Abortion Doctor Warren Hern Isn't "The Only One Left" — But He Is In DangerS

Esquire's profile of late-term abortion doctor Warren Hern is earning praise — but Newsweek's Sarah Kliff reminds us that Hern is not "the only doctor in the world" who does late-term abortions.

Kate Harding writes on Broadsheet,

There's [...] a lot to be said for such an article appearing in Esquire, which one female friend (and longtime subscriber) described as "a magazine with a history of terrific longform journalism that has too often, of late, fallen into a rut of puff pieces about George Clooney and how to tie an ascot while drinking scotch." The grim realities of Hern's life and work may no longer be shocking to those who keep abreast of reproductive rights news, but it's probably safe to assume that many readers seeking ascot-tying advice do not count themselves among that crowd.

She's right that Esquire, while still publishing substantive articles like a recent examination of the "birther" phenomenon*, frequently devolves into a highbrow version of Maxim with pieces about how being a real man means being "thrilled by the snatch." If guys who read Esquire for the ascot tips (way apt, Harding's friend) actually get some insight into how difficult it is to maintain access to choice in this country, that would be a very good thing.

Kliff, however, criticizes writer John H. Richardson for calling Hern "the only one left" who does late-term abortions in America. "I know this," she writes, "because I've spent the last three months profiling another late-term abortion provider, LeRoy Carhart." Kliff says Carhart actually knows of six doctors who perform third-trimester abortions, but they understandably keep a low profile to avoid the kinds of threats Carhart receives on a daily basis (his clinic is pictured above, after a January fire). Performing abortions since the 1980s, and offering late-term procedures at his own clinic since his friend Dr. Tiller was murdered, Carhart has seen his employees quit and other doctors turn away his referrals. Kliff writes,

A few days after Tiller's murder, Carhart's daughter received a late-night phone call saying her parents too had been killed. His clinic got suspicious letters, one with white powder. It's been like this since Carhart started performing abortions in the late 1980s. On the same day Nebraska passed a parental-notification law in 1991, his farm burned down, killing 17 horses, a cat, and a dog (the local fire department was unable to determine the fire's cause). The next day his clinic received a letter justifying the murder of abortion providers. His -clinic's sidewalks have been smeared with manure. Protesters sometimes stalk him in airports. The threats, the violence, now the assassination of his close friend-all of it has left Carhart undaunted, and the billboard-size sign over his parking garage still reads, in foot-high block letters, ABORTION & CONTRACEPTION CLINIC OF NEBRASKA.

Carhart's dedication is inspiring, but what saddened me as I read this litany of threats was how familiar it all sounded. Harding writes that "many people, including me, have written a great deal about the risks late-term abortion providers face every day, about the lengths they must go to to stay alive — let alone stay in practice," and the truth is, I've become accustomed to reading about these risks. The day-to-day danger of an abortion provider's life (as a commenter pointed out, the word "abortionist" has been totally co-opted by anti-choicers) is something I've simply come to accept, even though of course it shouldn't be normal at all. And I suspect that, even among other staunchly pro-choice people, I'm not alone. If it took Dr. Tiller's death to shock us this summer, what would have to happen to shock us now?

One answer, sadly, is Kliff's description of an abortion procedure itself. Kliff describes it thus:

A first-trimester abortion, from my vantage point behind the glass window, looked like an extended, more invasive version of a standard ob-gyn exam. A woman with her heels in stirrups, clothes traded in for a hospital gown, a speculum holding the cervix open. Carhart used a suction tube to empty the contents of the uterus; it took no longer than three minutes. The suction machine made a slight rumbling sound, a pinkish fluid flowed through the tube, and, faster than I'd expected, it was over.

What's really telling, however, is her friends' reactions to her experience. She writes,

Friends who supported legal abortion bristled slightly when I told them where I'd been and what I'd watched. Acquaintances at a party looked a bit regretful to have asked about my most recent assignment. The majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade's protection of abortion, about 68 percent as of May. But my experience (among an admittedly small, largely pro-choice sample set) found a general discomfort when confronted with abortion as a physical reality, not a political idea. Americans may support abortion rights, but even 40 years after Roe, we don't talk about it like other medical procedures.

Kliff's description of an abortion reminded me of Hern's even more unflinching account of a late-term procedure. Both use occasionally graphic language that we're more used to hearing from the anti-choice side. That's because foes of abortion make the mistake of confusing our visceral distaste for the physical realities of abortion with an ethical objection to it. They show us baby dolls covered in blood and pictures of dead fetuses as though being grossed out were the same as being morally outraged. But no surgery is pretty, and while an abortion may be more morally complicated than an appendectomy, it deserves just as much protection. We don't offer that protection, though, if we pretend that abortions don't involve blood, or, in a few cases, a fetus we can visually recognize as human. Descriptions like Kliff's and Hern's should inoculate us against the scare tactics of those who use blood to stand in for evil.

But we shouldn't allow ourselves to be inoculated against the threats that Hern and Carhart receive. These men aren't soldiers, they are doctors — their job shouldn't cost them their physical security. By accepting that their careers offer an almost unacceptable degree of occupational hazard, we all but ensure that younger people won't take their place when they retire. Kliff reports at one point that Leroy Carhart doesn't go out in public anymore, for fear of being shot. This is unconscionable. We need to understand that the violent in the anti-abortion movement are far more than a lunatic fringe, that anti-choicers with a conscience must disown and denounce them, and that we all need to treat abortion doctors as we treat other medical professionals — as men and women with an important job to do, and the right to do it in safety.

* Also by John H. Richardson, author of the Hern profile.

The Last Abortion Doctor? [Newsweek]
The Abortion Evangelist [Newsweek]
Competing Emotions [Newsweek]
Late-Term Abortion Hits The Lad Mags [Broadsheet]

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