Roving abortion doctor hailed, vilified

September 03, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

DAYTON, Ohio -- The day started for Dr. LeRoy Carhart at 4:30 a.m., when he awoke in his Bellevue, Neb., home, pulled on his cowboy boots and tore to the Omaha airport for a flight to Pittsburgh via St. Louis. It ended at 1:45 a.m., when he finally got to sleep in a Dayton hotel.

In between, in six hours in a Pittsburgh clinic, Dr. Carhart performed 17 abortions. Over the next two days in Dayton, still in his boots, he would perform 21 more.

Dr. Carhart is an abortion "circuit rider," a new breed of medical specialist that has evolved as anti-abortion groups escalate their

personal attacks on doctors -- convincing many that the work is not worth the chanting pickets outside their homes, the threatening letters, the fear of being shot.

When local doctors decide to give up the work, clinics begin searching for out-of-town physicians who are willing to spend part of each week on the road.

To clinic operators, the circuit-riding doctors are rare and precious. Anita Wilson, executive director of the Dayton Women's Health Center, calls Dr. Carhart "wonderful," the man who saved her clinic from closing when Ohio doctors decided the work wasn't worth the harassment.

To the anti-abortion protesters, physicians who do this work are not "doctors"; they are "abortionists," a word the opponents believe is freighted with distasteful connotations. To Dr. Carhart, a large, soft man of 51 who spent 21 years as an Air Force surgeon, the word is not a problem.

"I'm an abortionist," he says. "So what? I could be a cardiologist or a dermatologist. It's another subspecialty of medicine."

In college, he was torn between a career in medicine and the seminary. Now, this is life for Dr. Carhart, who since 1988 has performed about 14,000 abortions: trips to the airport, taunts from protesters, rental cars, harassing phone calls, naps on planes, "wanted" posters bearing his face, making him an outlaw in the eyes of some of the people he meets on the road.

Father of a grown son and daughter, grandfather of a baby girl, Dr. Carhart knows the risks of his work.

Most anti-abortion groups, such as the National Right to Life Committee, strongly condemn any violence in the fight against abortion. The battle, they say, should be waged in legislatures and the courts.

But other, newer groups have personalized the campaign. The National Abortion Federation, a Washington-based professional organization for abortion clinics, reports five arsons in clinics so far this year, 57 death threats and 119 episodes of stalking doctors and staff away from the clinics.

In March, another traveling physician, Dr. David Gunn, was killed by an abortion opponent outside a Pensacola, Fla., clinic. In Alabama last month, a priest tried to run a newspaper ad that called the killing of abortion doctors "justifiable homicide." Three weeks ago, Dr. George Tiller, a good friend of Dr. Carhart, was shot in the arms near a Wichita, Kan., clinic.

The headlines make Dr. Carhart's friends cringe. Ms. Wilson, the Dayton clinic administrator, is very protective, warning him loudly that he should not let a news photographer take his picture. "Why do it?" she demands. "There are crazy people out there. I don't want to go to his funeral."

But Dr. Carhart, whose photo has been distributed on anti-abortion fliers, shrugs. "I figure they know who I am."

He won't discuss the precautions he takes as he travels, except to acknowledge that he doesn't use his own name when he stays in hotels.

"The more they know about you, the more vulnerable you are," he says.

Once, when he murmured something to a police officer about getting a gun, the officer replied, "I'm surprised you're not carrying one already."

L "Stubborn," says his wife, Mary, who often travels with him.

"Dedicated," Dr. Carhart says. And then he laughs and adds, "which may be close to 'stupid.' "

On their visit to Pittsburgh this week, the Carharts landed at 10:30 a.m. and drove to East Liberty, to the Allegheny Women's Center, where a cheerful city police officer guarded the front door.

Through the afternoon, the pager beeped with calls from his office in Bellevue, which he returned between patients. At the end of the day, the Carharts stopped for dinner at a restaurant that overlooks the three rivers, then climbed into the rental car for a four-hour ride in the rain and dark to Dayton.

The next morning, they headed to the Dayton clinic, where he would spend two days doing abortions. Outside, a man dressed as the Grim Reaper, complete with a black hood, skull mask and sickle, is a regular protester. Last month, the staff found a bullet hole in a plate-glass office window.

Back home in Bellevue, protesters have climbed up onto the Carharts' apartment balcony. They've hung notices on his neighbors' doors: "Do you know your neighbor Dr. Carhart kills children?" They've put glue in the locks of his clinic he runs there, forcing patients to wait while locksmiths are called.

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