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LeRoy Carhart, abortion doctor whose battles went all the way to the Supreme Court, dies at 81

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LeRoy Carhart, a former Air Force surgeon who later became one of the nation’s few specialists in late-term abortions, defying threats and protests while spearheading two cases that have been brought before the Supreme Court before the constitutional right to abortion was struck down, died April 28. in a hospice in Bellevue, Neb. He was 81 years old.

His daughter, Janine Weathersby, said he had an aggressive form of liver cancer.

Dr. Carhart has sometimes described himself as an activist — expanding his clinics beyond Nebraska to other parts of the country, including Germantown, Md. — but said his opinions were unexpectedly shaped as he was in medical school in Philadelphia in the early 1970s, Before Roe vs. Wade in 1973 granted the right to abortion.

He described his shock at seeing women with life-threatening infections or bleeding after voluntary abortions and procedures obtained through clandestine networks. “Some of them were clandestine abortions that we’ve all heard about,” Dr. Carhart told NPR.

Although third-trimester abortions are unusual, he defended their necessity in cases such as malformed fetuses, pregnancy from rape, or a woman in severe mental distress or contemplating suicide. It would, however, refuse many elective abortions after 24 weeks, when a fetus is generally considered viable.

In 2009, a woman went to Dr. Carhart to have an abortion in her 28th week of pregnancy. Dr. Carhart asked what she would do if she carried the baby to term, according to a Newsweek account. She said she planned to put the child up for adoption. Dr. Carhart refused to perform an abortion.

“Even if you feel like you’re alone in the world, it’s good to know that there are…people like you out there who are alone with you,” Dr Carthard told Washington. Posted in 2011.

For those who oppose abortion, however, Dr. Carhart was viewed with particular disdain. His openness to the media and his methodical explanations of the need for certain late abortions earned him a scathing condemnation.

“He knows he kills babies for a living,” said a comment in the National Catholic Register. In Montgomery County, Maryland, in 2011, protesters unfurled a banner saying “Please STOP the killing of children” with the photo and phone number of Dr. Carhart’s Germantown clinic owner .

Acts of violence also happened. On September 6, 1991 – just as Nebraska passed a law requiring parental notification before a minor could have an abortion – Dr. Carhart’s farm buildings burned down, killing 17 horses as well as his dog and his cat. Dr Carhart said he received an anonymous letter calling fire for retaliation for abortions, which were then only part of his medical practice.

“I decided that I was not just going to be a supplier. I was going to be an activist,” he told the Post.

He opened his clinic the following year. As he forged ties in the wider medical community, he rekindled ties with Wichita physician George Tiller. In the late 1990s, Dr. Carhart began making the regular five-hour drive from Nebraska to help out at Tiller’s reproductive clinic.

Dr. Carhart would never stay at the same hotel twice. He learned to check if he was followed. Tiller’s clinic had been bombed before, and he was shot in both arms in 1993 by an assailant.

On May 31, 2009, Tiller was distributing the newsletter at his Lutheran church in Wichita when a gunman opened fire, fatally wounding Tiller. Dr Carhart said he discovered the attack during a phone call to Nebraska from Tiller’s nurse shouting “George is dead”. (The attacker, self-proclaimed anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder, was convicted of premeditated first-degree murder in 2010, and his sentence was later reduced to at least 25 years before being eligible for parole. .)

“They are at war with us,” Dr. Carhart said after the murder. “We have to realize that it’s not a difference of opinion. We must fight back. »

One of them was going through the courts. Dr. Carhart challenged a 1997 ban in Nebraska against what anti-abortion groups call “partial birth” abortions, typically performed in the second trimester. In 2000, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional, citing deer in a 5-4 opinion that had ramifications for similar laws nationwide.

Dr. Carhart led another challenge to a 2003 federal law, signed by President George W. Bush, banning “partial-birth” abortions, but in more limited cases than in the Nebraska case. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 opinion in 2007, said the federal law was not “unconstitutionally vague” and did not infringe the right to abortion.

In anticipation of the Supreme Court’s opinion of June 2022 which annulled deer, Dr. Carhart seemed ready to hand over the baton. He anticipated the new landscape of varying state laws and potential legal issues for doctors and their patients, some crossing state lines for abortions.

“I’m looking for doctors to replace me right now or to help me out,” he told CNN a month before the Supreme Court’s decision. “The biggest problem is finding someone who is willing to take the target off my back and put their own.”

LeRoy Harrison Carhart Jr. was born October 28, 1941, in Trenton, NJ, and graduated from Rutgers University in 1964. He studied medicine at Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia (now Drexel University College of Medicine), earning his degree in 1973.

Dr. Carhart, who studied medicine in the Air Force, served as a surgeon at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha and retired in 1985 as a lieutenant colonel. After leaving the military, he opened a walk-in emergency clinic in Omaha.

Dr. Carhart began dividing his time between his Nebraska and Maryland clinics after Nebraska in 2010 made it illegal to perform most abortions beyond 20 weeks.

In February 2013, a 29-year-old pregnant woman in her third trimester died a day after an abortion at Dr. Carhart’s Germantown Clinic. The Maryland Board of Physicians concluded that Dr Carhart was not responsible for the death, saying there was “no lapse” in his care. The report, however, revealed operational shortcomings at Dr. Carhart’s clinic and 11 other abortion providers in Maryland.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include his 59-year-old wife, the former Mary Clark, who assists in the clinics; son LeRoy Carhart; and a grandson.

A 2013 documentary about Tiller’s murder, “After Tiller,” featured Dr. Carhart and the handful of other doctors who performed late-term abortions at the time. As he repeated in an interview with NPR, he believed the country was in a fight in which no one except the pregnant person could decide the lines.

“I don’t think I know when life begins,” he said. “I don’t think any of us know when life begins; certainly not the scientists. I don’t believe religious scholars do that. I know the only person who knows when life begins is the mother of life she carries.

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