Susan Hill


Abortion

Abortion

For many years, the anti-abortion movement, in particular the radical group “Lambs of Christ,” vowed to try to close the only clinic in North Dakota, the Fargo Women’s Health Organization.  The clinic was owned by my good friend, Susan Hill, who passed away last year and was run by another good friend, Jane Bovard.  In addition, their primary doctor was Susan Wicklund, who was actually the first abortion doctor to talk publicly about anti-abortion terrorism in an interview on “Sixty Minutes.”

Hoping to make North Dakota an “abortion free state,” the anti-abortion groups were merciless.  This little clinic, which looked like an old house, was truly the last bastion on the lone prairie. At times, there were literally thousands of protestors at their front door, the clinic was the target of numerous physical attacks and the staff was terrorized on a regular basis.  Ms. Bovard, who lived right in Fargo, was the target of incessant stalking, death threats and protests at her home.   Still, the clinic survived.  And, ultimately, Ms. Bovard went off on her own and opened up the Red River Women’s Clinic.  Because of the small population base, the town could not handle two clinics and the FWHO closed.  So, today there is still one clinic in North Dakota and, knock on wood, things seemed to have quieted down considerably in that state.

Abortion

Abortion

Over the years, the effort to save or close the only abortion clinic in North Dakota was a cause célèbre for activists on both sides of the issue.  Whenever anything of interest happened out there, the fundraising letters started flying.  Remember, when things are quiet, it’s very difficult to raise money.

And now we have Jackson, Mississippi.  For many years, there has been only one clinic in the state, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and it was owned by, you guessed it, Susan Hill.  It was (and is) an absolutely beautiful clinic and it has been serving women in that state for many years.  But it is now in danger of closing – and not because of anti-abortion terrorism.

Phil Bryant Abortion

Phil Bryant Abortion

No, it seems that the Governor of the state, Phil Bryant, is ready to sign a bill into law that would require doctors who work in abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at a local hospital and to be board certified in obstetrics and gynecology.  Diane Derzis, the new owner of the clinic, said its physicians are OB-GYN certified but only one has admitting privileges. That’s because most of her doctors live out of state because they have been stalked and threatened and most hospitals will not grant such privileges to out-of-state physicians.

Of course, anti-abortion advocates are saying these laws are necessary to insure the “safety” of the women.  How kind of them!  And then they discover that – oh look – I didn’t know that getting privileges was so difficult.  Gee whiz, I guess that means the clinic will have to close.  What a surprise!

This is

Susan Hill

Susan Hill

not about making abortion safer.  It’s about politics – once again – and it’s about claiming bragging rights for having the first state in the nation to have no abortion clinics.  But, of course, we all know that the women in Mississippi will continue to get abortions because the desire to NOT bear a child is so strong that a woman will go to extraordinary lengths to terminate her pregnancy.  Oh, yes, for some women, especially poor ones, this will be yet another obstacle to overcome.  But as history has shown, that woman will scrounge up a little more money for the bus trip to Louisiana or Alabama.  They will find an abortion provider and do what they have to do.

Meanwhile, however, the legislators in Mississippi thump their chests and crow about how they are now an “abortion free state.”  Abortions may no longer be performed in Mississippi, but women in Mississippi will continue to get abortions.

Clinton Signing a Document

September, 1993.

Six months after the assassination of Doctor David Gunn.

I was sitting at my desk in the offices of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, thinking about the memorial we were going to hold in Pensacola, Florida in March to commemorate the first anniversary of David’s brutal murder.  We had decided, with some trepidation, to have an open air event with our doctors and clinic staff at the site where David was killed earlier that year.

We knew it was going to be an extremely emotional and solemn event and those who had decided to go were clearly on edge.  I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic so I started thinking about something I could do to make this event one that they would never forget.  So, I picked up the phone and called a friend of mine who worked at the White House.

After exchanging a few pleasantries, I said “Betsy, we’re doing this event in March of next year and I think the President should send our folks a message of support.”  You could hear a pin drop.  You see, at that point it was clear that President Clinton was pro-choice but to ask him to actually acknowledge the work of abortion doctors was taking things to a whole new level.   No president had ever even mentioned the doctors and staff who worked in our clinics.  It was the same old story:  you could say you were pro-choice but no politician would actually talk about abortion, especially the President.  So, I knew I was pushing the envelope.

“Are you out of your mind?” she asked.

I then went on for another few minutes and, at the end of the conversation she said “let me see what I can do.”

