Family Matters

Late-Term Abortions: Q&A With the Last Remaining Doctor Who Performs Them

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No doubt, being an abortion doctor is a stressful and dangerous profession. Being an abortion doctor who performs abortions well into the second and third trimesters only ups the ante. Ask Warren Hern, the only doctor in America who admits to performing delayed abortions.

Worry and fear accompany Hern like a parent accompanies a small child crossing the street. They are always right there, hovering. He can never let down his guard.

When his friend and fellow abortion doctor, George Tiller, was murdered in May 2009 as he handed out pamphlets in his Wichita, Kan., church, Hern drove to his memorial service escorted by U.S. marshals. Less than a month after Tiller’s death, a man from Spokane, Wash., called Hern’s office in Boulder, Colo., to say that two people were headed for the Rockies to harm his family. Donald Hertz, who made the threat, was sentenced last week to five years of probation for threatening Hern’s family. (More on The Grass-Roots Abortion War).

Hern specializes in abortions late in pregnancy that are performed due to fetal disorders, although he makes it clear that he doesn’t see it as his role to pass judgment on why a woman shows up at his clinic doorstep.

Healthland caught up with Hern — in the wilds of Patagonia, no less — to talk about why, and how, he continues to do what he does in the face of threats and violence. For now, he is a world away from his bullet-proofed workplace, on vacation touring places Charles Darwin visited when he made his voyage in the 1800s, but his work is never far from his thoughts. (More on Person of the Year 2009: George Tiller).

Healthland: Why is it important for you to do the kind of work you do?

Hern: I am a doctor. I help my patients. What I do matters for the health of the woman, for the health of her family. It matters for the health of our society, and it matters for freedom.

Healthland: How did you get interested in this line of work?

Hern: I was asked to help start a nonprofit, free-standing abortion clinic in Boulder in 1973, and I responded to this request even though I was not planning to practice clinical medicine. I am trained as an epidemiologist in public health. After a year, when the clinic I helped start decided to eliminate my job as medical director, I decided doing abortions was the most important thing I could do in medicine. I was responding to an important need, for women who need help. (More on Health Check-Up: Women & Health)

Healthland: Tell me about Donald Hertz. How did he threaten your family?

Hern: He called my office on the afternoon of June 23, last year, three weeks after Dr. Tiller was assassinated. Dr. Tiller was a very dear friend of mine and a colleague, and his assassination was not just a personal loss for his family and his friends but very, very frightening because the same group of people that urged his assassination have also urged this to happen to me.

[Hertz] called and he told a person in my office that two Vietnam veterans were leaving Utah to come to Boulder to hurt my family. It scared us to death. My 92-year-old mother was evacuated from her home in the middle of the night because law enforcement authorities were afraid for her safety. They increased the level of protection for me and my family.

The FBI and federal marshals tracked the phone call to Donald Hertz and he was arrested and brought to trial. He terrorized me and my family, and all he got was a slap on the wrist. (More on The Complicated Link Between Abortion and Mental Health).

Healthland: Are you scared?

Hern: I am a physician. I practice medicine. I have been committed to this work since I started in 1973. I will continue doing it. The people who disagree should leave me alone. It is the clear policy of the American anti-abortion movement to kill every doctor who does abortions. It is not a secret.

Healthland: How are you able to continue your work if that’s the case?

Hern: I show up at my office and see my patients.

Healthland: Do you just try not to think about it?

Hern: I can’t help but think about it. That’s what I do for a living.

Healthland: Is it true that you are the only U.S. doctor who performs late abortions?

Hern: I take care of my patients who come to me for help. I can not tell you what other people are doing.

Healthland: You are 72. Are you inching toward retirement?

Hern: I have no plans to retire.

Healthland: So you’re in Patagonia. I take it this has nothing to do with your job.

Hern: We are learning about Darwin and evolution, which many of the people in the anti-abortion movement don’t believe. They don’t believe in freedom. They don’t believe in the fundamental premises of American society.

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