Life on the Front Lines
Warren M. Hern, MD,
Assistant Clinical Professor
Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology
Reprinted by permission from Women’s Health Issues 4(1):48-54, 1994
article as originally published in
contained unauthorized alterations and is hereby republished in
corrected form. We regret the errors.
--- Warren M. Pearse, MD, Editor.
The first abortion I
performed was for a 17-year-old high school student who told me as I talked to
her before the operation that she wanted to be a doctor and an
anesthesiologist. I was terrified, and
so was she. She cried after the
operation for sadness and relief. Her tears
and the immensity of the moment brought my tears. I had helped her change her life. I was relieved that this young woman was safe
to go on with her life and realize her dreams.
I felt I had found a new definition of the idea of medicine as an act of
compassion and love for one’s fellow human beings, an idea that I gained from
learning about Albert Schweitzer. I had
followed that ideal by working as a medical student at a Schweitzer-inspired
hospital in the Peruvian Amazon in 1964 and later as a Peace Corps physician in
That moment in Preterm, the first
freestanding abortion clinic in the nation’s capitol, led me to the tumultuous
experience of providing abortion services through a time of great upheaval over
this issue in our nation’s history. I
was working at the time at the Office of Economic Opportunity to change federal
government restrictions on abortion funding,2 and I began corresponding with various
abortion rights groups such as the National Association for the Repeal of
Abortion Laws and the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition. I was privileged to hear the Supreme Court
arguments in the Vuitch, Roe v Wade, and Doe v
After returning to
After meeting with the group in
In trying to establish relationships with
About this time, a local newspaper
reported attacks by the newly formed Fight The Abortion Clinic Committee
The FTACC requested a special meeting of
the Colorado Board of Health, to which the FTACC alleged virtually that we were
running a butcher shop. I came to the
meeting prepared with the statistics, including complication rates and
follow-up rates, for our first month’s patients. I also informed the Board that regulations
requested by the FTACC would probably violate the Doe v
At the November meeting of the Boulder County Medical Society, a group of antiabortion doctors formed a committee with the purpose of getting the society to pass a resolution asking the state and county health boards to declare the clinic a “clear and present danger” to public health and requesting the boards to shut down the clinic. One of my classmates from medical school recommended an investigation of the clinic before deciding on the resolution. On the day of the December meeting, we were visited by a delegation from the committee, two antiabortion physicians (including the hospital obstetrics-gynecology department chairman). I took them on a guided tour and explained our procedures. At the meeting that evening, the committee chairman (also strongly antiabortion), to the astonishment and dismay of our opponents, announced that our standards of medical care were "exemplary and commendable” and “equal to the highest standards of medical care in the community.” The resolution opposing us was derailed by a friendly pediatrician.
In December, the day after the Colorado
Board of Health meeting and the week after the medical society meeting, I went
to a quarterly meeting of the Boulder Community Hospital Medical Staff, where
my request for hospital privileges would be decided. A rancorous debate over my privileges went on
for 45 minutes. The antiabortion
department chief argued against my staff appointment on several grounds. He said I lived too far away to see a sick
patient in an emergency, which was necessary before a consultant would see
her. Someone pointed out that this had
not been a problem for a neurosurgeon from
When we started in the first week of
November 1973, we were the only freestanding abortion clinic in
When the weekend came, I
went to my mountain home to relax. It
did not seem to me that the people I met in
Picketers would walk in front of the clinic during work hours from time to time. I would go out in my green scrub suit and ask them what they were doing. Sometimes I would just make pleasant remarks. They carried signs saying I was a murderer. It gave me some satisfaction for a time to know that I was irritating them.
In the summer of 1974, a
That summer of 1974, the
At the rally, the antiabortion fanatics showed up shouting my name and calling me a murderer. They had numerous signs showing my name and various descriptions of me, none of them flattering. As I began to speak, they began to shout. I spoke above them. It was a little frightening, it was exhilarating, and I was all but overcome with emotion. There was really something fearsome about people who hated me so much and who would go after me in a personal way. I spoke of the need for safe and legal abortions for the sake of women and their families. I said we would not return to back-alley abortions for the same reasons that we would not go back to slavery, public flogging, and the bubonic plague. That barbaric time in history is over. I felt defiant. But also felt afraid of what those people might try to do to me. It was a defining moment.
At the end of the first year of operation,
it was clear that those who held power at
I felt by this time that providing
abortion services was the most important thing I could do in medicine. I took my last week’s salary and used it as a
deposit on a small office space, being careful not to tell the lease manager
that I planned to do abortions. I knew
that revealing this would make it impossible to find office space in
Now we faced the street across from the hospital. The picketers began to make regular visits to my office. By this time, I had to change my home phone number and have it unlisted.
