Abortion Doctor Upholds Legacy Of Fallen Colleague

Friday marks the 37th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision that established a woman's constitutional right to an abortion. Host Michel Martin talks to Dr. LeRoy Carhart, one of the few doctors in the U.S. who performs abortions. Dr. Carhart was a friend and colleague of Dr. George Tiller, also a provider of abortions who was murdered last spring.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll talk about voodoo. Some commentators are blaming this religious or cultural tradition for Haiti's ills, but what do outsiders really know about it? We'll ask our religion correspondent: What is voodoo? It's our Faith Matters conversation.

But first, we move away from the tragedy in Haiti for a few minutes to talk about one of the longer-standing conflicts in American life and politics. Today marks the 37th anniversary of a historic, Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision. That ruling established a woman's constitutional right to have an abortion, and it continues to serve as a rallying point for activists on all sides of the issue. More recently, lawmakers have sharply debated how and if abortion services fit into the proposed health-care legislation.

Now most people, many people perhaps, seemed to have made up their minds about this issue. But today, we will hear two perspectives from voices we do not often hear. While many critics see the anti-abortion movement as one predicated on keeping women subservient to men, we'll hear from a woman who considers herself both feminist and pro-life: Serrin Foster, the president of Feminists for Life.

Ms. SERRIN FOSTER (President, Feminists for Life): And that's our focus, is to systemically eliminate the reasons that drive woman to abortion. It isn't enough to sit there and say, you can't have one. What's important is that we - for us and what drives us - is the ability to change the situation that drives women to abortion.

MARTIN: But now, a conversation I had earlier with Dr. LeRoy Carhart. He runs an abortion clinic in Bellevue, Nebraska. He is one of the few doctors in the country who performs abortions after the first trimester. He has been subjected to numerous threats on his life throughout his career.

But Dr. Carhart says he is committed to continuing his work - in part, he says, because of his friendship with Dr. George Tiller, who was also an abortion provider working in Kansas until last May, when Dr. Tiller was murdered while serving as an usher in his church. I spoke earlier with Dr. Carhart about his work, about the threats on his life, and why he forged a friendship with the late Dr. George Tiller.

Dr. LEROY CARHART (Abortion and Contraception Clinic of Nebraska): Eleven years ago, Dr. Tiller approached me - we had been friends for 10 years before that -and asked if I would come on board with him to learn the practice because, in his words then, that - that both of us were both of us were targets. And if something happened to him, he wanted to be sure someone was available to keep the practice going.

MARTIN: But why didn't he have doctors in Wichita to perform this service? What did he have - why did you have to fly from Nebraska to do this?

Dr. CARHART: Actually, I drove from Nebraska...

MARTIN: Drove, OK.

Dr. CARHART: ...because there were not adequate flights in order to do that. But it's unfortunate, but the doctors just will not do it. And it's mostly, of course, because the anti-choice on - women protest the other doctors, whether they do one abortion or do 1,000, they consider them all the same. So, many of the other doctors just will not do abortions.

MARTIN: And when you say protests, what are you talking about? I mean, Dr. Tiller, for example, before he was murdered was - had been shot before. When you say protest, what do you mean? What are some of the things that you experienced...

Dr. CARHART: Well...

MARTIN: ...in course of your work?

Dr. CARHART: It's not protesting. It's actually bullying. And it's the extreme bullying that we know and wouldn't even tolerate with high school children or grade school children. You know, yelling at patients; calling, telling them they are murdering their babies; blocking, actually physically blocking the patients from getting out of their cars. It's blocking the clinic's doors so patients can't enter. They protest at the schools where the provider's children go and yell to all the students that John's daddy is a baby killer or a child killer. I mean, it's just extremism; it's religious terrorism.

MARTIN: Your kids are grown now?

Dr. CARHART: Yeah, my children are 39 and 41.

MARTIN: Do they experience any consequence of your work?

Dr. CARHART: To an extent, my daughter has a fair amount of problems with it, but she actually works with me now in the clinic. If there's something and she's in town, she'll help out. I mean, our whole family is involved in keeping abortions available for women.

MARTIN: And when you say keeping abortions available for women, what are you talking about? Are you talking about the first-trimester abortions that I think most Americans seem to believe should be available, at least, in most circumstances? Or are you talking about abortions that take place after the first trimester, in which the number of doctors who perform it is actually very, very few?

Dr. CARHART: Ninety percent of abortions are done in the United States before the 12th week of pregnancy; 99 percent are done before the 20th week; and 1 percent are done after the 20th week. When you get to post-viability - say, the 22nd week after conception - only like, 800 last I believe the last year that they were counted, which shows in 2006 or '07, there was only 800 of these abortions in the United States. And these are not elective. Every one of these is where there was a severe impact on the mother's mental health or physical health, or there was an actual fetal deformity that would not allow that child to survive.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people would want to know why you stick with it. This is really hard. I mean, there are lots of other ways to practice medicine that are not as taxing on you physically and emotionally. And I'd just like to ask, why do you think you stick with it?

