Dr. LeRoy Carhart and the Battle to Provide Abortion Services in America
Dr. LeRoy Carhart is one of the very few courageous doctors to provide late abortions. He has persevered in the face of legal obstacles and anti-woman terror, including the murder of his friend and colleague Dr. George Tiller. Recently, his clinic in Maryland was abruptly closed by the landlord, who announced it had been bought by anti-woman fascists.
Dr. Carhart is waging a battle to defend and protect the right of all women to have access to abortion.
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Dr. LeRoy Carhart Interviewed for The Michael Slate Show, 12/1/2017
Michael Slate: Dr. LeRoy Carhart has been providing abortion care for over 45 years. And to further assist women, in 2000 Dr. Carhart and his wife Mary Carhart established a non-profit organization, The Abortion Access Fund, Inc., which helps patients pay for abortion care through generous donations from across the US. It assists clinic owners in keeping their doors open and supports the opening of new clinics. Dr. Carhart’s mission is to train future providers in advanced gestation abortion care, to insure abortion not only stays legal but accessible in the decades to come. This is a major, major challenge right now, for all of us; basically, to maintain what is a basic human right for women and is constantly being attacked. By the way, you can get an idea of what Dr. Carhart is all about if you check out the 2013 documentary, “After Tiller.”
Lee, Welcome to the show.
Dr. LeRoy Carhart: Hi. Thank you, Michael for having me on.
MS: I keep thinking about you every time I read the newspaper about abortion, “I gotta call Lee. Gotta call Lee!” So, I’m really glad we were able to hook up this time. Let’s jump into it. You recently wrote an op-ed piece for “Truth Out” and you were pointing to a new escalation in the attacks on a woman’s right to abortion, and you say that anti-abortion politicians are more brazen than ever under the Trump regime. What’s happening? Give people a sense of what’s happening.
LC: You know, I mean, with the changes in the Department of Justice, Sessions and the Republicans, they’re not enforcing some of the laws that used to be there. In fact, the laws are still there. They’re just making it less of an importance in enforcing them. The main problem is right now, like this recent episode in Texas I was talking about in that op-ed piece is; you know, to deny a woman that’s incarcerated, a minor and that’s pregnant and didn’t want to be and still doesn’t want to be. Yet, they’re going to keep her incarcerated. And she’s also an “illegal alien.” That’s why she’s incarcerated, not that she did anything else wrong. So, they’re going to make her have a child that, they talk about they don’t want “anchor babies.” Now they’re forcing her to have one when she didn’t want that to happen. It’s just a continuation of the goal of old white rich men trying to control women and no matter how you cut the abortion issue, that is the abortion issue.
MS: Talk about this too; going beyond this individual case you were talking about, you’ve written about as well, that there’s been an explosion of state-level restrictions since 2010. This is fairly heavy because a lot of people thought, OK, well, on one level, while yes, there’s a fight to maintain a push forward the right of a woman to have an abortion when she wants one, people may have thought that maybe things are easing up a little bit, but there’s actually been an explosion of state-level restrictions over the last 10 years, 7 years. Let’s talk about that.
LC: This year alone Michael, in the current legislatures in the United States, there are 424 anti-choice legislative pieces that have been introduced. In the federal government there have been 25 and this is not new this year. The number is new this year. Last year it was like in the 300’s, I believe. So, only a few of them get through, but first of all, if you count the countless hours that the politicians spend debating these issues, you know, it makes it understandable why nothing that's really important in this country gets done, because the people who can control the congresses or the houses and the senates of the states or the unicameral in my state. They prevent important legislation from ever getting to the floor by tying up days in committee work. It’s just a total waste of time, not even to look into the fact that everything that they’re proposing is really an assault on women’s health care. Abortion is health care and health care is a human right and abortion is a human right. You have to draw that line. And the Antis say, “Well, we just want to eliminate the late term abortion, because nobody likes late term abortion.” But, if you ask any of the leaders of the anti-choice what they consider “late term,” and that’s the day after conception. So, that’s what they’re trying to eliminate.
MS: Now, one of the things that happens too though, is that there are people like yourself who actually say, “The hell with that” and you’re actually going to stand up against it and you have never stopped providing abortions for women when you’ve been able to do that; when women have needed and when you’ve been able to do that. Now they have a new thing that’s coming up, where they’re talking about, what is it called, a “20 week ban”? And under that I understand that –
MS: --not only is it the attack on women but it’s also for people like yourself. That could mean if you continue to stay true to your principles and provide abortions for women, that could actually mean a jail sentence for you.
