Longform

The Fight of Their Lives

Page 5 of 23

Assassination. Intolerance. Pollution. Overcrowding. Hern wondered if his countrymen realized they weren't very far removed from the third-world countries he'd been exploring. Automobiles were just the latest species with which man had to compete for survival, he theorized in a piece he wrote that fall for the Post.

In 1971 Hern was recruited by the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. He'd wanted to pursue a doctorate in epidemiology, the study of the distribution and control of disease in a population, but he was out of money. He took the job and moved to Washington, D.C.

At the OEO, Hern was asked to study abortion-law changes and voluntary sterilization programs for poor women. Among his findings was that minority women died as a result of septic abortions at much higher rates than did white women; the implication was that the latter, in general, could afford safer, if still illegal, procedures.

That year Hern performed his first abortion while volunteering at the Preterm Clinic, the first freestanding abortion clinic in D.C. His patient was seventeen, and before the procedure, she told Hern she wanted to be a doctor and anesthesiologist.

"I was terrified, and so was she," Hern later wrote in an article for Women's Health Issues. "She cried after the operation for sadness and relief. Her tears and the immensity of the moment brought my tears. I had helped her change her life.

"I was relieved that this young woman was safe to go on with her life and realize her dreams. I felt I had found a new definition of the idea of medicine as an act of compassion and love for one's fellow human beings, an idea that I gained from learning about Albert Schweitzer."

This very private matter between a girl and her physician was suddenly getting lots of public attention. Hern heard the lawyers arguing Roe v. Wade before the U.S. Supreme Court and met doctors and others involved with the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws and the Women's National Abortion Action Coalition.

As a budding epidemiologist, Hern was interested in the implications of abortion as a public-health issue, and he wrote several articles on the subject. In "Biological Tyranny," published in The New Republic, he noted that of the 800 to 5,000 women who died in this country each year because of illegal abortions, a disproportionate number were minorities.

This observation earned him hate mail from a white-supremacist organization in Atlanta, which thought Hern was advocating limiting the white population while encouraging public-health policies to keep minorities alive. One morning he found a flier bearing his name, a swastika and a death threat slipped under his apartment door.

Before, Hern had walked miles to work without worrying about D.C.'s notoriously high crime rate. Now he imagined thugs out there waiting for him, ready to kill him for simply expressing an opinion. He felt hunted.

In 1972 Hern quit the OEO and moved back to Colorado. He planned to return to North Carolina to get his Ph.D.; in the meantime, he worked part-time as the medical director of a Department of Health, Education and Welfare family-planning training program in Denver. And he built a mountain home in a remote area of Gilpin County, working alongside his father. They had learned to set aside their philosophical differences and instead apply their energy to nails and lumber.

"I wanted a place that I could go to for peace and quiet," Hern says. "Where I could talk to the chipmunks, write, read, play the piano and guitar."

In January 1973, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in favor of the pro-choice faction. Writing for the 7-2 majority, Justice Harry Blackmun concluded that the right to privacy included a woman's right to keep abortion a private matter between herself and her physician. That right, however, was not absolute; the judges recognized that states had some interests in regulating abortion at later stages of pregnancy.

That April, Hern was asked to help start a freestanding abortion clinic in Boulder, the first such clinic in the state. Although he was still committed to his research project, he agreed. "The freedom to choose a safe and legal abortion meant nothing without someone willing to do it," he says now.

For Hern, the matter went far beyond concern for women's health. It was a question of freedom for women in the face of men who would control them and deny them full rights as citizens. As recently as the Fifties, in order to get an abortion, a woman had to go to a psychiatrist and be declared mentally ill. Now she could have the final say regarding what happened to her body.

Opening the Boulder Valley Clinic was relatively easy. Keeping it open was something else.

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Steve Jackson