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The Fight of Their Lives

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Anti-abortion protesters lined up outside the clinic but also took their fight to other fronts. Hern started getting threatening phone calls at home--"We're going to kill you." "If you want to live, stop doing abortions"--and he purchased a rifle that he kept next to his bed. The Boulder Valley Right-to-Life Committee sent out a mass mailing of brochures featuring dismembered fetuses. Some physicians at Boulder Community Hospital opposed Hern's application for hospital privileges, which he would need in case of emergencies that couldn't be handled at the clinic. Clinic personnel were accused of "corrupting" youth because the facility was located a block from a junior high school and a Catholic school. A Fight the Abortion Clinic Committee demanded that the Boulder City Council recognize the clinic as a "clear and present danger" to community health and close it. Anti-abortion doctors wanted to make the same request of county and state health boards.

After touring the clinic, however, a delegation from the Boulder County Medical Society announced that the clinic's standards of medical care were "exemplary and commendable." A short time later, after heated debate, Hern was granted hospital privileges by a narrow margin.

He thought he'd stay at the clinic for about a year, until the protesters saw that it wasn't going away and gave up.

"If you had told me then that more than twenty years later I would still be in a clinic, performing abortions, I would have told you, 'No way. You've got to be kidding,'" Hern says, then shrugs. "But here I am."

In 1974 Hern returned to the Peruvian Amazon for a few weeks. It felt good to get back to medicine: straightening broken bones, treating pneumonia, delivering babies into their mothers' arms. His friend Eleodoro Maynas was always close by and kept Hern from harm. On one trip upriver, they saw a rough-looking character who warned them away from his village. It became apparent that the man was telling other men that Hern was out to castrate them. "We'd come to a village, and there would be these men holding their balls in one hand and a machete in the other, ready to lop off my head," Hern says, flashing a rare smile. "But Eleodoro was able to convince them that I was there to help."

As they traveled, Hern talked to Maynas about what was taking place in Boulder. The small Indian shook his head. He knew a lot about political terrorism--Peru's rulers had treated his people like dogs for centuries. It was politics that prevented his friend the doctor from bringing tootimarau, birth-control medicine, to his people; politics that made so many women die from too many births or risky abortions.

These people in Boulder sounded dangerous. "Be careful," Maynas said. "We want you to come back."

Actually, Hern was again thinking of staying with the Shipibo, to continue his research and take care of people who appreciated his help. They'd adopted him as one of their own, even giving him the name Caibima, which translates roughly to "he who travels far but always returns here."

He had few friends in Boulder who would miss him.
"What I do is disreputable, repugnant," Hern says, unable to disguise the bitterness in his voice. "Even those people who agreed with me in principle didn't want me around them on a personal basis."

But Hern knew he couldn't abandon the clinic. And as he journeyed through the jungle, he adopted a two-word reason that he repeats like a mantra whenever he needs to remind himself why. "It matters," he said then and says now. "It matters to women and their families. It matters to the cause of freedom."

So when Hern returned to Boulder, he picked up the pace, readily accepting offers to debate the abortion issue. At one debate, Hern had to be escorted out the back of the auditorium when a mob rushed the stage. And when the Denver chapter of the National Organization for Women held a rally to honor those who had helped women's-rights issues, including Hern, "fanatics" shouted that he was a murderer. As Hern began his prepared speech about the need for safe and legal abortions, they kept shouting. He spoke louder. Their faces twisted with hatred as they screamed.

"It was a little frightening," he recalls. "It was exhilarating. There was really something fearsome about people who hated me so much and who would go after me in a personal way. I said we would not return to back-alley abortions for the same reasons that we would not go back to slavery, public flogging and the bubonic plague. That barbaric time in history was over.

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Steve Jackson