Revolution #174, August 30, 2009
Interview with Abortion Provider Dr. Carhart
"I couldn’t go and hide... and I surely wasn’t going to quit"
Dr. George Tiller was a courageous and skilled physician who provided late term abortions in Wichita, Kansas. A true hero, Dr. Tiller devoted his life to saving the lives of thousands of women who came to him from all over the country. On May 31, 2009, he was viciously murdered by an anti-abortion assassin.
Dr. Leroy Carhart, who lives and works in Bellevue, Nebraska, was a friend and colleague of Dr. Tiller. Like Dr. Tiller, Dr. Carhart has been constantly harassed, his life threatened by the anti-abortion movement. After Tiller’s murder, Carhart announced he is considering opening a clinic in Wichita. In response, the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue is planning a protest at Dr. Carhart’s clinic in Nebraska on August 28 and 29. Dr. Carhart and others are calling on people to come to Nebraska to defend Carhart’s clinic, take on the anti-abortionists, and stand up for women’s right to abortion.
On August 18, Michael Slate interviewed Dr. Leroy Carhart and Debra Sweet, from World Can’t Wait, on his KPFK radio show in LA, Beneath the Surface with Michael Slate. The following are excerpts from that interview. To listen to the full interview go to: archive.kpfk.org/parchive/
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Michael Slate: In the aftermath of Dr. Tiller’s assassination, you stepped up to defend a woman’s right to abortion. You announced that you would not only be continuing your own work, but continuing to provide late term abortions to the women who need them, including all of Dr. Tiller’s patients. Why?
Leroy Carhart: First of all, I had worked with Dr. Tiller. I actually worked in his clinic for the last almost 11 years and for the last four years it was as part of a weekly rotation, with two women from California who worked the other two weeks. And we did late—I don’t really like the word “late term,” because nobody really knows what “late term” is. For some people it means 14, 15 weeks and for some, 28, 38 weeks. The second trimester, the last part of the second trimester, the early part of the third trimester are the ones we’re talking about—which in the whole country probably number maybe 1,100 a year, maybe 1,200 a year for everybody, not just myself but everybody in the country that’s been doing them. So it’s a very small number of abortions that we’re talking about providing, but it’s a very, very needed service for that small percentage that actually do need it.
From World Can’t Wait…
Omaha August 28/29: Protect Dr. Carhart & Stand Up for Abortion Rights! Join us in Nebraska on August 28 and 29. Help to draw the line and defend Dr. Carhart and women’s lives. For information about going to Nebraska and/or donating money to send people to Nebraska, go to worldcantwait.org. Watch YouTube video of Sunsara Taylor—correspondent for Revolution newspaper and Advisory Board Member of World Can’t Wait—calling for people to defend Dr. Carhart. Search YouTube for “Sunsara Taylor: Call to Clinic Defense for Dr. Carhart.”
Monday October 5, in Washington, DC. Protest at the White House against Obama’s Wars on the anniversary of the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, in coalition with National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance (NCNR) and Witness Against Torture, Activist Response Team & Veterans for Peace.
Tuesday October 6: We Are Not Your Soldiers! A day of resisting recruitment in high schools, nationwide with programs & protests. In support of these actions, we urge people to hold war protests on October 6 at recruiting stations, or city centers.
Saturday, Sunday October 10/11: Equality March in Washington, DC. World Can’t Wait will be present to support the just demand for marriage equality for gay & lesbian partners and for the repeal of the “Defense of Marriage Act.”
Saturday, October 17: Local Protests to End the Iraq & Afghanistan Wars and Occupations
For more information, visit worldcantwait.org
Slate: You began your work as an abortion provider in the late ’80s, right? What took you there? You were a general surgeon, and then decided to become an abortion provider.
Carhart: A patient of mine when I was in the Air Force, I had operated on her and then her husband who was on active duty. Shortly after I retired from the Air Force, her daughter had a ruptured appendix, and she called me and I took care of her in the hospital. And it was during this treatment in the hospital that she mentioned that she had a clinic where the doctor was getting ready to retire and she didn’t know what she was going to do about a doctor and we talked.
It took about a year and a half for me to agree to go and meet with her and to see what it was like at the abortion clinic, because I had just gotten out of the military and I’d opened up a general surgery practice and wasn’t really ready, I thought, to turn my life around. But actually after spending one day there at the clinic it reminded me of the way things were back when I was in medical school and residency when abortion was not legal yet. Women had the same compelling reasons that these women did in 1988, but yet they were coming to the clinic either very, very septic or dying, from self-attempted or the so-called back alley abortions.
Slate: You are not the least bit defensive about being an abortion provider, which I think is extremely important, both for women and generally in society. You say, “It’s not a four-letter word and I’m proud of what I do.” You serve women who come from five states or more, and in addition you’re what they call a “circuit rider.” Can you talk about what a circuit rider is, and what this situation says about the general availability of abortion?
Carhart: When I started doing abortions in the late ’80s, there were about 2,700 to 2,800 abortion doctors in the country. I started out doing it part time, working two days a week in the local clinic here. Then it went to three days a week and eventually four days a week. Then in 1991, we had a massive fire at our farm, where there were actually eighteen different fire origin points of vehicles and buildings. Everything on the property was burnt to the ground. And we lost seven horses and our dog and cat and everything we owned. Ten in the morning after the fire we got a letter that was postmarked the morning before the fire was reported, justifying the killing of horses and other animals for the “murder” of “little babies,” or something like that.
