Kathi Aultman was six weeks postpartum when she returned to work at an abortion clinic in Gainesville, Florida. She performed abortions on the weekends to earn money during her residency.
“I felt really strongly that abortion was a woman's right,” Aultman told CNA in a Sept. 17 interview. “I mean, I bought the whole thing: hook, line, and sinker.”
“I even did abortions when I was pregnant — very pregnant. But I didn't see any contradiction. My baby was wanted, theirs wasn't. If they wanted to abort their baby, that was their right.”
But Aultman remembers something was different about that first abortion she performed after delivering and caring for her own baby. For the first time in her life, Aultman made the connection that the unborn child she was aborting was, in fact, a child. Not dissimilar to her own child.
Aultman completed the abortion, and the rest of the abortions scheduled for her that day. But she said her experience that first day back from maternity leave marked the beginning of her journey toward becoming a pro-life advocate.
Today, Aultman has testified on pro-life issues before state and congressional bodies and state courts, and has assisted various state attorneys and the Justice Department in considering cases related to abortion. She was a speaker at the 2019 March for Life in Washington.
Most recently, Aultman was one of 240 of pro-life women to sign an amicus brief in support of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case out of Mississippi that has the potential of overturning federal protection for abortion in the United States.
‘I did not see them as people’
Aultman had a mind for science from a very young age. She remembers eagerly helping her father, a Methodist preacher, clean fish after fishing trips. Aultman enjoyed examining the internal organs of fish, and inspecting their eyeballs. When her mother brought animal hearts home for family meals, Aultman would run water through the organ to examine the valves in action.
Aultman’s aunt was a bioengineer, and she became a role model for her inquisitive niece. When Aultman was in the fourth grade, she visited her aunt's lab, and she remembers being so impressed that she decided, on the spot, to become a scientist.
After earning her undergraduate degree from Drew University in 1972, Aultman set her sights on a Ph.D. in basic research. But she chose to study medicine, because the field seemed to offer more secure job prospects than research.
Aultman was accepted into medical school in New Jersey. Before her classes began, Aultman discovered that she was pregnant.
“And it's the same old story,” Aultman said. “I thought that … if I kept the baby, I wouldn't be able to be a doctor. I was afraid we'd end up with a divorce, because we were getting married because we had to. I was afraid of what my family and friends would think.
“So I decided to have an abortion.”
After her first year of medical school in New Jersey, Aultman transferred to the University of Florida to be closer to her then-husband. After completing medical school in 1977, Aultman found she had a natural interest in obstetrics and gynecology. She enjoyed what experience she had delivering babies, performing surgeries and well-woman checks. But she said her personal experience with abortion made the field even more attractive to her.
All standard OB-GYN residency programs include abortion training, though residents can conscientiously object. Aultman remembers some of her fellow residents conscientiously objected and did not learn how to perform abortions. But Aultman felt abortion was a woman’s right, especially after her own experience. She happily learned how to perform first trimester abortions. She even pursued special training outside of her program to learn how to perform second trimester dismemberment abortions.
After she got her medical license, Aultman began moonlighting at an abortion clinic to pay the bills during her OB-GYN residency.
Aultman said abortions tapped into the fascination with biology that she experienced as a child. She said she loved examining the tiny hands and feet of the aborted babies, with their perfectly formed fingers and toes.
“I was fascinated,” she said. “I thought they were so interesting. I love[d] sending fetal parts down to pathology so I could look at the slides and see what the embryonic tissue looked like. I did not see them as people.”
Around the same time, Aultman helped open the first rape treatment center in Jacksonville, Florida. The center seemed like a natural offshoot of her interest in caring for women. She performed rape exams at the center, but never knowingly performed an abortion on any of the women she saw there.
In fact, she never knowingly performed an abortion on any victims of rape — at the center, or at the abortion clinic. Aultman remembers patients at the abortion clinic were required to give a reason for their abortion. If they didn’t have a clear reason, Aultman said she would typically list “psychological health” on documentation.
“If you have to have this baby, and you don't have the means to take care of it, blah, blah, blah,” Aultman said. “I never specifically did an abortion because the baby was deformed, or for the mother's health. They were all elective.”
(Story continues below)
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‘I don’t want to do this’
Aultman said three encounters she had with abortion patients on her last day of performing the procedure remain seared in her memory.
The first patient was young, and Aultman recognized her because she had already performed three abortions for her.
“I went to the administration, and I said, ‘I don't want to do this abortion. I've already personally done three on her,’” Aultman said. “And they said, ‘Well, that's not up to you. It's her right and you can't discriminate against her.’ And, I looked at them. I said, ‘Yeah, well, that's fine for you, but you're not the one doing the killing.’”
