Interview with Dr. Christopher Russo, MD
I have always assumed that most doctors would probably be pro-life since doctors by nature are focused on science and facts, and science clearly demonstrates the fact that a child is human from the moment of conception.
When I learned that my fellow pro-life advocate Elaine Russo’s husband was a pro-life pediatric doctor I wanted to test my assumption by getting the view on this question from an insider. I contacted Dr. Russo and he was kind enough to agree to an interview to discuss this issue.
PLM: Dr. Russo, can you give us some background about your experience and what you do as a doctor?
Dr. Russo: Sure. I was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. I went went to college there at Harvard College in Cambridge. I went to Tufts Medical School in Boston.
I did my pediatric residency training at St. Christopher’s Hospital in Philadelphia, and I am currently the Director of the Pediatrics Hospital program at Lynchburg General Hospital, a community hospital in Lynchburg, Virginia.
I am Catholic. My wife, who is Protestant, and I attend both Catholic Mass and Protestant services together. We have two small children, a five year old and a two year old.
PLM: Dr. Russo, you are a pro-life physician. In your experience would you say that the majority of doctors are pro-life or prochoice?
Dr. Russo: I would not say that the majority are pro-life. I would say that being pro-choice is probably much more common, and is much more accepted. But shockingly, I would say there are a vast number of people for whom the issue is never engaged by them at all. So they say it’s something they don’t think about, they don’t get into, it’s out of their specialty, it’s out of their realm.
For me, the question of when does life begin, being pro-life I believe it begins at the moment of conception. But you can talk to physicians who will say it’s not really up to them to make that decision. So it’s far more common to have a pro-choice physician, and it’s far more “acceptable” to be a pro-choice physician when you talk to colleagues. So being a pro-life physician puts you in the stark minority.
PLM: I find that very interesting because it would seem to me that doctors, by virtue of the fact that they are doctors, would have a very high regard for science. And as you know as a pro-life advocate, science clearly shows now that the unborn child is a human being right from the moment of conception. So I find it odd that doctors who have a high regard for science and should know these facts would then choose to be pro-choice. Have you talked with pro-choice doctors about this and how do they justify their position in regard to what science says about the unborn being human?
Dr. Russo: Some people say there is a dichotomy between faith and science, that they are separate entities and never the two shall meet. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard I would tell people that I was going to church, and other biology majors like myself would say things like “Oh, my grandmother goes to church,” almost in a way that it was a very antiquated notion.
Even people in medical school would be very direct and ask me how I could be pro-life, be religious and a Christian, and be in science as well. They believed that there was a fundamental divide, that one cannot be a Christian and a scientist. I think there is a perception by people who are pro-choice or by people who don’t want to engage this issue, that the issue of abortion being so politicized is something that has to do with faith, that it doesn’t have to do with science at all. So because of that they think they are going to stand above this and look at things clearly and rationally and keep themselves above the fray.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Science has shown again and again that conception is the moment when life begins and a person looking at it from a purely scientific perspective would see that, but it’s far easier to remove oneself from that and refuse to engage it.
PLM: I find that so interesting because when we talk about doctors we are talking about people who are highly educated with a high regard for science. Yet when we approach the pro-life question from a scientific perspective it seems like they don’t want to look at the science behind this issue, and instead stay out of it by labeling it a “religious” issue.
Dr. Russo: There’s a very human side of this as well. Of course, there’s the issue of a human life inside the mother but many physicians will say that their responsibility is to the patient, and that they have have only one patient here and that is the mother, the woman in front of them that they can see.
But clearly, as anyone who is pro-life realizes, that is not the case. I think many physicians, coming from the side of science, want to stick to what they know, what they can do, what they can control. And it’s easier not to engage in this issue.
And then we get into the lies spread by the pro-choice side such as we don’t care about the woman, that we don’t care about the mother and her circumstances. Or they will say things like you can either care about the woman or care about the baby, and you can’t do both.
So I think a lot of times physicians are seduced by the desire of wanting to be compassionate. So they think here’s a mother facing a difficult choice and they want to be pro-choice and in this way they can support this woman who is making a difficult choice. That speaks to the compassion that many physicians have and why they became physicians in the first place.
It can be very seductive when someone asks “Don’t you care about women, about their health, what about them?” That resonates as a physician because as a physician you are in charge of caring for patients.
PLM: It sounds very similar to many of the arguments we hear outside of the medical community.
Dr. Russo: Yes, but I think what makes it different in the physician community is that there is a strong move to look at things objectively, look at the facts, and look at things in a non-judgmental way.
So many physicians will comfort themselves by saying, “I don’t get involved in the issue of pro-life or pro-choice. I’m just going to be objective about this, and let the woman make the decision on her own. My job is not to pass judgment or interject my opinion or give advice as to what she should do.”
