LeRoy Carhart travels from his home in Nebraska almost every week to perform abortions at a clinic in Germantown, Md. He rarely stays at the same hotel twice. He rolls dice to pick the route he’ll take to work, because “the biggest part of security is not being predictable,” he said.
As one of the few doctors in the nation who openly acknowledge performing abortions late in a pregnancy, and because he wants to expand his services, Carhart is the top focus of antiabortion groups. He took on that role after Kansas doctor George Tiller, his friend and mentor, was fatally shot by an abortion opponent in 2009. Tiller was attending church at the time — the only predictable event in his schedule.
In a wide-ranging interview last week — his first extensive comments since he began traveling to Maryland in December — Carhart, 69, discussed his work, his plans to broaden health-care and social services to include adoption counseling, and security measures that he and his staff members take.
Carhart, a grandfather and retired Air Force general surgeon, has an understated manner, speaking so softly that he can barely be heard. His voice was weary at the end of a recent workday as he went over logistics with his wife, Mary, a straight-talking former schoolteacher who helps manage the clinic. During a takeout dinner in the hotel lobby, and later in his room, he became visibly angered, his eyes hardening, while describing what he called “ridiculous” abortion restrictions nationwide. Kansas regulates the size of janitorial supply closets. South Carolina regulates how grass is cut outside clinics.
The obstacles only make him more committed, he said. The women who have turned to him for abortions have had severe fetal abnormalities, he said. “We have helped them. . . . They’d rather die than have these pregnancies,” he said.
Carhart began working in Germantown after Nebraska made it illegal last year to perform most abortions beyond 20 weeks of gestation. He chose Maryland because it has some of the least-restrictive abortion laws in the nation, is centrally located on the East Coast and because Germantown is accessible from three airports. Protesters plan to hold street rallies and prayer vigils starting next weekend in a continuing attempt to stop him.
Abortion opponents condemn the procedure regardless of the circumstances.
“There is no moral distinction,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, which has targeted Carhart for years. “Ninety-eight percent are simply elective procedures for mothers who want to have dead children.”
Most doctors will not perform abortions beyond 22 or 24 weeks for various reasons, including legal concerns, social stigma, inadequate training or inexperience.
Carhart performs about 60 abortions a month in Germantown. Many of the women have been referred by other doctors. Six to 10 per month are late-in-pregnancy abortions; he declines to specify how late.
The Germantown clinic is small. He is the only doctor working there. But four other doctors — including one from the Washington area — have asked to train with him.
Carhart said training can begin if the clinic receives more patients.
That may happen soon.
This fall, Virginia health officials are expected to issue new draft regulations that will make abortion clinics, now treated like doctors’ offices, follow rules imposed on ambulatory surgical centers. Those include guidelines about the width of hallways. Antiabortion activists have said the rules will make the facilities safer, but providers and abortion rights supporters say the rules could force many clinics to close.
Attorney General Ken Cuccinellii II (R) and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), a longtime abortion opponent, must approve the regulations before they go into effect Jan. 1.
From ashes, a mission
Carhart, who once dreamed of becoming a hand surgeon, said he witnessed how abortions often went bad when he was a medical resident in Philadelphia in the 1970s. In emergency rooms, he saw women who had tried to self-abort with knitting needles and coat hangers. Many required serious surgery; some died.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1985, he worked for a few years as a general surgeon but began performing abortions part time at an Omaha clinic at the request of a former patient, also the clinic’s nursing director.
On Sept. 6, 1991, the day Nebraska passed its parental-notification law, his farm burned down. No family members were hurt, but the fire destroyed his house and other buildings, and killed his dog, cat and 17 horses. The next day, Carhart received a letter informing him that the fire was in retaliation for the abortions. Local officials were unable to determine the fire’s cause.
“That was when I decided I would not be part time,” he said. “It’s where my tenacity comes from.” He resigned his hospital privileges. He began training other doctors. He opened his own abortion clinic the next year.