Longform

The Fight of Their Lives

Page 14 of 23

In 1988 Reagan had invited Scheidler to the White House to plead his case for pardoning abortion-clinic bombers. Although the president didn't pardon the criminals, his wining and dining of Scheidler, which continued every year on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, lent credibility to the anti-abortion movement. Vice President George Bush continued the trend when, just prior to his landslide election to the presidency, he said that abortion doctors should be put in prison.

Bush may have been catering to the Christian right to win votes, but Hern feared that this was more than political maneuvering. The message dropped like a stone into a pond, and the ripples reached out to the radical fringe elements. From Reagan and Bush to Scheidler and Terry to nuts with guns and bombs. How long before someone died, Hern wondered.

Once again Hern, who'd received his epidemiology Ph.D. in 1988, was relieved when he could leave the abortion battle behind and return to the Peruvian Amazon. In June 1991 he went there to help fight a cholera epidemic that had already taken the lives of some of his friends.

The outbreak of the disease, which spread through contaminated water, could be directly attributed to a dramatic increase in the population without corresponding public health endeavors. Pucallpa, the 1961 frontier town, had experienced a tenfold jump in its population in thirty years.

"The Shipibo have occupied the region of the Pisqui and lower Ucayali and have survived there well for a thousand years or more without boiling their water," Hern wrote in a report to regional health officials. "Boiling it and observing strict hygiene for water and food is very difficult if not impossible in the conditions of greatly increased human populations, and some of the innocent customs may now be fatal."

It was sad to see other effects of the population surge. Much of the jungle, along with its edible plants, had disappeared. Fish were scarce and malnutrition rampant--there were just too many mouths to feed. And malnutrition left the people vulnerable to disease.

Yet for all the hardship they faced there, Eleodoro Maynas worried about his friend returning to Boulder. "Stay. Why go back?" he asked. "You're needed here. Politics are bad."

Hern smiled and gave the same answer that he gave in Colorado when asked why he put up with the abuse: "Because it matters."

In December 1992 part of Hern's doctoral work was published in Natural History, along with many of his photographs of the Shipibo. "A larger question raised by studies such as mine is whether we really understand how fast the world's population is growing and will grow in the future," he wrote. "There was a time, long past, when it took 100,000 years for world population to double. Soon after agriculture was invented, the doubling time dropped to 700 years. Now our population is doubling every 35 to 40 years.

"For me, there are few things as delightful as the sound of Shipibo children laughing. The Shipibo love their children and it shows...But the inexorable arithmetic of population growth is upon them, and the consequences for their environment and families are plain to see."

On March 10, 1993, the event Hern had predicted would happen, had feared would happen, finally did. Dr. David Gunn was shot and killed as he left his Florida clinic. His murderer, Michael Griffin, had stepped from a line of "pro-life" picketers.

Gunn, too, had believed that what he did mattered. Commuting by car and plane to places where no other doctors were willing to do the procedure, he'd performed abortions in Florida, Alabama and Georgia.

At his trial in early 1994, Griffin's lawyers argued that their client's mind had been warped by anti-abortion propaganda films. Griffin made no apologies. Convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, he said: "If only one little baby is saved, it is worth anything they can do to me, including taking my life."

After Gunn's death, Hern asked his staff to start documenting all calls to the clinic. It was a daunting, often frightening, task.

"How can you kill babies? You shouldn't work for a murderer. God will judge you...Save yourself."

"This killing can't go on forever. You will be held accountable."
In the days before Pope John Paul II's scheduled visit to Denver in August 1993, the calls become more extreme. "I'm going to come down there and blow that fucking place up," one caller announced.

A piece by Hern appeared in the August 13 New York Times. "This week, I began wearing a bulletproof vest to work. I am not a policeman setting out to raid crack houses. I am a doctor who does abortions," he wrote. "The reason I wear body armor is that Pope John Paul II is visiting Denver, attracting legions of anti-abortion activists."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Steve Jackson