"We have to get beyond the damn rhetoric," Dr. John Bruchalski tells a group of medical students on a recent stop in his second annual National Medical Students for Life Tour.
He's talking about the a-word, abortion -- the one many of us just don't want to have to talk about. Including in med school.
"Dr. B," as he's known, reads from a Washington Post article that ran a few years ago, in which a medical student recalled witnessing her first abortion and her struggle to reconcile the gruesome reality with her pro-choice views.
"I think she's getting at what it means to have a conscience," he tells the lunchtime student audience.
At a time when conscience is in the news, as the president has forced the issue by not adequately protecting it in his health care law and subsequent regulations, the doctor's testimony makes it all a bit more concrete, a bit more real. As real as it is for every clergy administrator or Catholic businessman who truly can't comply with the health care mandate forcing coverage of employee plans that include contraception, sterilization and even abortion.
Bruchalski is pro-life, which he is upfront about, but wasn't always so, having once performed abortions: "I went into medical school because I was politically pro-choice. A woman has a right to her body, for any reason, at any time, throughout her pregnancy."
But he watched what abortion did to women and listened to their stories, as any good doctor would. It was not making them happy and healthy.
Making the transformation to the founder of a pro-life medical practice hasn't hardened or polarized him. He is able to say with utmost compassionate sincerity to audience: "It's not easy to do abortions. No matter what the rhetoric is."
Dr. B wants folks on opposite sides of the debate to see one another. He wants individual doctors to see both themselves and their patients -- all of them.
And he doesn't refrain from discussing the fundamental issue that should be of concern to doctors: "You have to come to grips with the humanity of the fetus."
"Doing the procedure, the actual transmission through the instrument to your hand to who you are as a person is a difficult thing to do," he says.
With some exceptions, the crowd did not seem totally with him -- even on basic definitions. Conscience, one woman said, is what we put aside as doctors for the good of our patient. And yet, there were nods in seeming agreement more than once.
Listening to him, watching the room, what resonates is the idea of consistency. It's what converted him, got him to stop performing abortions, what led to him founding the Tepeyac Family Center in Fairfax, Va.
It's not just the humanity of the fetus that Bruchalski is concerned about. There is also, he says, the humanity of the doctor and the woman. "We need to understand the individual women's narrative." He repeats twice his motto: "Health is based on the relationships found in community." And he's not shy in telling the students gathered that the primary relationship -- not only on a personal level but for society, as well -- is between a mom and her unborn baby. So at Tepeyac, they do not operate as if "children are sexually transmitted diseases."
"I wanted to practice excellent medicine. The way you do that is you offer real options to women other than abortion. You walk them through," he says.
"This conscience issue is real crucial. It affects all of us," he tells the students. To pro-lifers, he will say even more explicitly: If you are pro-life, you don't have to hang your conscience at the door.
And if you consider yourself pro-choice: Why don't we talk openly about the inconsistencies and silences we tolerate on certain women's health topics in the name of political expediency? How can doctors tolerate the politicization of medicine?
Dr. B wants to "change the dynamic of the debate" about abortion in America, specifically amongst the next generation of doctors. Medicine, he says, "is an act of mercy" -- on each patient, even the ones whose little arms and legs are just beginning to form. Bruchalski is one doctor who wants to see the next generation take back medicine from the politicians.