I think the real danger in that is that it abdicates one of the fundamental roles of the physician which is to give advice and counsel. For things that are overwhelming or confusing, a doctor who has a medical background can help someone decipher the lies that are being told about this issue. If we as doctors don’t do that then I think we could just be replaced by robots.
To be honest, it’s messy. It’s hard. In our medical field we are often extremely time constrained. The days of going to an appointment and the physician just sits and talks with you forever, those days are gone because of the changes in medicine. So in a 15~20 minute appointment to bring up the issues of life, to bring up issues of ethics, that can be very difficult. The path of least resistance is just to avoid the topic, not get involved, and stay “objective.”
PLM: What about in your particular specialty of pediatrics where the focus is more on the child? Do you find the same issues within that physician community?
Dr. Russo: Yes I do. In training to be a pediatrician you pass through all aspects of the child’s life. This includes the neonatal intensive care unit where life is most fragile, the most vulnerable in our population. Seeing a 24 week old infant fight for its life, for example, really caused many fellow residents that I know to question their beliefs.
I know for Christians it was a moral crisis for some of them because they would see these small children being kept alive by fancy expensive machines, with an uncertain prognosis in terms of whether the child would live or die, but an almost certain prognosis that the child would live with some sort of disability whether intellectual, or needing to have help breathing, or cardiac problems. Oftentimes I would hear Christian doctors say things like, “What are we doing? We are keeping this child alive for what purpose?
Then you see the other end of the spectrum where you are counseling teenagers. I had a clinic with 16~18 year olds and I remember the first day where I had a 16 year old and one of the doctors above me told me to give the patient the “back to school pack.”
I found out that the back to school pack was a bag of condoms. For me, being pro-life and Catholic, I don’t believe in premarital sex. As a physician I feel if I give contraception to teenagers I’m giving tacit endorsement that this is a behavior that is acceptable.
To me it’s no different than someone who is smoking and me saying, “I don’t want you to smoke but if you are going to smoke then smoke this.” You would never say that. You would say, “You need to quit smoking.”
I never gave out contraception to any patients unless it was medically indicated. But you do see the pro-life issue come up with teenagers. There were girls who were pregnant and the instruction to me was to refer them to Planned Parenthood. I said that I was not going to refer them to Planned Parenthood. They can find information about Planned Parenthood if they want. I can refer them to a place that I think will give them some great advice like a crisis pregnancy center in the area, which also happened to be directed by my wife so I knew that they would get excellent care there.
PLM: It just hurts to hear that that’s where our medical profession is on this issue. I realize of course that there are exceptions like you. When you take the actions like you just described how do other doctors react and what do they say?
Dr. Russo: I would say do not be afraid in what you are doing. You are standing up for your convictions and what you believe and no one should force you to go against those convictions, but be prepared that there can be a backlash. I can give you an example for myself.
I wear on my lapel the “precious feet” pin which shows the actual size and shape of a baby’s feet at 9 to 10 weeks in the mother’s womb. For me it is one of the most powerful pro-life statements one can make, to say that this is what so many people say is “trash,” what so many people disregard and say is not a life. Look at these feet on this pin, these perfectly formed toes, how can anyone say that that’s not a life?
So one time I walked into a room and a physician looked at me and she said, “What are those? Those aren’t what I think they are, are they?” She shook her head at me and said, “A lot of women died for that right.” And I said, “You know, a lot of babies have died for that ‘right’ as well.” I think the Bible really tells us a lot that when one stands up for one’s faith one cannot expect there not to be any challenges or troubles.
I think that one has to learn to work within the system. For example, I can say to a mom that I am not going to give contraception to her daughter, and I can tell her why, but also that there are other physicians she can go to if she wants to because I want patients to feel that they can get the kind of care that they want, but at the same time tell them my feelings and my beliefs without engaging in things that are morally opposed to what I believe.
PLM: In medical school, is the issue of pro-life taught in any type of ethics classes?
Dr. Russo: Not directly. Medical schools are different but the issue of ethics and morality is almost exclusively about end of life ethics such as when is the time to do compassionate care, palliative care, etc.
The question of is that product in a mother’s womb a life or not, this is not an issue which comes up in ethics classes.
This is really a disservice because once you go on to do your clinical rotation as a medical student in the obstetrician gynecology office and you do prenatal testing for the mother and find out that the child has Downs syndrome, you might have to experience the doctor saying to the mom something like, “Your child has Downs syndrome. Do you want to continue with the pregnancy?”
