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Dr. Jeff Nelson: The Nuanced Abortion Argument by Grace Olson

Jeff Nelson has been a family physician for many years. He retired in 2020 and, throughout his career, has seen the many problems families face regarding healthcare, especially while considering large and life-changing health decisions, like whether a woman should have an abortion when an unplanned pregnancy enters her life. His book, What Should I Do? A Family Physician Discusses Abortion, Religious Freedom, and Difficult Decisions offers advice on how to navigate these tough decisions.

Dr. Nelson’s wife was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014. She died in 2016. They were married for forty-one years. Dr. Nelson’s three children are all married, and Dr. Nelson is now a grandfather. Both Dr. Nelson and his wife had done some writing over the years. His wife even said she’d like to write a book, but she never got to. By the time she decided to write a book, she was too far down the line to accomplish her goal. Dr. Nelson’s first book, I Got to Live with An Angel, details the story of his wife’s journey through her brain cancer.

Dr. Nelson’s new book, What Should I Do? explored the topic of abortion. “I had thought for years about writing about the subject of abortion,” Dr. Nelson explained, “and all the different ways that people look at that issue.” Abortion is a very controversial topic with many different angles to look at it from. In the book, Dr. Nelson looks at religious freedom as a large part of the abortion issue. “I respect those who feel like it’s wrong to do or they feel like from the moment of conception it’s a child,” Dr. Nelson explains. “I understand that but at the same time, it’s not my personal belief and I don't think it’s appropriate for those who believe that to force their belief on the rest of society. In the book, I talk about the idea that we need to ask those people to respect that other people feel differently and I can understand why it’s hard to do that.” Because of this perspective, Dr. Nelson ended up coining the phrase “pro-choice/pro-life”. Dr. Nelson explains this term by saying “We have a lot of options in our society to be able to reduce the need for abortions. It can never be eliminated, and it’s something where I think a woman has the right to decide and it’s very appropriate in a whole variety of circumstances. The other part is that people just have a lack of understanding of the fact that if you don't want to be pregnant, that pregnancy is a risk to your health and that women do die from it, and because of that fact, I don't think we have the right to tell someone that they have to take on a higher risk of death by keeping a pregnancy, given the fact that abortion is a much safer option, especially early in pregnancy.” These concepts are included in Dr. Nelson’s book, along with many others of this nature.

In one section of the book, titled “My Ideal World”, Dr. Nelson explains the idea that a man and a woman have a regular relationship where they are always faithful to each other. This couple would get to have their children with no fertility issues or birth defects or complications. “Obviously, that’s not the real world,” Dr. Nelson says. “If every pregnancy was normal, without complications, and wanted, there would be no need for abortions. But there are times when it would be very hazardous for the woman to continue with the pregnancy. In these cases, it might be safer for the woman to have an abortion to decrease her risk of death.” I had never thought of idea of abortions being lifesaving measures in some cases, but Dr. Nelson’s point makes me think about it differently. Often, when we think of pro-lifers, we often think they aim to discourage abortion always, in all scenarios, no matter what, but Dr. Nelson’s point, along with his term pro-choice/pro-life, makes me think that the abortion issue isn’t an all-or-nothing issue. Dr. Nelson’s point provides a more nuanced perspective on both sides of the argument, especially from a medical perspective.

As for Dr. Nelson’s writing, he began writing as a way of expressing his feelings and thoughts. “I’ve enjoyed writing,” Dr. Nelson explains. “It’s definitely something I’ve used over the years to express myself. I’ve written poems and I’ve written another book, I Got to Live with an Angel.” For What Should I Do? Dr. Nelson’s favorite moment in the writing process was when he was ready to receive feedback from others about his writing and he gave some pieces of his book to someone close to him. Dr. Nelson’s favorite line from his book is the last line on the last page. It reads, “I believe God asks us to support whatever decision the woman makes about whether to remain pregnant or to have an abortion-- and God asks us to be pro-choice/pro-life.”

As for the final message that Dr. Nelson hopes readers take from his book, it is one of nuanced understanding. “I would hope that we could have more open discussion in our country and our society about the issue of abortion and other difficult subjects,” Dr. Nelson explains. “I hope that we can respect each other’s viewpoints. And in this instance, because our country was founded on the concept of freedom of religion, I think it means that we can’t really have the stricter abortion laws that some want our country to have. We can do a number of things to reduce the need for abortions and the need for a woman to need to think about it.” What I gather from this, Dr. Nelson hopes that we can all be more understanding and respectful of each other’s different views on the abortion issue.

Now, for my favorite question to ask all my interviewed authors: What advice would you give to a young writer? Dr. Nelson said, “I would say ‘go where your heart takes you.’ When you feel the urge to write, get to a pen or a computer as fast as you can, but don't force it. If the words don't come, step aside and don't worry about it.” As someone who’s prone to bouts of pretty intense writers’ block, I needed to hear this advice, and I hope you can take this advice to heart, too.

I thoroughly enjoyed talking to Dr. Nelson. His nuanced understanding and respectfully stated points make for an excellent conversation. I learned a lot from him about the nuances of the abortion issue and the aspects of it that many just neglect to think about. He said things I never even thought about before. I’m so glad I got the opportunity to speak with him and I hope you also learned a lot.

Happy reading!

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