LC: Oh, absolutely it could. You know, that’s been their goal. In Nebraska we had a clinic and you know, hindsight is 20/20 and maybe we didn’t handle it right. Maybe we should have challenged the 20 Week Ban in Nebraska, but now it’s in I think, 26 states or something like that. And of course, the federal government is toying with the issue. If it passes, it’ll get tied up in the courts for 2-3 years; hopefully, long enough to get someone in Washington who has a little bit of empathy for women’s issues and we can avert disaster. I think it all comes down to one thing and until women get out and demand what’s their choice, it’s not gonna happen. Doctors can’t cause it to happen. Politicians can’t cause it to happen unless the women of this country put them there and they’ve been putting them there. It’s time the women wake up and say, “Enough’s, enough! We have to have people who believe in choice and then we’ll worry about what their other issues are. ”
MS: Yeah, you know, one thing too though, and I would agree with that except I also would say that there's got to be a lot more people like you; not just abortion providers but also men who stand up and say this is a woman’s basic, fundamental human right to have an abortion and it should not be toyed with. It should not be turned into a crime. One of the things I kept thinking about, as I was reading some of the things you’ve written, some of the stuff that’s been happening, is that there is kind of a steam-roller, and there’s a lot of steam-roller moves that often times, when you see what’s happening, when they’re just plowing through all the stuff, advances that have been made in terms of abortion rights for women, you see this, it often means much more than the normal harassment of women trying to get an abortion, which is, you can see it in any city where there’s abortion clinics. You can see these Christian fascists come out and they try to stand in front of clinics, harass people, do all these things or even the people who threaten to do bodily harm and kill people for going in and trying to have an abortion or kill abortion doctors.
Now, you’ve talked about this. In fact, there’s been a recent situation with you. I remember when I last spoke to you, we were talking about your clinic you had established in Germantown, Maryland. Then, I read something where actually, your clinic no longer exists, that particular clinic no longer exists. It was recently forced to close as a result of the kind of stepped up results we’re talking about. Tell people what’s happening and what the impact of that is.
LC: The issue in Germantown came from a small, I think a relatively small one parish church and an organization called, “Kick Carhart Out Of Maryland”. They were able to raise in 6 months over $1.6 million to buy the clinic from the present landlords and pay them a significant bonus over what the value of the clinic was. They had to sign that they would never participate in abortion clinic practice again or what that was all part of this deal. But, they sold it to the Maryland Coaliton For Life who, on the date of the purchase order being signed or the contract, evicted us. That was also part of the negotiations.
So, we had zero notice. In fact, I worked Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, that week. Flew home to Nebraska. When I landed in Nebraska in the morning on Thursday, there was an e-mail to call. When I called the clinic manager, she said, “We’ve been evicted. I’m locked out and we can’t get the records.” We ended even up having to go into court to get the medical records out of the hands of the anti-choice people. I mean, the old owners had them but they wouldn’t release them to us because they didn’t feel that that was what they were going to do. Our biggest worry was that they were going to be compromised and the patients compromised.
We now have the records. We were able to win that court suit. But this is a small parish. This is one church and one small organization were able to raise $1.6 million in 6 months to close one clinic. The owners had two clinics that they owned, but they bought one and the other one they just had to step away from. It’s crazy! You know, everything comes down, this issue is like every other issue in life. It’s time and money and that’s what we don’t have. I mean, the women don’t have time because their issues are critical. It may be 2-3 months from the time they find out they’re pregnant till they can’t have anything else done.
So, I don’t know the issue. I just know what I think we need to do and that’s to train more doctors. I’d love to see first trimester abortions go back to OB-GYN offices and be done by their primary care doctors. And I think there’s need for specialty abortion clinics after that, because unless you do a lot of something in medicine, you probably shouldn’t do any of it. So, to keep abortions safe and legal, we’re going to need clinics to take care of the women after the first trimester. That’s where we are and that’s what I’m trying to do is to train the doctors to take care or to even give them a chance to realize what the patients need. In medical schools in this country the doctors are not exposed to patients who are in need of terminations, so they never have any idea what the patients are going through. That’s one of the reasons we’ve been working closely with some of the medical programs to have their docs just come in, sit and talk to the patients; understand why they’re here and understand that this is not a black and white issue. This is really, well, I guess it kind of is a black and white issue. It’s the mother’s decision of what this child is going to bring into her life; either a lifetime of joy or a lifetime of disaster. She’s the only one who knows the answer to that issue.
MS: Now, tell me this, Lee, because one of the things I kept thinking about, is there really is a special importance to one, as you’re saying, independent abortion clinics and providers and also, this point of the kind of steamrolling move that was made against your clinic. That actually was very much tied up in your refusal to sort of accept a lot of the limitations, not just the outright banning of abortion or abortion rights or the fact over the last number of years there’s been so many anti-abortion bills it’s just mind-boggling but, there was kind of a special significance to this forced shutdown in that it was one of the few clinics in the country that provided abortion no matter what. No matter if it was at the very beginning of a pregnancy or if it was a late term. If a woman needed it, you would give it to her. Let’s talk about that; the importance of that.