On one occasion, I went out to the parking
lot to write down the license numbers of cars whose owners were picketing and
harassing my patients. One of the
picketers got in his car and tried to run over me in the parking lot. At the time, I was running about 5 miles a
day and I could escape the car’s path, but it was frightening because I could
see him coming after me. I reported this
incident to the
The patients came from all over – first
We did not just provide a medical service. We had to solve important problems for individuals and families that frequently had nowhere else to turn. We dealt with problems of acute emotional need and suffering, acute family and social disorganization, frequently under circumstances of severe economic deprivation and social injustice, individual grief and loss, occasional psychiatric disorder, and wrenching religious and philosophical issues, all in a context of public controversy.
In my own way, I worked to find better ways of doing abortions safely, especially second-trimester abortions, because they seemed hard to get and more dangerous than early abortions.4-8 In 1984, my textbook, Abortion Practice, was published. The publisher was deluged with hate mail and threats of boycott. In 1989, the publisher destroyed more than 300 of the remaining 350 books and took it out of print. The next year, I formed my own publishing company and published the book in a softcover edition to keep it in print.9
The attacks on abortion rights had begun
to escalate from civilized debates to personal and legislative attacks.
Our only option for taking the high moral ground was to place our own lives and bodies on the line. We must risk our lives for our cause by continuing to provide safe abortion services in the face of these threats and attempts to intimidate. Only our own moral courage in doing what we see as right and ethical could be an effective counterpoise to the antiabortion movement.
By December 1984, two dozen abortion clinics had been completely destroyed in that year alone. The head of the FBI, William Webster, declared that violence against abortion clinics was “not terrorism” because the FBI didn’t know the identities of the perpetrators.14
On the following Monday, the glass company was due to replace the plywood covering the empty frame with new glass. I cancelled the repair job, and when I got to the office, I made a hand-lettered sign, “THIS WINDOW WAS BROKEN BY THOSE WHO HATE FREEDOM..” The sign was at Scheidler’s back as he spoke to the television cameras that afternoon.
Several months later, I was sued for
slander by the antiabortion groups for publicly stating that they had created
“an atmosphere of violence and confrontation.”16 but I was defended
free of charge by some of the best constitutional lawyers in
The connection between attacks on abortion
by Ronald Reagan and other high officials and antiabortion harassment and
terrorism were increasingly plain for anyone to see,17-19 but it did
not seem to be of much concern to the public or to opposition political
The gunshots fired into my office occurred in the same week that my divorce was final. The two events were not unrelated, because the antiabortion harassment had a disastrous effect on my marriage of 6 years. The juxtaposition of the two events did nothing positive for my self-esteem.
What did Dr. Gunn represent to the antiabortion fanatic who killed him? He represented individual dignity. He represented opportunity for women to become full citizens and participants in our society. He represented social change. He represented the value of the individual adult human being as opposed to state control of individual lives and fascist totalitarianism. He represented a thought. The man who killed Dr. Gunn tried to kill a thought.
Dr. Gunn’s crime was not that he killed
children, which he did not, but that he brought liberty and health to
women. He saved their lives and
futures. That’s why every doctor in
In November 1993, both houses of Congress passed legislation making it a federal crime to assault patients and health workers at abortion clinics.
Oath and prayer. In: Rapport S,
Wright H, eds. Great adventures in
Contis G, Hern WM.
3. Hern WM, Gold M, Oakes A. Administrative incongruence and authority conflict in four abortion clinics. Hum
4. Hern WM. Laminaria in abortion: Use in 1368 patients in first trimester. Rocky Mount Med J 1975;72:390-5.
5. Hern WM, Oakes A. Multiple laminaria treatment in early midtrimester outpatient suction abortion. Adv
Planned Parenthood 1977;12:93-7.
WM, Miller WA, Paine L,
assessment of fetal age following early midtrimester D & E abortion. Adv Planned Parenthood 1978;-20.
7. Hern WM. Outpatient second-trimester D & E abortion through 24 menstrual weeks’ gestation. Adv Planned
8. Hern WM. Serial multiple laminaria and adjunctive urea in late out-patient dilatation and evacuation abortion.
Obstet Gynecol 1984;63:543-9.
WM. Abortion Practice.
10. Kneeland DE. Triumphant Reagan starting transition to the White House. The New York Times 1980 Nov 7.
11. Clendinen D. President praises foes of abortion. The New York Times 1985 Jan 23.
12. Brown P. Reagan tells abortion foes he’s with ‘em. Rocky Mountain News 1986 Jan 23.
13. Abortion clinic and 2 doctors’ offices in
14. Hern WM. The antiabortion vigilantes. The New York Times 1984 Dec 21 [op-ed].
15. Brennan C.
Anti-abortion leader targets
16. Horsley L. Abortion opponent sues Hern. Daily Camera 1986 Jan 18.
17. Hern WM. Must Mr. Reagan tolerate abortion clinic violence? The New York Times 1986 June 14 [op-ed].
18. Hern WM. Abortion clinics under siege. The Denver Post 1988 Nov 1 [editorial].
19. McKeegan M.
Abortion politics: Mutiny in the ranks of the right.
20. Shots shatter front window of Boulder Abortion Clinic. Daily Camera 1988 Feb 5.
21. Robey R.
Shots fired at
© 1994 by The Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health 1049-3867/94/$7.00