January 24, 2010


The last abortionist: Warren Hern is no ordinary doctor. He has lived under siege for 25 years, and seen eight of his colleagues assassinated. Even some of his own patients want him dead. John H Richardson meets the last late-term abortionist in America (John H Richardson, 1/24/10, The Observer)

In the kitchen at the clinic, Dr Hern bolts down two microwave tamales. He talks fast and doesn't smile. "It is my view that we are dealing with a fascist movement. It's a terrorist, violent terrorist movement, and they have a fascist ideology…" Dr Hern goes on like that for some time. Long before the first doctor got shot back in 1993, he was warning that it would happen. He was getting hate mail and death threats way back in 1970, just for working in family planning. They started up again in 1973, two weeks after he helped start the first non-profit abortion clinic in Boulder. "I started sleeping with a rifle by my bed. I expected to get shot." In 1985, someone threw a brick through his window during a protest by the quote unquote Pro-Life Action League. He put up a sign that said THIS WINDOW WAS BROKEN BY THOSE WHO HATE FREEDOM. In 1988, somebody fired five bullets through his window. In 1995, the American Coalition of quote unquote Life Activists put out a hit list with his (and Tiller's) name on it. The feds gave them protection for about six months, then left them on their own.

"People don't get it," he says. "After eight murders, 17 attempted murders, 406 death threats, 179 assaults, and four kidnappings, people are still in denial. They say, 'Well, this was just some wingnut guy who just decided to go blow up somebody.' Wrong. This was a cold-blooded, brutal, political assassination that is the logical consequence of 35 years of hate speech and incitement to violence by people from the highest levels of American society, including but in no way limited to George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms, Bill O'Reilly, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Reagan may not have been a fascist, but he was a tool of the fascists. Bush was most certainly a tool of the fascists." [...]

The patients can be upsetting, too. They're under terrible stress, of course, but sometimes they come in very angry. One had conjoined twins and would have died giving birth, but she exploded when told she couldn't smoke in the office. Some treat him with contempt: usually those who have been directly involved in anti-abortion activities. They hate all abortion except for their special case. One even said they should all be killed. Only 14, she came with her mother. "What brings you here?" Dr Hern asked. "I have to have an abortion." "Why?" "I'm not old enough to have a baby." "But you told the counsellor 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." [...]

The opponents of legal abortion often use the phrase "abortion on demand", implying there are no restrictions at all. This characterisation is untrue. It has always been illegal in the US to perform abortions after viability without a compelling medical reason. In Kansas, for example, where Dr Tiller practised medicine, the law for any abortion after 22 weeks requires two doctors to agree that failure to abort would put the mother at risk of "substantial and irreversible harm". But Dr Hern's long list of foetal abnormalities that have led women to his clinic ranges from anencephaly to dwarfism, and you know a few dwarfs. You like to think you'd be happy with a dwarf child. [...]

Later, he says, "You can never get used to this. I think we're hardwired, biologically, to protect small, vulnerable creatures, especially babies. The foetuses may not be babies, but some of them are pretty close." He suggests you read an essay called What About Us? Staff Reactions to D&E (Dilation and Evacuation). "The anti-abortion people quote the [***] out of it. It's kind of anti-abortion porn for them. But the pro-choice people don't like it either. They don't like it when you talk about how it really feels to do this work." His voice is somewhere between bitter and proud.

So why did he write it? And what about this theory that man is a cancer? "I wrote it because, A, I'm a human being, and B, I'm a writer, and C and D, I'm a physician and I'm trying to understand what we're doing here."

You read the paper. He describes the reactions members of his staff have when they see residue of late abortions, which include "shock, dismay, amazement, disgust, fear and sadness". The later the pregnancy, the harder it is to accept. One assistant resented the patients for putting them through such a horrible experience. Two others described dreams where they vomited foetuses. Common coping mechanisms were denial, projection and rationalisation. The paper ends with the passage the anti-abortionists love to quote, always out of context; words so honest they are almost as painful to read as they must have been to write: "We have reached a point in this particular technology where there is no possibility of denying an act of destruction. It is before one's eyes. The sensations of dismemberment flow through the forceps like an electric current. It is the crucible of a raging controversy, the confrontation of a modern existential dilemma. The more we seem to solve the problem, the more intractable it becomes."

Dr Hern is in the basement doing an abortion.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 24, 2010 4:41 PM
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