Abortion's Weak Link


Boston.--It is time to be blunt about the lesson of Dr. David Gunn's murder outside a women's health clinic on the morning of March 10: Terrorism works.

It's time to acknowledge that Randall Terry, the military strategist of Operation Rescue, was absolutely right: "We have found the weak link and it's the doctors."

Nearly three weeks have passed since Michael Griffin, a man who found a welcome home for his private demons among right-to-life extremists, shot the Florida doctor in the back. In these weeks, those who support abortion rights have often taken comfort from the public reaction and from political action.

At least, pro-choice people say to each other, all Americans can now see that the right-to-life movement has been captured by its militants. At least . . . the president has the chance to nominate a pro-choice justice to the Supreme Court. At least . . . a Senate committee sent the Freedom of Choice Act on its way to the floor. At least . . . a House subcommittee approved a bill making it a crime to obstruct a woman's access to a clinic.

But the truth is that none of this will matter very much if there are fewer and fewer medical people willing to provide abortions.

What's most significant is what did not happen after Dr. Gunn's death. We did not see a line of doctors offering their services at the clinic doors. Ask Dr. Warren Pearse, the executive director of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, if his phone lines were jammed by doctors wanting to help in the days after a colleague's death. Well, he says, "our phones were jammed. They were jammed by people who said, 'you continue to support murder.' "

In Florida, Dr. Gunn's state, two more physicians quit. The last remaining provider in Brevard County, Dr. Randall Whitney, goes to work wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a paper bag to put over his face so his photo won't end up on a "Wanted" poster.

In Wisconsin, Dr. George Woodward writes about the death threat he received. He has been given just weeks to leave the Planned Parenthood clinic or else.

In Washington state, Dr. Kaaren Nichols, who now spends half her time performing abortions because there are fewer doctors, admits to being harassed as well. She says philosophically, "It takes guts and courage to do abortions. You have to be committed."

The ranks of the doctors are older than they were in past years and sparser. They are populated increasingly as well by believers, those who are "committed," not just to patients, but to their rights. Indeed, by best estimates fewer than 3,500 providers perform the bulk of the 1.5 million abortions a year. They are the weak link indeed.

Dr. Nichols describes the situation simply: "If more physicians did the procedures, we wouldn't even be talking about harassment." The more doctors, says Dr. Pearse, the harder it would be to target any one. "If a large number each did ten abortions a week it would go relatively unnoticed."

No one is suggesting that doctors who are morally opposed to abortions should perform them. But 84 percent of practicing ob-gyns describe themselves as pro-choice, while only 32 percent perform any abortions, and only 4 percent do more than 10 a month.

It isn't just fear that has reduced these ranks. Doctors have assumed they could refer patients to low-cost clinics and specialists rather than doing abortions themselves. Many medical schools and residency programs virtually stopped training doctors in the procedure. Contrary to what pro-life literature says about the "abortion business," the pay is low. There is more prestige in performing hysterectomies and more pleasure in delivering babies.

But today intimidation is the greatest threat to abortion rights, greater than hostile judges or pro-life legislatures. It's a threat to doctors and their families and also to their patients. And while it shouldn't take "guts and courage" to practice medicine, sometimes it does.

What sort of courage is needed? The simplest act is for medical professionals to ensure that more schools train students to perform abortions and that more hospitals have facilities. They are beginning to do this. The harder act is for groups of doctors to balance the concerns of safety with the demands of conscience. To support doctors who provide abortions -- and, yes, to join them.

These are the facts. One doctor has been killed. Others are threatened and still more are being harassed. Somehow, the weak link must find strength in numbers.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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