Dr. CARHART: I think it goes back to when I was in medical school, before Roe versus Wade in Philadelphia, and abortions were not available. Well, they were available in the hospital if you could meet the board. And we did maybe four or five a week. But for, you know, a big city that was a pittance.

But we saw the number of women that came in with infections and bleeding and dying from abortions performed illegally, and some of these were the back alley abortions that we've all heard of. But I've always defended the back alley providers because most of them did a really decent job. But the unfortunate women that couldn't afford or couldn't find a back alley provider, and their friends or themselves tried to abort, ended up in very dire straits and very frequently dying.

MARTIN: There are those who say that abortion is like - is to this century what slavery was to the previous. It is the moral tragedy of our time and that an advanced, wealthy country like the United States ought to have better ways to address crisis pregnancy, ought to have better ways to care for women other than aborting children. This is the argument. And I'd like to ask you, how do you think about that? What can you say?

Dr. CARHART: In a perfect world, I believe there could be a reason for no abortions. But unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world. And unfortunately, these same people that protest abortions are also against all of the things that would help reduce the frequency of abortions, including early education about sex, early education about the use of birth control, availability of birth control, availability of school education about intercourse and about sex.

Dr. Hern(ph), a very good friend of mine, also says that the difference between our anti-choice extremists and the Taliban is a thousand miles. And he is exactly right. The anti-choice movement in America has drawn a very narrow picture of what they want the world to have. And they just make it impossible for anybody else - or they want to make it impossible for anybody else to have their views.

There are many in religions that consider abortion to be both a religiously correct and a morally correct decision. And we do believe that abortion is a moral choice. Now for those that don't believe that abortion is the right choice, they should avoid having one. But there's no reason to condemn or belittle other people who think that it is, in any given instance, the right choice to make.

MARTIN: Do you ever think about what's the word I'm looking for - lowering your profile?

Dr. CARHART: You know, the sign on my clinic is 30 feet long with 2-foot-high letters that says Abortion and Contraception Clinic. And I no, I don't think lowering the profile has, you know, we've done that for too long, and we're still fighting the stupid war to or that's the problem; I take that back. We're not fighting the war that the anti-choice movement has been waging to make it illegal again. And I think what we need to do is to fight back. You know, they use this big glad - latest study that the majority of people are now pro-life.

Well, I'd say, so am I. I'm as pro-life as probably any one of them are. I happen to have different values. I'm not sure that I believe in war. I don't -even though I spent 21 years in the Air Force; I think we have to defend our country. But I'm certainly not pro-war, and I'm not pro-death penalty. So, I think my pro-life values are certainly as good as theirs are. And I think 90 percent of the people that say they're pro-choice would vehemently argue that they are also pro-life.

MARTIN: Why do you think we are still fighting about this 35 years after abortion, in some circumstances, became unrestricted in this country? Why do you think we're still fighting about it?

Dr. CARHART: I think it's part of the nature of the people that are pro-choice to accept other people's values. And certainly, that was my stance for a long time, that the antis have the right to have their opinions. They have the right to voice their opinions. But they do not - and where I've came to be now - is that they do not have the right to infringe on anyone else's rights to have their own opinions.

MARTIN: The argument is that these are people whose beings whose lives are also a value and therefore, it is the responsibility of others, who can, to defend them.

Dr. CARHART: It's just - I think, it's, you know, the question of when life begins. And, you know, I don't think I know when life begins. I don't think any of us know when life begins, certainly the scientists don't. I don't believe the religious scholars do. I do know the only person who knows when life begins is the mother of the life that she's carrying.

MARTIN: Do you ever fear for your own safety?

Dr. CARHART: Fear? I don't think that's the right word. Am I concerned about my safety and my family's safety? Absolutely. Do I, like Dr. Tiller, know that we're targets? That was the course of the discussion almost every time that we worked together. Do we take responsibility and try to do things to protect ourselves? It was certainly one of the largest parts of Dr. Tiller's budget, and it's certainly one of the largest parts of my budget to do that.

But you know, 21 years, I got up every morning and went to work because people wanted to kill us - in the Air Force. And when, as a friend of mine said a long time ago, when you get up every day knowing that everybody you see from dawn to dusk wants to kill you, then it's not really hard to go and take just follow your dreams when it's something that's a little less risky.

MARTIN: Dr. LeRoy Carhart runs the Abortion and Contraception Clinic of Nebraska in Bellevue; that's outside of Omaha. He joined us from member station KIOS in Omaha. Thank you so much for speaking with us, doctor.

Dr. CARHART: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Since my conversation with Dr. Carhart, there have two important updates. First, Nebraska lawmaker Mike Floyd introduced a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks. Most birth occurs at 37 weeks.

As for Scott Roeder, he has publicly admitted to shooting Dr. George Tiller last spring. Jury selection is now complete, and opening statements are scheduled for today.

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