Longform

The Fight of Their Lives

Page 2 of 23

Hern liked the idea of a discipline with so many facets. As a doctor, he could treat patients, or pursue scientific research, or both--either way, helping people lead better lives. And as a doctor, he would be a respected member of the community, one whose opinions mattered. So after graduating from high school in 1956, Hern enrolled at the University of Colorado as a pre-med student majoring in speech with minors in anthropology and chemistry.

College turned Hern's traditional beliefs upside down. A "fairly religious" high school student, he now discovered new ways of looking at the world and its mysteries through courses in anthropology, comparative religions and Greek philosophy. His professors challenged him to think for himself and learn to defend his conclusions through civilized debate rather than accept without question the "received knowledge" of his parents.

"It was disturbing," Hern recalls. "I wanted to hold on to my faith, so I read more, but the more I read, the less I believed. I saw a lot of problems between Christianity as a theology and how it was applied in the real world. Sectarian strife and violence. Oppression of non-believers.

"The Catholic Church was exactly 350 years behind the times, because that's how long it took the church to get over Galileo saying that Copernicus was right: The sun does not revolve around the Earth, and the Earth was not the center of the solar system."

Hern suddenly slams the table with a fist. He has little patience with ignorance, even ancient ignorance. "Whoa," he says. "Lock him up, the heretic...Meanwhile, the Pope is living in luxury in a palatial setting telling poor people to strip their lands bare and reproduce as much as possible."

For Hern, faith gave way to reason, miracles to the empirical data of science. "I had the heart of a believer but the mind of a skeptic, and gradually, the skeptic won."

It was hard on his parents, especially his father, when Hern announced he had rejected Christianity. Their debates could be rancorous, with the know-it-all son tromping heavily across the father's rock of ages. Still, they could always talk.

It wasn't until 1961 that Hern ran into a group that allowed no room for dissent. He and a classmate had noticed a newspaper ad promoting a sermon on "Americanism." On a whim, the two young men attended the meeting at a Denver church.

"If you're a good American, stand up!" the minister exhorted the congregation as the choir marched down the aisle carrying hymnals and small American flags.

"America for Americans for America!" the man shouted, pointing a finger at the crowd. "There are communists here tonight...right now! We know you're here." The crowd responded with cheers, clenched fists and patriotic hymns.

"We believe in freedom of opinion, freedom of speech," the minister cried.
"Amen!" the crowd yelled back.
"We believe in the American way of life," he shouted.
"That's right, brother," they agreed.
"We hate COMMUNISTS!" he screamed.
"God save us!"

On their return to Boulder, Hern and his friend wrote an account of the evening for the school newspaper. "Why do these people turn to demagogues?" they asked. "Why do people surrender themselves to blind, mindless hate?...Why the strange alliance of religion and super-patriotism?"

Hern could not know that he would be asking the same questions thirty years later--and coming no closer to an answer.

He started medical school with the fervor of someone out to save the world but by the third year was disenchanted enough to consider quitting...until his rotation to the obstetrics floor at University Hospital. "I loved delivering babies," Hern says, then peers quickly through his glasses as though he expects to be challenged. "It was the happiest thing in the world, a miracle. I love babies and I love children."

But he was troubled by the contrast between women who wanted their babies and those for whom pregnancy was a disaster and adoption the only option. "I remember a woman standing at the window of the nursery looking in at the baby she couldn't keep and crying," he says, closing his eyes. "Another woman who wanted to give up her baby for adoption began bleeding and needed a C-section. Her baby was blue and wasn't expected to live, or surely would have been mentally retarded and unlikely to be adopted. She was just trying to get over the pregnancy. Instead, there was this catastrophe."

Hern's next rotation took him to gynecology, where he worked late into the night trying to save the lives of women suffering from septic abortions, their plight self-inflicted or the result of back-alley butchery. Fellow students whispered about one woman who wanted to end her pregnancy so desperately that she shot herself in the stomach.

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Steve Jackson