Holocaust survivor-turned-psychoanalyst recounted haunting abortion stories

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An “uncompromising attempt to reconcile the world’s beauty with its cruelty.” This is how the LA Times’ Julie Salamon described the late Holocaust survivor Magda Denes’ memoir, Castles Burning. Perhaps this attempt at reconciling beauty with cruelty was muddled by Denes’ other uncompromising quality: fierce devotion to abortion. A soul ravaged at a young age by war and paternal abandonment, Denes underwent an abortion of her own in the early 1970s.

Denes ultimately became a psychoanalyst, and evidently her “dreadful fascination” (as one author puts it) with abortion sparked her in-depth psychological research into abortion. This research culminated in Denes’ 1976 book, In Necessity and Sorrow: Life and Death Inside an Abortion Hospital.

Dr. Denes’ uncompromising devotion to abortion is paradoxical given her early life, during which her innocence was trampled by both friend and foe alike. In 1939, her father took the family’s fortune and fled to America, abandoning Magda (age 5), her mother, and her brother – all Jews—in Budapeste. They were left to be hunted by Nazis for the next five years.

Magda’s brother – a sole heroic figure in the midst of her tragedy and trauma – was ultimately executed by Nazis at the age of sixteen. But Magda and her mother and grandmother defied the odds and narrowly escaped death in the war.

However, Denes was not unscathed by her experience. She approached the rest of her life with a resentful resilience; she had survived, but she was wounded and unforgiving in nature. Her expressions are described as “blunt cynicism,” and perhaps this bluntness seeps into her abortion narrative, enlivened with heart-wrenching honesty and divorced from the sophic, semantic language employed by vociferous abortion advocates.

Her accounts read more like soul-searching soliloquys than research. Denes seeks answers – but her nonsensical commitment to abortion keeps her longed-for clarity just out of reach. For example, Denes reminisces about one horrifying but “irresistible” experience in an abortion hospital:

  I am drawn to the unit, irresistible, by my reactions of disbelief, sorrow, horror, compassion, guilt. The place depresses me, yet I hang around after working hours. When I leave, I behave outside with the expansiveness of one who has just escaped a disaster. I have bad dreams. My sense of complicity in something nameless grows and festers. I consider giving up the research…

I remove with one hand the lid of a bucket…I look inside the bucket in front of me. There is a small naked person there floating in a bloody liquid- plainly the tragic victim of a drowning accident. But then perhaps this was no accident, because the body is purple with bruises and the face has the agonized tautness of one forced to die too soon. Death overtakes me in a rush of madness…

Here, one might ask, Denes must be recalling her wartime nightmares. Surely, Denes will see the parallels and relinquish her grip on abortion sympathy. Denes does see the parallel with crystal clarity:

I have seen this before. The face of a Russian soldier, lying on a frozen snow covered hill, stiff with death and cold….A death factory is the same anywhere, and the agony of early death is the same anywhere. I take the lid off all the buckets. All of them. I reach up to the shelf above this bucket and graveyard tabletop and take down a pair of forceps….With the forceps I lift the fetuses, one by one.

And yet, as if overcome by grief, she hauntingly suggests that the child suffered martyrdom on his mother’s behalf:

I lift them by an arm or a leg…Finally, I lift a very large fetus…I look at the label. Mother’s name: Catherine Atkins; Doctor’s name: Saul Marcus. Sex of item: Male. Time of Gestation: Twenty-four weeks. I remember Catherine. She is seventeen, a very pretty blond girl…This is Master Atkins- to be burned tomorrow- who died like a hero….Might he have been the only one to truly love her?

Magda Denes passed away in 1996 at the age of 62, a staunch abortion advocate until her death. Sarah Terzo, a Pro-Lifewriter and creator of ClinicQuotes.com, has assembled an arsenal of poignant excerpts from Denes’ writings that can be found here.

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