"If Anyone Wants Hope For The Human Species, Don't Talk To Me": The Loneliness Of An Abortion Doctor

In a long, sad Esquire profile, John H. Richardson describes the rage, sorrow, and conviction of Dr. Warren Hern, who described himself as "the only doctor in the world" who performed late-term abortions after George Tiller's assassination.

[Image above by Jamie Kripke for Esquire]

After Tiller's murder, it's not surprising to hear that Hern feels vulnerable all the time. He has been getting death threats since 1970, and anti-abortion protesters call his mother at home. He says, "I will never be safe. I'm always looking over my shoulder."

What's more surprising, however, is that some of Hern's own patients treat him with "contempt and disgust," because, in Richardson's words, "They hate all abortion except for their special case." Richardson writes,

One even said they should all be killed. Only fourteen, she came with her mother. What brings you here? he asked. I have to have an abortion. Why? I'm not old enough to have a baby. But you told the counselor we should all be killed. Yes, you should all be killed. Why? Because you do abortions. Me too? Yes, you should be killed too. Do you want me killed before or after I do your abortion? Before.

Up against such hatred, Hern can't even take comfort in an uncomplicated relationship to his work. He tells Richardson that "you can never get used to this." He explains,

You can't. I think we're hardwired, biologically, to protect small, vulnerable creatures, especially babies. The fetuses may not be babies, but some of them are pretty close.

This is a far cry from the bloodthirsty, uncaring abortion doctors that anti-abortion advocates love to depict. Dr. Hern performs a procedure that many people hate him for — including some of his own patients — and he performs it all but alone, in full knowledge of its emotional complexity. It's no wonder that he sometimes sounds embittered. Of Randall Terry, who once prayed for his death on the radio, he says,

These guys are just despicable. If anyone wants hope for the human species, don't talk to me.

And yet, Hern himself offers hope, if not always comfort. What's perhaps most striking about him is his unwillingness to use euphemistic or inaccurate language. Whenever Richardson calls his patients "moms," he corrects him: "They're not moms until they have a baby." And in a 2003 Slate article, Hern offered this description of a late-term abortion (warning, it's disturbing):

Earlier this year, I began an abortion on a young woman who was 17 weeks pregnant. Because of the two days of prior treatment, the amniotic membranes were visible and bulging. I ruptured the membranes and released the fluid to reduce the risk of amniotic fluid embolism. Then I inserted my forceps into the uterus and applied them to the head of the fetus, which was still alive, since fetal injection is not done at that stage of pregnancy. I closed the forceps, crushing the skull of the fetus, and withdrew the forceps. The fetus, now dead, slid out more or less intact. With the next pass of the forceps, I grasped the placenta, and it came out in one piece. Within a few seconds, I had completed my routine exploration of the uterus and sharp curettage. The blood loss would just fill a tablespoon. The patient, who was awake, hardly felt the operation. She was relieved, grateful, and safe. She wants to have children in the future.

In the middle of the 2003 partial-birth abortion ban debate, Hern offered a specific and unflinching physical description of what goes on in an abortion. Some would call this impolitic, but it's also courageous. Hern spells out what abortion sometimes is, and he stands up for it anyway. This is perhaps the strongest counterargument to the anti-abortion movement's buckets of fake blood and photos of dismembered fetuses. Yes, Hern is saying, sometimes abortion is grisly, but we need it all the same. In a recent post on Tiller's death and the power of language, Megan wrote,

Every day, we're bombarded not by "Thou shalt not kill," but by the message, "Thou shalt not kill unless" - and there's no firm consensus on what "unless" entails. In the absence of that consensus, in the midst of that grey area in which societal justification meets individual circumstance meets human frailty and the easily-led, what we too easily find is the darkness of the human mind and what inhumanity humans are capable of when exhorted not by the barrel of a gun but by the power of words.

Dr. Hern's frankness shines a light into "the darkness of the human mind." It's too bad he's so alone.

The Last Abortion Doctor [Esquire]
Abortion Doctor George Tiller Is Killed; Suspect In Custody [LA Times]
Did I Violate The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban? [Slate]

Earlier: Dr. Warren Hern: "It Is Terrifying And It's Infuriating. There's No Excuse For This."
On George Tiller And The Profound Power of Language