We had given that letter to the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] and the DOJ [Department of Justice] but there was nothing that was ever done about that. That was in 1991, and that’s when I decided that abortion was going to be a full-time thing on my plate. At the time, several clinics around the country did not have doctors, so I just started and from the year 1992, between June and the summer of 1995, I was working in six different states every week. And the reason was because of the low number of doctors. So I would travel. The other thing I was able to do was to train other doctors. In fact, all three of the doctors I trained are still providing abortions today. So it would help fulfill the need. I couldn’t go and hide because of what I did and I surely wasn’t going to quit. So I figure the best revenge was to train other people. This was shortly after David Gunn [another physician who performed abortions] was murdered in Pensacola, so that was what I thought was the right thing to do.
Slate: Why is it important that this type of abortion be safely and legally available to women?
Carhart: First, any pregnancy is not a benign entity for a woman. When a woman wants to have a child it’s what they’ll go through, and it’s what every one of us who’s a physician wants them to be able to go through. But in the United States today, depending on the studies you read, anywhere from 16 to 20 women out of every 100,000 who are pregnant die during the pregnancy or during the 30-day period after delivery. The chance of dying from an abortion, even when you throw in the latest abortions that are done, stays between eight and ten in 1.5 million patients, maybe six per million. So it’s significantly safer for a woman to terminate a pregnancy if she doesn’t want to be. So I feel very strongly that if a woman is carrying an unwanted pregnancy, and we’re forcing them to stay pregnant, we’re forcing them to take a risk that they don’t want to take, which other parts of the law don’t allow at all.
Sweet: We’ve had 36 years of a movement that has hammered relentlessly on the idea that abortion is murder, and abortion isn’t murder. Fetuses are not babies. Fetuses are dependent on a living woman. Women are not supposed to be incubators. We just don’t want to live in a society like that. When you have a movement that is built on the assumption that women determining their own lives is somehow illegitimate, and that all the people that provide abortions in this country are somehow illegitimate and targets for murder, target #1 or target #1,200, it’s all completely unacceptable.
I think it’s time for a resurgence of a moral and political offensive on the part of the people who are pro-choice in this country.
I’m very concerned for Dr. Carhart and all the other doctors, and I’m just really determined that we turn this situation around and, number one, put some bodies out on the street. Have some visible rejection of this climate that’s being created and have people out being really public about our support for these doctors. That’s what we need to do. For people who can’t come, you can make a donation, and we’ll put a big sign in your name. That’s fine. Donate so other people can be there. I want to say right now that, yes, we should be mobilizing. This is a very serious situation. This is the first serious targeting of a provider since they killed Dr. Tiller. They’re saying that they want to close Dr. Carhart’s clinic down. We cannot let that happen.
I think the call should go out to all the leaders of the women’s movement and other pro-choice organizations. All of us leaders should be there Friday morning, August 28. We’re going to have a press conference at the clinic of the leaders of the different organizations. All the national leaders should be there. I’m going to call all of them personally and tell them that.
Slate: World Can’t Wait has also said that this should not be a “mobilization as usual.” Can you tell us about that a little bit?
Sweet: Look. They killed Dr. Tiller. They’ve killed other doctors in the past but this is clearly a turn. All of us who care very deeply about the ability of women to function in this society have to on our part shoulder some personal responsibility. I think it’s just that serious. People who care about the humanity of women and want to turn this situation around have to make some sacrifices too. We cannot sit back and say it’s OK for these doctors to be the only ones taking the risk.
Slate: What are the stakes in all this right now?
Carhart: First of all, and this is going along Dr. Tiller’s line, it was his line and mine too, that this is not a war about abortion, or about late term abortions. What they’ve done is they’ve picked on late term because they can make it seem more gruesome. They’ve picked on abortion because they can make that seem more gruesome. This is a war against women’s rights. When you look at the people that are on the sidewalks, the groups that are doing this, they’re all the fundamentalist religions that want women barefoot and pregnant and in the home. That’s what this is all about. I think if they could take away the woman’s right to vote, that’s where they’re really trying to get to. Until people realize that this is just one, the beginning of the iceberg that the conservatives want to take away from the women of America. Until they realize how important what they’ve got to lose is, there’s a great danger of that happening.
Sweet: That’s it. We have to draw a line here and make a stand around this. The local chapters of NOW out in Wichita and Nebraska have taken the lead on this in calling for pro-choice people to come in. World Can’t Wait and other groups are going to join in. But we need more people. We need support. People can contact us at worldcantwait.org, and we’ll pass that support on to Dr. Carhart and we will be there starting on the 27th of August. So come on out.
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The Wichita and Nebraska chapters of the National Organization for Women along with World Can’t Wait are mobilizing people from all over the country to come to respond to Dr. Carhart’s call for people to come defend his clinic in Nebraska. For more information and housing contact World Can’t Wait: worldcantwait.org; email: email@example.com; phone: 866-973-4463.
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