Broken windows into abortion doctor’s life
At the Boulder Abortion Clinic, Dr. Warren Hern leaves no window uncovered.
Full-length blinds shroud the bulletproof entryway; in his office, vinyl shades block a small window.
This is one of the facts of Hern’s life -- no windows, ever. That was how Dr. Barnett Slepian’s killer shot him in upstate New York, through a kitchen window. Slepian, like Hern, performed abortions.
“I can’t sit in front of an open window. The shades have to be drawn,” Hern said.
After Slepian’s shooting in 1998, Hern predicted another would follow. “Will I get to live out my life?” he asked in a newspaper column in 2001. ". . . Who’s next?”
On Sunday, that turned out to be George Tiller, a Kansas physician who was shot dead in a church foyer. Like Hern, Tiller was one of the few doctors in the U.S. known to perform abortions late in the second trimester through the third trimester of pregnancy. The two also were friends -- “I loved him,” Hern said -- who hiked and skied together in the Colorado mountains.
This week at his modest office, a somber Hern fielded calls from reporters as he juggled patients and adjusted to the presence of U.S. marshals assigned to protect him. Though Hern did not discuss the details of his security, several well-muscled men hovered in the hallway.
In the hushed, almost somber, waiting room, several women sat, reading pamphlets about the procedure they were about to undergo. One man held a woman’s purse in his lap as she studied a brochure. They didn’t talk. Another couple whispered to one another. Tables offered facial tissues and free condoms, while brightly striped fish swam in an aquarium -- a spot of color in the room with white walls and worn teal carpet.
On the door, two signs distinguished this clinic from countless other doctors’ offices. One prohibited cellphones or cameras. Another admonished: “For your safety, do not open this door for anyone who has not accompanied you.”
Hern may have grown accustomed long ago to working under such conditions, but that did not diminish his shock or grief over Tiller’s death. He learned of the killing when Tiller’s wife, who was at the church when her husband was shot, called Hern to tell him. “I liked the world a lot more before Sunday morning,” he said.
Hern spoke vehemently during a brief break between seeing patients. “It’s grotesque,” he said. Sitting beneath a covered window in a small office, where a phone repeatedly rang for him, Hern spoke heatedly of the abortion foes, scorning the statements by antiabortion groups that condemned violence after his friend was shot.
“It’s exactly what they wanted,” Hern said. “Give me a break.”
Bob Enyart, spokesman for Colorado Right to Life, which has demonstrated against Hern for decades, said that although his group doesn’t condone Tiller’s slaying, abortion providers should expect that violence begets violence.
“If a Mafia hit man gets killed, people recognize it’s an occupational hazard,” he said.
Hern has been familiar with the hazards for decades. After performing abortions for more than half of his life, the 70-year-old doctor has never been injured, but the constant threats with which he has lived since 1973 have transformed his life into a series of security measures: sleeping with a rifle, scanning rooftops for snipers, wearing a protective vest.
“It ruins your life,” Hern said.
The son of a carpenter, Hern grew up in Englewood, a Denver suburb. Though his parents didn’t make much money, he said, they were resourceful and determined to broaden his horizons. His mother took him to political events -- he saw Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy as they campaigned for president. At home, his family discussed current events and issues, although abortion was not one of them.
As he studied medicine, Hern said he encountered women ill from botched illegal abortions. In the early 1970s, Hern -- who had planned to become an epidemiologist -- became convinced that the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision to legalize abortion would mean nothing if doctors would not perform them.
“I felt doing abortions was the most important thing I could do with my life,” he said.
When Hern performed his first abortion, on a 17-year-old girl, he later wrote, he cried with a sense of relief because he had made a difference in her future. Now, the patients in his waiting room included another young woman, who appeared to be sitting with her mother.
These days, few people remember the injuries or deaths from illegal abortions, Hern said. He added that women today take the right to the procedure for granted. “They get mad about having to wear paper gowns,” he said. “It’s absurd.”
In 1975, he opened the Boulder Abortion Clinic, a blunt name meant to convey his philosophy that he had nothing to hide. Hern soon became a prominent figure in the abortion debate, attracting patients from across the country.
He wrote a textbook, “Abortion Practice,” in the 1980s. After the first printing, he said, the publisher bowed to public pressure and declined to reissue the book. Hern then paid to have it published himself.
In time, he began to focus on more difficult abortions performed in the later weeks of pregnancy -- typically, he said, because of medical complications or fetuses with abnormalities. Such abortions now make up the bulk of his practice.
Each of his patients, Hern said, receives counseling to explain the procedure and to make sure she wants it. Women seeking later abortions usually have already made the decision with their own doctors, he said.
Hern recalled a disturbing situation his staff encountered 15 years ago during the counseling phase. The parents of a 14-year-old girl wanted her to terminate her pregnancy. The girl did not. As she was filling out a form, she wrote, “I think you should all be killed.”
The clinic manager called in Hern and, after more discussion, the doctor refused to perform the abortion. He has no idea what the family decided to do.
Even early on in his practice, Hern did not shy away from confrontation. When people protested outside his office, he stood in the parking lot and wrote down their license plates. When they shouted during his speeches, he shouted louder. When a protester hurled a rock through a clinic window, Hern hung up a sign: “This window was broken by those who hate freedom.”
But his fear grew along with his defiance. When people called his mountain home with death threats, he started keeping a rifle by the bed. “You think, ‘Is it OK to go for a hike? What about walking my son to school? What about going skiing?’ ” he said.
In 1988, a gunman fired five shots into his clinic’s waiting room, prompting Hern to install four layers of bulletproof glass and an electronic security system. That year, Hern and his wife of six years divorced, a breakup Hern attributed in part to the stress of his work.
The ever-present threats made it hard to develop relationships, Hern testified at a 1999 trial in which he and other doctors sued an antiabortion group for placing their names and personal information on a “Deadly Dozen” list. “It has made me feel a great sense of personal isolation, and that has been the most painful part of this experience,” Hern said, according to the Associated Press.
He and the other doctors won a verdict of about $108 million, although an appeals court later reduced that to $16 million.
Enyart has no sympathy. “The perpetrators of widespread injustice like slave traders and Nazis expect to go home and live in tranquillity. That’s an absurd expectation.”
These days, Hern’s clinic -- a drab, yellow-brick building across the street from a hospital -- is not the epicenter of protest as it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But opponents regularly show up, and Enyart said his group pickets outside Hern’s home on holidays every year.
This week, after the news of Tiller’s death, the streets outside the clinic were quiet. But inside, one staff member described her tension: “Tight jaw, low-level anxiety.”
But the doctor said he had no choice but to show up for work. “We’re pretty busy taking care of people who said they couldn’t find anyone else to do it.”
A staff member knocked at the door, and Hern stood to go. He had patients waiting.