Aultman performed the abortion that day. But it was the first time Aultman had associated abortion with the word “killing,” and she took note of it.
A second patient came in for an abortion, and she brought a friend for support. After the abortion, the friend asked the patient if she would like to see the aborted baby.
“And she said, ‘No, I just want to kill it,’” Aultman recalled. “And it just struck me, you know, how could she be so hostile and angry towards this little baby? It hadn't done anything wrong. That really affected me.”
A third patient came in for an abortion. She already had four children, but she and her husband decided they couldn’t afford another child. Aultman remembers the patient cried during the entire abortion. That was the final straw for Aultman, and the last abortion she would perform.
“After that, I could no longer personally do abortions,” Aultman said. “I couldn't abort babies just because they were unwanted.”
A dramatic shift in thinking
Aultman no longer performed abortions, but for several years she continued to refer for abortion at her own practice, which she opened in 1981. That same year, she accepted the role of medical director for Planned Parenthood of Northeast Florida. The clinic did not perform abortions at the time. Aultman quit that role in 1983, when the clinic expanded its services to include abortion.
But Aultman still believed that abortion was a woman’s right. It was easy for her to wonder where she would be if not for her own abortion all those years ago.
“I had bought the line that the worst thing that could happen to a woman was an unwanted pregnancy,” she said.
Then Aultman would see young pregnant women with unplanned pregnancies come to her practice, and thrive after giving birth to their children. She remembers a family at her Christian church had a baby with Down syndrome, and Aultman watched in awe as the baby grew into what Aultman described as a sweet little girl. But many of the women she saw coming into her practice after abortions carried psychological or physical complications.
“Slowly, this was beginning to make me wonder if everything that I believed [about abortion] was really true,” Aultman said.
In terms of her own abortion, Aultman began to realize the fears she had at the time were unfounded. She had met plenty of women who had babies and were now successful doctors. She and her first husband ended up getting divorced, despite the abortion. Aultman also realized that the family and friends who really counted would have been understanding about her unplanned pregnancy.
“So none of the reasons that I came up with for having the abortion ended up being valid,” Aultman said.
Aultman turned these questions over in her mind. One day, a friend from her church sent her an article that likened abortion with the Holocaust. It was a particularly sensitive topic for Aultman because her father had been with the unit that liberated the first concentration camp during World War II. She had grown up with the stories and photographs of that historic, harrowing moment.
“Also, when I became a doctor, I couldn't understand how the German doctors could do what they did,” Aultman said. “So with that background, when I read this article, it really hit me. I mean, it … just removed the blinders. All of a sudden, I thought, ‘Well, no wonder they could do what they did. Look at what I did because I didn't see [the unborn] as human beings.”
Suddenly, Aultman saw herself as a mass murderer. It happened to be when infamous serial killer Ted Bundy was in the news, and Aultman remembers thinking that she had probably killed a lot more people than Bundy had.
“That was the point when I understood that abortion was wrong, and I became pro-life.”
Healing and advocacy
Aultman became pro-life around the year 1995, and she said it took another year for her to truly heal and forgive herself for her past involvement with abortion.
During that year, she visited the Christian Healing Center in Jacksonville and she said she had an experience of forgiveness there. As a woman prayed over her, Aultman saw herself at the foot of Jesus. She had a dialogue with Jesus, in which He asked why she could not forgive herself when He had forgiven her. Aultman then saw the baby she had aborted. He was a little boy, and he told her he forgave her.
Soon after, Aultman went public with her pro-life stance, speaking out against abortion and in particular against partial-birth abortion.
Even with her experience of forgiveness from God and her aborted baby, Aultman still struggled to tell her now-husband, Ron Combs, about her past. The pair met in 2000, and Combs remembers that Aultman waited to share her story with him.
“But I understood the journey and how it came about, because I'm of that same generation,” he said. “I remember how strongly pro-abortion came on back in the 60s, 70s and early 80s ...They were pushing it so hard. I can understand why all women were thinking that was the way to go.”
Combs shares his wife’s pro-life beliefs, and although her pro-life work sometimes requires travel and long hours, Combs says he fully supports his wife and the work she is doing.
“I'm very proud of her, and fortunate to be married to her,” he said. “She is committed to this, and she believes in it. .. And I support her in it as far as she can physically and mentally take it, because of course there's a lot of pushback when you go in there and tell people the facts. You know, people don't like facts all the time.”
Aultman said her involvement in legal battles related to abortion has always been a challenge.
“I just trusted that God would take care of me.”