I was shocked when I heard that. I didn’t even know that Downs syndrome could be an indication for termination of a pregnancy. That was so shocking to me. Even how one talks about the infant in the womb, how it’s not an infant but a fetus, which is so sterile. And there’s a big disconnect that happens because I think we’re really failing to help medical students confront this moral issue.
In medical school we would get a lot of lectures about development of the embryo through the nine months of pregnancy, but there was no connection to “This is a person. This is a life.” There is a disconnect there because it is far too easy to avoid engaging in the issue, to worry about offending someone.
So I think it is incumbent on medical students who are listening to this interview to know that this is the time when you want to engage your colleagues. I’ll give you a quick anecdote.
When I was a first year medical student at Tufts Medical School in Boston I was elected class President. There was a Bible study that was happening with some physicians and students, and I was in charge as class President of sending out emails during the week about upcoming events. In one of my emails I said that there was a Bible study about the Book of James, and I put in parentheses that it was a challenging fantastic book.
The next day a medical student friend of mine came up to me and said, “Who are you to inject your religion into our emails? Don’t you know about the separation of state and religion?” It really took me aback so I thought that the best thing to do was to see if we could combat this head on. So a friend of mine and I started the interfaith council at Tufts University Medical School with the idea of having all the religions talked about. If we talk then I am allowed free reign to bring up my Christianity in the marketplace of ideas.
This was overwhelmingly positively received. There were 40 to 50 people there and we were able to talk about issues of life and issues of faith. So I said from the Christian perspective we believe that life begins at conception. So there is the opportunity for any students who are listening. Do not be afraid to bring up these issues.
You are going to begin practice as a physician yourself very soon so now is the time to confront these moral issues. You are going to be there with that mother who is nine weeks pregnant who asks you what you think she should do. What are you going to tell her? Are you going to give the textbook answer of “I don’t know. It’s up to you. I can’t make that decision for you.” Or, are you going to say, “Yes, this is a difficult situation for you. Let’s talk about this. This is what I believe. I believe that is a life inside of you that has inherent worth and dignity, and there are places here that can help you with this decision that you have, that can help you with resources, that can help you with adoption, for example.” As a doctor you just need the courage to bring up these issues.
PLM: Is there any formal organization of pro-life physicians where these kinds of issues can be discussed?
Dr. Russo: There is the Christian Medical and Dental Association which is one of the largest associations of Christian physicians and allied health professionals, so that is where I would recommend that most people start.
You can also Google “pro-life physician” and depending on your location you can find pro-life physicians and small groups in communities that are supportive of the pro-life position.
I think it is really important for physicians who are pro-life to speak up about this because as a physician you have a privileged position in that interaction with a patient. Patients will tell me things that they wouldn’t tell their own spouse, or their parents! They will tell me because they trust me as a physician, and that is such an awesome privilege that God has given me.
And as a physician that respect can be used to speak out. For example, I used to do prayer vigils in front of abortion clinics in Boston, and as someone in the medical field I think that makes a powerful statement. I may wear these medical scrubs and this medical coat but that doesn’t mean that I’m not making a moral stand here about what is life.
PLM: Dr. Russo, thank you for your time today. It has been fascinating. I know our readers will learn so much from the comments you made. You’ve given us an inside view of this issue within the physician community. Another thing I learned from you today is about how difficult it can be for pro-life doctors who courageously make that stand within the profession, so I want to thank you for carrying that cross and being a witness within that community, and I will pray for you and other physicians like you.
Dr. Russo: Thank you and I’m glad you closed on that because one of the most powerful things that physicians can do for their patients, more powerful than any drug, intervention, study, or test, is to pray for their patients.
I walk through the neonatal intensive care unit and pray over each crib and pray for that baby’s life. But I also pray in the exam room while listening to patients and my heart is breaking hearing their stories. For example, hearing the story of a 17 year old who is in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend, and I want to help her and I’m praying as I’m listening to her and taking notes and counseling her.
This battle is won through prayer. I truly believe that He will give you the strength to say what you need to say and the courage to say what you need to say, if only you ask.
PLM: Thank you so much for that beautiful witness. I know that all of us are going to pray that God delivers us more doctors like you.
Dr. Russo: Thank you. I appreciate that.
About Dr. Christopher Russo
Christopher Russo MD is a pediatric hospitalist in Lynchburg, Virginia. A second-generation Italian-American born and raised in Boston, MA, he graduated from Harvard College and Tufts University School of Medicine. He then completed his residency in Pediatrics at St. Christopher’s Hospital in Philadelphia, PA.
He is the blessed husband for 10 years of Elaine Hong Russo and the father of two miracles, Matteo and Isabella. He has been active in the pro-life ministry from the time his parents took him to pray outside abortion clinics in Boston, and has been invited to speak on numerous occasions on the interplay of Christian faith and medicine.