Longform

The Fight of Their Lives

Page 9 of 23

Hern was startled out of his complacency by a long-distance call from his terrified clinic administrator. She'd been alone in the office when a brick came crashing through the front window. Instantly, Hern says, he flashed on Kristallnacht and realized his error. The Nazis, at least in the beginning, hadn't been large in number, either. They'd gained power through threats and criminal attacks, while men of good will had done nothing to stop them.

Hern flew back to Colorado. By the time he reached the clinic, the brick-throwing had been traced to the husband of a woman who'd helped organize Scheidler's trip to Boulder. Looking at the plywood that covered the broken window, Hern thought about what he could do; Scheidler was scheduled to hold a press conference outside the clinic the next morning.

Hern fell asleep trying to think of a counter-measure. When he awoke a few hours later, he had an idea. He called his administrator and told her to postpone repairing the window. Then he got a piece of mat board and wrote in large dark letters: "THIS WINDOW WAS BROKEN BY THOSE WHO HATE FREEDOM." He took the board to the clinic and taped it to the plywood.

So when Scheidler gave his speech, including his customary denial of condoning violence "though I can sure understand it," he did so with Hern's sign behind him for every camera to record.

Hern offered his own statement to the press: "Mr. Scheidler incites violence in his followers and then disavows it. Mr. Scheidler has contempt for women, he has contempt for American laws, and he has contempt for the American tradition of fair play."

A decade later, Hern credits Scheidler's visit with increasing his resolve to stay and fight. "I figured if a man like Joe Scheidler would come all the way from Chicago to shut me down," he says, "then I must be doing something very important in the cause of human freedom."

What he was doing mattered, but it also took a great personal toll. Scheidler returned to Boulder several times over the next year, and the threats to Hern increased accordingly. He no longer felt safe anywhere except his mountain home. It had been his custom to go for a run at noon in a park several blocks from his clinic; although he kept at it, he now assumed he'd be shot while running one day.

The biggest blow was the end of his marriage in the fall of 1986. "My wife was very frightened," Hern says. "Her family wanted me to do something else...There were times I wanted to, but I couldn't walk away.

"I was very devoted to my wife," he says quietly. "I still regard her as quite a fine person. But she concluded that she wasn't happy living with me."

That fall the Boulder City Council passed the country's first "buffer-zone ordinance." It states that if a demonstrator is within 100 feet of a clinic entrance, he must stay eight feet from a patient--but only if the patient puts up her hand and says, "Step back."

The ordinance was "cosmetic," Hern criticized at the time. "A fundamental problem is that the ordinance places the burden of prosecution on the patient. It also assumes that anti-abortion demonstrators are reasonable people who respond to reasonable requests and respect the law. Overwhelming experience shows this is not the case."

It was shown again and again in 1987 and 1988, as the demonstrations outside Hern's clinic grew in size and vehemence. Now protesters were doing more than speaking out. They repeatedly poured glue in the locks of clinic doors. They slashed the tires of cars in the parking lot, including those belonging to cleaning people and Hern's elderly mother, who was visiting one day. A nurse with a car almost identical to Hern's complained that when she drove home from work one day, her car did not seem to be steering properly. It turned out someone had loosened all the lug nuts on her tires.

In Hern's opinion, the demonstrators gave up their free-speech rights when they began screaming at patients and staff, calling names, making threats and destroying property. "It was psychological rape of my patients," he says. "These people were no longer expressing opinion, they were violating my patients' right to privacy.

"It is perhaps the most severe test of the limits of a free society ever. These people have no respect for the constitutional rights of others."

The first week of February 1988 was not a good time for Hern. His divorce was finalized, and "I was devastated," he says, tears coming to his eyes. "I did not want to be divorced. I wanted a family and a wife I could come home to and share my life with."

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Steve Jackson