LC: Right now, there are 3 clinics that were willing to admit that we're doing the later abortions. There are three docs in Albuquerque, New Mexico and there’s 1 doctor in Boulder [Colorado] and there’s myself on the East Coast. Just the fact that you’re willing to tell people that you’re out there for them, it takes a serious amount of deciding to give up your own personal safety and personal life. I mean, we know that we’re going to harassed if we tell the people that this is what we’re doing. But, the women also need to know that our services are available, because we had a patient a couple weeks ago, right after we opened here, 28 or 29 weeks pregnant with a baby that could not survive, that had been told at 24 weeks there was nothing she could do. And it wasn’t until the word about the closing of this clinic and the unavailability hit the media, that she went to her doctors and said, “You can’t tell me that there’s nothing I can do. I need to find them.” She eventually found us on the internet and at 29 weeks was able to take care of her problem. It should have been taken care of at 24 or 25 weeks.
And so we can’t blame women for choosing late abortions or late, I hate that definition because as I said before, “late-term” is the day after conception in some people’s mind. Later gestation, advanced gestation abortions, they happen because of a myriad of problems. I don’t think one ever happens because, “Well, I’ve been pregnant for 28 weeks so, I think I don’t want it anymore.” That’s just not, that’s not there.
MS: That’s a very important point man, actually. One the things too, I wanted to ask you, and again, this gets into the importance of independent abortion clinics and providers. That’s something that you’ve always fought for but also, it’s been both a matter of necessity not just will or feeling or sentiment. But it’s extremely important that women are able to find clinics like what you’re operating, because it comes down to – and you can see it in the attacks that are coming – it comes down to basically, not just an assault on the rights of women but an assault on, as you mentioned, the actual humanity of women and their ability to actually control their own bodies; do what they need to do, they feel they have to do or they want to do. That’s a big question here so, I’d like to talk about that a little bit.
LC: That brings up to my mind the thought about the crisis pregnancy centers, that issue. A very prominent person in the media I was with just recently. Her story was, at the age of 16, she lived in a rural area in the Midwest. One of these pregnancy centers where all the information that was given when she got there, was told that well, “Congratulations. You’re pregnant. Here’s all the information about having a baby.”.She said, “Well, what if I don’t want to have a baby?” She said, “Oh, well. You know, it’s not legal in our realm,” is the way she said it. “It was not legal in the church or the sponsorship of the group.” But she just said in “our” instead of “the.” “But in our state it’s not legal.”
So, she thought she was breaking the law. And then after being, she called it, “being badgered” for about 35 or 40 minutes with all these anti-choice things, and she said, “Well, I’m going to have to go talk to somebody else about abortion.” And she said, “Well, you know abortion is murder.” And so, she looked at her again and thought about that. Then when she walked out the door, the lady said, “If you choose to murder your child, you’re going to be damned.”
These crisis pregnancy centers receive money from the government. In Nebraska, they get money from the tobacco fund that all goes to the crisis pregnancy centers. They’re all tax exempt. They don’t participate in support of our society, yet they just present only one view and intentionally mislead and confuse women. And this is a college educated now, I mean she was only 16 at the time, but she was not one of the less informed women in the world, you know?
The government can’t keep, well, it can obviously; it’s been doing it for 30 years now since Roe. The government should not be enforcing one side of the issue. If they wanted to present both sides of the issue I think that would be phenomenal. But just to say, to support and pay people to stand out and say, “abortion’s not legal in the United States.” They didn’t quite say that, but to infer that and to call people murderers seeking really an important part of health care. This woman’s gone on to be a very prominent member of society. She just told me that “If I hadn’t done this I’d probably be another roll of statistics in the welfare.” She didn’t plan on having a child at 16 and with an abusive boyfriend.
MS: You made a point about what this is all a part of, and I keep thinking of people who watched “The Handmaid's Tale,” on television this last year, and you think about what that reduces women to, where they're reduced to people who serve, where they're reduced to not even sentient beings. They're allowed to walk around dressed in an iron cloak, and service sexually the master of the house. Then the adulation of a woman – you're only worth something if you produce a baby for the regime and all this stuff. And you think about everything that's happening in relation to abortion, has so much to do with the actual robbery of the humanity of women. It really is important – you mentioned it earlier,but I keep coming back to that,and I think that's one thing that has always stuck out in relation to your work – the insisting on the humanity of the women who live in the world.
LC: One of the things that got me into abortion in the first place, or to believe in abortion as a hyoung person, was the inherent inequality of parenting. The male partner in a relationship has the right to abort the child from the moment after conception until the kid is 16, 18 years old. All they do is walk out of the picture. Nothing's held against them. If they can track them down, and if they have income, and if you can prevent them from changing jobs every week so that the courts can force them to pay the support. But men have had this right of “abortion” – just walk away from the pregnancy at any time. And I think to deny that from the mother is just inequality to start with.