The conversations went on for weeks but to me the good news was that they were still going on.  By December, no one in the White House chain had said “no.”  Then, in early January, Betsy called me and said “I still cannot promise anything, we’re going back and forth on this but why don’t you draft something up for us?’  Within two hours I had drafted a letter from President Bill Clinton praising the doctors and staff for the work they performed.  I gulped and faxed it over to her.

Several more weeks went by and I heard nothing.  By now, the details of the event were all set.  We planned on having the outdoor ceremony at the site of David’s murder and, after some remarks by staff people who worked for David Gunn, I would give a speech.  It was my hope to start it off by reading this first of its kind letter from the President of the United States.

A few days before we were going to fly to Pensacola, I still hadn’t heard anything.  I kept calling and getting no response.  I figured it was done.  Then, the day before my flight Betsy called me. “We’re talking to him today about it.”   HIM?  As in the President?   Yep, she said casually.  My heart was in my throat.  And then I didn’t hear from her the rest of the day.

The next day my flight was scheduled to leave at 2:00 p.m.  At 10:30 Betsy called me and said “he approved the letter.”  I seriously had tears in my eyes when I asked her when it would get to the office.  “We just sent it by courier.”  Literally about 30 minutes before I had to leave, the letter in a White House envelope was in my hands and it stayed with me all the way down to Pensacola.

On the day of the event, as about 100 abortion providers sat outside in the Pensacola sun, I opened up the ceremony and announced that I “had a letter from a friend.”   Without identifying who the letter was from (no one was in on the secret except my staff), I started reading the letter which congratulated “those of you who offer abortion services to thousands and thousands of women each year.”  One person later told me that she thought I was going to announce that the letter was from some “lame pro-choice congressman.”

Then, towards the end of this wonderful letter, I read the last paragraph which started “So, Hillary and I want to extend to you…”  I could barely get the words out and the crowd collectively gasped.  I have the tape of this event you can hear one person say out loud “Holy Shit!”  I could see people actually crying as I (barely) finished the letter.

The President of the United States had finally recognized them.  In the years that followed, the President used other occasions to congratulate our group but by then it was “old hat.”  It was getting him to do it for the first time that took all the work – and it was worth it.

Today, the letter hangs on my wall.

Okay, I know this is gonna sound corny but I really would like to take this time to give “thanks” to a few people who I believe have made significant contributions to the fight for reproductive rights.

Ellie Smeal

ELLIE SMEAL:  For as long as I can remember, Ellie has been the head of the Feminist Majority Foundation.  For many years before we met, she was an outspoken leader for the Equal Rights Amendment but at some point she segued over to the abortion rights cause.  For a woman with so much inf

luence in the halls of Congress and in the White House, Ellie is one of the most unassuming people I have ever met.  Years ago, when the anti-abortion terrorists started blowing up clinics and shooting our doctors, it was Ellie and her Foundation that stepped up to provide security for the abortion clinics.  She was the one who arranged security briefings at the Department of Justice and spent a lot of money to protect the providers in the field.  She was not always successful in her efforts, but she never stopped trying.

SENATOR BOB PACKWOOD:  Okay, before you say it, I know Packwood was kind of a sleaze ball.  I

Senator Bob Packwood

remember as well as anyone the sexual harassment, the womanizing and all of the other stuff.  But, I have to say that before the allegations came to light Bob Packwood was always there for the pro-choice movement.  He was our leader, no doubt about it.  He was one of the first elected officials to go out there and say the frigging “A” word.  He led the filibuster against the proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned abortion.  Indeed, I remember how he actually pissed some other pro-choice Senators off because he wanted to be the ONLY Senator out there engaging in the filibuster.  Such was his ego.  Ultimately, under his leadership we sounded defeated the constitutional amendment.

DOCTOR GEORGE TILLER:  So much has been said about the late George Tiller.  Let me just say that he was a man of his convictions.  He did not hide, he spoke honestly about his work, he vigorously defended the right of a woman to obtain a late term abortion.  He was a politically savvy physician who contributed thousands and thousands of dollars to help elect pro-choice candidates.  He supported the national organizations that supported the abortion providers.  He was our leader – plain and simple.

DAVID GUNN, JR:  After his father, Doctor David Gunn, was assassinated as he approached his abortion clinic in Pensacola, David Gunn Jr. burst onto the national scene.  Many people in the abortion provider community did not know his father, but we all quickly “adopted” David, Jr.   The first time that most people saw him was when he appeared on “The Donohue Show” just a week after the murder.   Millions of people came to admire the young man who sat on the stage stoically while he listened to Mr. Paul Hill suggest that his father’s murder was “justifiable homicide.”  After that appearance, David went on a speaking tour (despite struggling with an obvious stutter) and raised money for a number of abortion provider organizations.  At one point, he even offered to have his photo taken to be used in a full page New York Times ad to raise money for the National Coalition of Abortion Providers.  Over the years, David and I became good friends but today I have no idea where David is.

