Abortion doctor racks up the miles

Flies from home in Nebraska to Md. clinic

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post / August 7, 2011

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WASHINGTON - LeRoy Carhart travels from his home in Nebraska almost every week to perform abortions at a clinic in Germantown, Md. He rarely stays at the same hotel twice. He rolls dice to pick the route to take to work, because “the biggest part of security is not being predictable,’’ he said.

As one of the few doctors in the nation who openly acknowledge performing abortions late in a pregnancy, and because he wants to expand his services, Carhart is the top focus of antiabortion groups.

He took on that role after Kansas doctor George Tiller, his friend and mentor, was fatally shot by an abortion opponent in 2009. Tiller was attending church at the time - the only predictable event in his schedule.

In a recent interview - his first extensive comments since he began traveling to Maryland in December - Carhart, 69, discussed his work, his plans to broaden health care and social services to include adoption counseling, and security measures that he and his staff members take.

Carhart, a grandfather and retired Air Force general surgeon, has an understated manner, speaking so softly that he can barely be heard. His voice was weary at the end of a recent workday as he went over logistics with his wife, Mary, a straight-talking former schoolteacher who helps manage the clinic.

During a takeout dinner in a hotel lobby, and later in his room, he became visibly angered, his eyes hardening, while describing what he called ridiculous restrictions on abortion nationwide. Kansas regulates the size of clinics’ janitorial supply closets; South Carolina regulates how grass is cut outside the facilities.

The obstacles only make him more committed, he said. The women who have turned to him for abortions have had severe fetal abnormalities, he said. “We have helped them. . . . They’d rather die than have these pregnancies,’’ he said.

Carhart began working in Germantown after Nebraska made it illegal last year to perform most abortions beyond 20 weeks of gestation. He chose Maryland because it has some of the least-restrictive abortion laws in the nation, is centrally located on the East Coast, and because Germantown is accessible from three airports. Protesters plan to hold street rallies and prayer vigils in a continuing attempt to stop him.

Abortion opponents condemn the procedure regardless of the circumstances.

“There is no moral distinction,’’ said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, which has targeted Carhart for years. “Ninety-eight percent are simply elective procedures for mothers who want to have dead children.’’

Most doctors will not perform abortions beyond 22 or 24 weeks for various reasons, including legal concerns, social stigma, inadequate training, or inexperience.

Carhart performs about 60 abortions a month in Germantown. Many of the women have been referred by other doctors. Six to 10 per month are late-in-pregnancy abortions; he declined to specify how late.

The Germantown clinic is small. He is the only doctor working there. But four other doctors - including one from the Washington area - have asked to train with him.

Carhart said training can begin if the clinic receives more patients. That may happen soon.

This fall, Virginia health officials are expected to issue new draft regulations that will make abortion clinics, which are now treated like doctors’ offices, follow rules imposed on ambulatory surgical centers. Those include guidelines about the width of hallways. Antiabortion activists have said the rules will make the facilities safer, but providers and abortion rights supporters say the rules could force many clinics to close.

Virginia’s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, and Governor Robert McDonnell, a longtime abortion opponent, must approve the regulations before they go into effect Jan. 1.

Carhart also wants to expand the services at Germantown clinic to include adoption counseling, HIV/AIDS screening, and preventive health services for lesbians, gay men, and transgender people. Some cannot get Pap smears to detect cervical cancer because doctors refuse to examine them, Carhart said.

He hopes to begin health screenings and adoption counseling by next year. His community outreach director has received adoption training, and they are looking to partner with agencies that support adoptions by gay and biracial couples as well as single parents.

Operation Rescue and the Maryland Coalition for Life opened a crisis center in April across the parking lot from the Germantown clinic to offer pregnancy counseling. Newman said activists have persuaded at least four women not to have abortions.

Operation Rescue also filed a complaint with the Maryland Board of Physicians alleging that Carhart did not disclose that he would be providing late-in-pregnancy abortions when he applied for his Maryland license. The board is investigating. A board spokeswoman said she could not comment. Carhart said he answered all questions appropriately, and an attorney is handling the complaint.