The mother has no more obligation in my heart and mind, to the child than the father does. I guess I should say that the father has no less an obligation to the rights and welfare of the child than the mother does. So until we can provide support, I think it should be illegal to produce a child without the consent of the partner. I don't think – it's not the rape part, but they shouldn't be able to conceive either, to make legal, to make it right to make it fair. If a man causes a pregnancy, either intentionally or unintentionally, then I think he should have the same responsibility throughout the life of the child that the mother has. And until you can provide that, there's no rational argument against abortion.
MS: What do you think about the argument that's been made recently that the abortion rate has fallen to its lowest point since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, which legalized abortion. How do you read this?
LC: I think I read it as the abortion providers in this country are doing a good job. We're trying to educate women on birth control. We're trying to help them to prevent pregnancies – the morning after pill, the birth control developments that have come. All these things have come, and I think abortion doctors by far talk about future pregnancies and prevention of them to their patients more than pretty much any of the even family planning doctors out there. I tell every patient, and this came from my training, is that my job is, yes, to help you with this pregnancy, but also to help you have a better life and not need to come back. Even if you get pregnant again, that's not a problem, but on your emotions, on your thoughts, on your mental health and your financial health, abortion is a big deal. So if we can prevent it, that's our primary mission after we take care of the immediate problem.
So, I think we're doing a good job I know the antis have made abortion less available, so that women have to travel farther, and probably many babies are being born because of that very issue, just that the woman can't get an abortion.but I don't see a problem with the decline in abortion rates.I think that's a phenomenal statement that we're doing our job.
MS: One thing people need to know. You're not shut down in Maryland. You did rise up and start a whole new clinic. Tell people about that.
LC: We were able to find a building. Actually, it has about a third more space than the last clinic did. It was close enough so we could keep the same staff, so we lost nobody as far as the trained staff. In any business, a good staff is the key to your success. It's not what you bring to it, it's what you select and help find other people to train them to do to make it really a good issue. We have better hours. We're going to be able to provide service longer. I've had requests from doctors to come and be trained to start doing abortions with us and then look to the point of maybe branching out and opening another practice somewhere else in the country.
So it's been a good thing. I hated for it to happen. But looking at the big picture, I think not only I, but the women in the United States have made an improvement in our lifestyle. We're able to take care of them. So I think it turned out to be a good thing. As I said, money is the issue. We were able to get it, and move forward.
MS: As we're talking about this, I keep thinking yes, it's really important that we've come to this point where we're actually able to say that you've been able to reestablish your clinic, that there's a fight going on that's not one-sided, that there are actually people coming forward to stand with women and with humanity,because that's what it is. The right of a woman to an abortion is a human right.
One of the things I've found is that in Ohio, they recently tried to or did enact a “heartbeat” bill.
LC:Yeah. Ohio and North Dakota have been playing with something very close to this also. In fact, I think theirs is in existence, but it's being challenged. The Center for Reproductive Rights, a national legal organization that defends the legal options that are given to women in the courts. This is essentially, as I said in the beginning, for them, late term is a minute after conception. They just keep whittling away. Ohio has a 20-week ban. Indiana with Mike Pence passed this law where if a baby has any deformity diagnosed, then if it's only two weeks after conception, you can't terminate that pregnancy.
I have three patients that are coming from Ohio, and one from Indiana. So it makes them travel farther. But of course their goals are to get this passed in the Midwest where it's easier to do these things to women. And then as they gain steam, like they are with the 20-week ban now, trying to get to the federal government level where it becomes a national law that if there's a heartbeat you can't terminate a pregnancy.
Is this constitutional? It's not even close to constitutional, but that doesn't mean the Supreme Court can't uphold it. It's just damaging. And again, it comes back to the very basic thing that until the women of this country are willing to stand up and fight for their rights – maybe they're too old to need abortions anymore, but their nieces and their nephews and their daughters and their offspring of the future aren't.
My brother was openly gay, and we've talked about this forever. The reason fpr the gay rights movement to be where it is today is not because we started differently. In 1972, we were both in the same place. Both women were badly beaten up, and the gay portion of the public were beaten up. But the difference is, women are pregnant for nine months and they need an abortion in a window of eight or ten weeks where it means everything, it's the end of the world. But after that, it goes away. But when you're gay, you're gay for life and you know what you need to fight for.but now we need to convince the women not to only fight for it when they're pregnant and need an abortion, but they have to go on and establish themselves and demand their equality until everything gets to be normal for them.
MS: And I would add just one more thing. A whole lot of men have got to get into that too, have got to stand with women and take this up.