THE NOVEMBER GANG:  This small “support group” of abortion rights activists took me under their wing when I joined the National Coalition of Abortion Providers.  For years, they served as my moral compass and my political conscience, both professionally and personally.   I was able to let my hair down with these folks and got through some very rough times because of them.   Many thanks to Renee, Charlotte, Claire, Peg and the others…..

Finally, thanks to my spouse and my two boys for putting up with all of the “stuff” that they had to endure when I was out there representing the abortion provider cause.  You have no idea what they went through over those years.

Capitol Hill Hallway

When I was the chief lobbyist for the National Abortion Rights Action League in the early 1980’s, I had absolutely no contact with abortion clinics.  Some people might find that ironic, but the fact was that I spent most of my time roaming the halls of Capitol Hill trying to stop legislative attacks on the right to abortion.  I never talked about the actual abortion procedure.  Abortion providers and their world were totally foreign to me. I just devoted my time to trying to preserve Roe v Wade and the constitutional right to privacy.

But like most Americans, I had a vision in my mind about what those abortion clinics looked like and how they operated.  It was not a nice vision because in some ways I had bought into the anti-abortion propaganda about the “abortion mills.”  And there was no one to rebut their claims as the clinics had no lobbyists, no public relations person.

Years later, when I joined the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, I realized that I had to get out there and visit the abortion clinics. So, I started making phone calls, asking the owners or administrators if they would mind if I came to their clinic for a visit. I expected to get mostly negative reactions, figuring they wouldn’t want me to see their clinics but the reaction was just the opposite.  Instead, people were thrilled that anyone from the “outside world” would want to see their facility.  They welcomed me with open arms.

The first abortion clinic I ever stepped into was the Raleigh Women’s Health Organization, a facility that was operated by my dear friend, Susan Hill.  I drove down on a Monday morning, met her at her house and we drove together to her clinic.  I was first struck when we pulled into a beautiful business park.  For some reason,  I had been prepared to wind up in the slums of Raleigh.  Instead, we turned a corner and I say a beautiful free-standing building surrounded by a number of mature oak trees and a sprawling green lawn.  And right out front, showing they had nothing to hide, was a sign saying “Raleigh Women’s Health Organization.”

We went through the front door and I lost my breath.  In the reception area were about 15 women sitting together.  The room was pristine with sunlight coming through the skylights and there was a whiff of lavender in the air.  I then noticed several fresh Iris plants in tall vases.  Classical music was being piped in through the facility.  I was stunned – and embarrassed because I had been expecting something much worse.

We went back to the staff room for some coffee, then Susan introduced me to her two (surprisingly)

Waiting Room

young doctors.  They were not the sleazeball “abortionists” that I had envisioned.  They were Ob-Gyns with diplomas from the top medical schools and what came across during our conversation was how proud they were of the work they were performing. The rest of the staff had the same positive attitude.  For a place that was hosting women in less than ideal circumstances, the clinic was a surprisingly upbeat place.

Later on, when most of the patients were done with their procedure, Susan escorted me into the recovery room.  There were about 10 women resting in warm, fuzzy reclining chairs with warm, fuzzy afghans.  They were sipping some kind of tea and eating cookies.  I was surprised that some were talking to each other.  I’m not saying that they were having a downright party but it was nothing like I had expected.

When it was time for me to leave, I said goodbye to the staff and thanked them for all the great work they were performing.   Then I walked outside and saw my first anti-abortion protestors.  They had apparently come just after I entered the clinic (which I never understood because they had missed their chance to harass the women as they came into the facility).  There were about thirty of them, all men, holding very ugly signs and screaming at me.  There was no way they could have known who I was but they probably just assumed I was associated with the clinic.

At that very moment, I actually felt my first surge of pride as the representative for the clinics.  I was emboldened and anxious to go back to Washington, D.C. to represent the staff at the Raleigh Women’s Health Organization and the hundreds of other clinics like them across the country.

I learned that day that abortion facilities were mere medical offices but with a special touch.  I learned that the anti-abortion propaganda that I had been listening to for years was just that – propaganda.  And I learned that the real “ugliness” in the abortion field was outside the clinic, not inside.