Nebraska doctor Leroy Carhart may have successfully defended his right before the U.S. Supreme Court to perform late-term abortions, but he’s hardly optimistic about the future of women’s reproductive rights.
“We have won a battle or two, but in reality, we’ve already lost the war,” said Carhart, who came to Lehigh in late April to kick off the “Difficult Dialogues” series organized by Lehigh’s Center for Dialogue, Ethics and Spirituality.
Future topics in the series will include issues related to controversies in ethics, politics, gender and sexuality, race, free speech and inflammatory language, medicine and health care, religion and interfaith dialogue. Some of the events will be organized quickly in response to current events, according to Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies and University Chaplain, who also directs the center.
In the abortion debate, Carhart said, “there is one side making a lot of noise and the other side just being quiet. If you’re not going to fight back, the war is lost. Two or three people being out there can’t win it for you. I don’t know…maybe I’m just a pessimist.”
“You’re a realist,” answered a woman from the audience of more than 200 that crowded into a Maginnes Hall classroom to hear Carhart discuss the decades he has spent providing abortion and contraception services, as well as the inherent risks of his chosen profession. The risks, he said, are something he knows all too well.
Carhart was a long-time friend and colleague of George Tiller, M.D., the Wichita, Kansas, abortion doctor who was gunned down while serving as an usher in his church last May (his attacker, anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder, is currently serving out his prison sentence after being convicted in late January).
Carhart’s family farm was set on fire in 1991, killing 17 horses and two family pets. His clinic has received suspicious letters containing white powder, numerous threats, and is constantly picketed by anti-abortion activists.
Why does he continue to subject himself to the risks, a student asked?
“If you spend your whole life and all you have to show for it is that you’ve helped one person, you feel productive,” he said. “I help 18 to 20 women a week, who are desperate for my help. That’s enough for me.”
The former U.S. Air Force doctor began performing abortions in 1985 after being horrified by the condition of women he saw following botched abortions.
Carhart said that since reproductive rights have been successfully challenged on the state level and are being incrementally chipped away, he and his staff are beginning to see the same issues and problems as he did in the 1960s, prior to the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision that deemed abortion a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. Women who attempted their own abortions regularly appear in his office, he said.
Carhart advised the audience comprised of students and several older men and women to get active, get organized, support pro-choice political candidates, and to not cede the high moral ground to those who oppose legalized abortion.
“Nobody wants an abortion,” he said. “I’m not pro-abortion. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need them. But we’re not in a perfect world. I think it’s an answer to a problem that I’d rather prevent than need.”