, Calif.