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DEREK MONTGOMERY/Herald photo

The issue of abortion was brought to the forefront of debate Wednesday evening when a former abortionist presented his pro-life stance on the controversial topic to a divided, often confrontational audience of University of Wisconsin students at Grainger Hall.

Amid support and protest, Dr. Anthony Levatino told his story of transformation from a pro-choice doctor performing an estimated 1,200 abortions over nine years to a pro-life advocate.

"It's not a choice of hot dogs and hamburgers," Levatino told the audience as protesters lining the aisles with signs proclaiming, "Our bodies, our right" hissed and interrupted. "There's more at stake."

Levatino then launched into a graphic description of his abortion procedures, which involved pulling individual body parts off a 20-week-old fetus from inside the womb with a large metal clamp.

"I didn't have any qualms with what I was doing," Levatino stated. "I was pro-choice. It was part of my care to women."

Levatino began to reconsider his beliefs on abortion in 1984, however, when the girl he and his wife adopted seven years earlier was killed after being struck by a car.

"I went back to my practice and I ripped out an arm or leg, and I stared at it," Levatino said. "For the first time in my life, after over 1,200 abortions in private practice, I actually looked at the pile of goo on the table, and all I could see was someone's son or daughter."

Throughout Levatino's speech, pro-choice supporters in the audience interrupted with their own views on the ex-abortionist's former practices.

"You just saved [that woman's] life," one protester yelled, as another followed with, "It's better than doing it with a hanger."

It was not until Levatino opened himself up to questions that the heated debate between members of the divided audience began, as many of the most contentious perspectives on abortion were raised.

One pro-choice supporter raised concern that cutting off access to abortion will lead to an increase of illegal, "back-alley" abortions, putting many women at risk.

Levatino responded by saying childbirth is safer than an abortion.

"I endangered that woman's life," Levatino said, referring to a 17-year-old on whom he performed an abortion during her 23rd week of pregnancy.

When asked his views on abortion in the case of rape or incest, Levatino stuck to his pro-life stance.

"Abortion under that situation is morally reprehensible," Levatino said, adding abortions in those cases amount for a "small percentage" of the 1.4 million abortions he said were performed annually.

Overall, representatives from all sides on the abortion issue were pleased to have the opportunity to voice their opinions, despite the sometimes-contentious atmosphere.

"I came to listen to these people, to hear where they came from," UW medical student Tina Shakhnovich said afterward. "If the country can't agree, no way will a room full of college students."