Abortion doctor's death weighs heavily on fellow physician in Colorado

By DeeDee Correll
Los Angeles Times / June 6, 2009
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BOULDER, Colo. - At the Boulder Abortion Clinic, Dr. Warren Hern leaves no window uncovered.

Full-length blinds shroud the bulletproof entryway; in his office, vinyl shades block a small window.

This is one of the facts of Hern's life - no windows, ever. That was how Dr. Barnett Slepian's killer shot him in New York, through a kitchen window. Slepian, as Hern does, performed abortions.

After Slepian's shooting in 1998, Hern predicted another would follow. "Will I get to live out my life?" he asked in a newspaper column in 2001. "Who's next?"

On Sunday, that turned out to be George Tiller, a Kansas physician who was shot dead in a church foyer. Like Hern, Tiller was one of the few doctors in the US known to perform abortions late in the second or third trimester of pregnancy. The two were also friends - "I loved him," Hern said. The Justice Department opened an investigation yesterday into the killing of Tiller to see whether the accused gunman had accomplices.

This week at his modest office, a somber Hern fielded calls from reporters as he juggled patients and adjusted to the presence of US marshals assigned to protect him.

Although Hern did not discuss details of his security, several well-muscled men hovered in the hallway.

On the door, a pair of signs distinguished this clinic from countless other doctors' offices. One prohibited cellphones or cameras. Another admonished: "For your safety, do not open this door for anyone who has not accompanied you."

Hern may have grown accustomed long ago to working under such conditions, but that did not diminish his shock or grief over Tiller's death. He learned of the killing when Tiller's wife, who was at the church when her husband was shot, called Hern to tell him. "I liked the world a lot more before Sunday morning," he said.

Bob Enyart, a spokesman for Colorado Right to Life, which has demonstrated against Hern for decades, said that although his group doesn't condone the slaying, doctors that perform abortions should expect that violence begets violence.

"If a Mafia hit man gets killed, people recognize it's an occupational hazard," he said.

Hern has been familiar with the hazards for decades. After performing abortions for more than half of his life, the 70-year-old doctor has never been injured, but the constant threats with which he has lived since 1973 have transformed his life into a series of security measures: sleeping with a rifle, scanning rooftops for snipers, wearing a protective vest.

In the early 1970s, Hern - who had planned to become an epidemiologist - became convinced that the Supreme Court's 1973 decision to legalize abortion would mean nothing if doctors would not perform them.

"I felt doing abortions was the most important thing I could do with my life," he said.

In time, he began to focus on more difficult abortions performed in the later weeks of pregnancy - typically, he said, because of medical complications or fetuses with abnormalities. Such abortions now comprise the bulk of his practice.