Aultman retired from her practice and her pro-life advocacy in 2014, for medical reasons. After a year of recovery, Aultman began praying to God for guidance for her retirement. She had always envisioned spending her retirement in the mission field, working in Africa or somewhere similar, but her health issues would not allow for it. She asked God to let her still do something meaningful.
The next week, she got a call. Could she go to Washington and testify before Congress on a heartbeat bill? She happily agreed. Since then, Aultman has testified, written affidavits and declarations in abortion cases across the country, more recently in New York and Louisiana.
When Aultman heard that the U.S. Supreme Court would consider Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, she was immediately intrigued. She was one of 240 pro-life women to sign an amicus brief in the case, challenging the assumption that women are socially and economically better off with access to legal abortion.
“I felt like I was one of those women who believed that women had to have abortion in order to succeed,” Aultman said. “That was a lie. It wasn't true. I still could have been a professional, I still could have done what I did, as many other women had done that I trained with. So I felt it was important to sign on to that [amicus] brief.”
A powerful pro-life witness
On Jan. 18, 2019, a crowd of pro-life advocates gathered before a stage at the national March for Life in Washington.
Men, women and children were bundled in coats and scarves to protect themselves against the cold of winter. They clutched signs with messages including “Choose Life” and “Defund Planned Parenthood,” and watched as Aultman walked up to the podium on the stage.
“My name is Dr. Kathi Aultman,” she began. “I’m a retired OB-GYN. I used to do abortions, but by God’s grace, I’m now pro-life.”
Aultman then shared her story, and pleaded with the crowd to continue their work changing hearts and minds on abortion.
“Help people to see that what is in the womb is a person, with their own unique characteristics and potential, not just a blob of tissue,” Aultman said.
“A woman cannot kill her child and remain unscathed. There are millions of women in the United States who have had abortions. Some of you are here. They are hurting, and need your help and compassion. They need to know that God wants to heal and restore them.”
Sue Liebel is state policy director for the Susan B. Anthony List. She remembers the first time she heard Aultman share the story of her pro-life conversion, and testify on partial-birth abortion.
“I was actually shocked,” Liebel told CNA. “Then, I was mesmerized as she described with such transparency exactly how she did abortions in her previous career.
“While painfully clear how the procedure — especially dismemberment— kills the baby and sometimes hurts the mother’s body, Aultman still showed respect and caring for her patients.”
Liebel has since seen Aultman testify three other times, and she said Aultman’s unique perspective as a former abortionist is powerful for the pro-life cause.
“Her testimony is so powerful,” Liebel said. “I know her personally and sometimes this exhausts her, yet she keeps going because she can speak the truth into the abortion debate. And people stop and listen.”
Though Aultman’s testimony is powerful, Liebel said her demeanor is disarmingly humble.
“Her kind voice and respectful approach removes the vitriol seen in so many of the [abortion] hearings,” Liebel said. “She wants to bring truth and healing into America’s painful abortion reality.”
Love, bravery can change hearts
Today, Aultman has two daughters. She still lives in Florida with her husband, Ron. She is an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research and education branch of the Susan B. Anthony List.
She told CNA she isn’t in an environment in which she hears a lot of criticism for her pro-life beliefs. She has friends and family members who are pro-abortion, including her mother. But Aultman said her mother is supportive of her pro-life work.
Aultman believes a gentle, loving approach is the best way to convince others to reconsider their position on abortion. She remembers the example of patients at her practice, when she was still referring for abortions. Several of them came to her when they were pregnant, and asked about her stance on abortion. When she told them that she supported abortion as a woman’s right, they calmly told her they could no longer stay in her practice and left.
“That made a difference to me,” Aultman said. “I think that was also one of the things that began to change my outlook. They were brave enough, and they did it gently. They didn't do it in a mean way.”
“So I think you have to love people, but I think you have to be brave enough to be honest about what your feelings are, and let people know in little ways that aren't offensive that you believe in life.”
Correction: Kathi Aultman performed her last abortions all on the same day, not over the course of several weeks, as reported in a previous version of this story. In addition, she became pregnant for the first time just prior to entering medical school, not while she was a medical student, and she said residents, not medical students, can opt out of abortion training.
Kate Olivera is executive producer of Catholic News Agency's podcasts: CNA Newsroom and CNA Editor's Desk. She has a BA in journalism from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has worked at Catholic News Agency since 2012; and was previously a staff writer at The Catholic Voice in the Archdiocese of Omaha.
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This December, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in the abortion case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Many legal experts say it presents the most momentous test yet of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. At issue is the constitutionality of Mississippi’s 2018 law banning most abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy.
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