Abortion on Trial
The son of a mortician and a nurse, Pendergraft grew up in rural North Carolina. He decided on medical school at the encouragement of an aunt he was close to, whose illegal abortion made her infertile. Unlike most abortion doctors, Pendergraft is board-certified as an Ob-Gyn and he completed a specialty fellowship in maternal/fetal medicine and high-risk obstetrics, training that only 1,100 or so physicians nationwide have received. "[Pendergraft] was unequivocally one of the best doctors I ever worked with, in a variety of ways: medical/surgical techniques, handling of uncommon conditions and sensitivity to women's needs," says Baird-Windle, who hired Pendergraft a decade ago to perform abortions in her Melbourne clinic.
At his Orlando and Tampa clinics, Pendergraft performs medically necessary abortions up to the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy. Despite the sensationalizing of late-term procedures, abortions after twenty-five weeks are performed rarely and almost always under extreme circumstances--if there is a severe fetal abnormality or if the woman's life is in danger. In fact, because these high-risk procedures are medically tricky and politically charged, only a handful of doctors perform them worldwide. Pendergraft estimates that 5 percent of his patients travel to his late-term clinics from South America, Europe or even the Middle East, having heard about his services on the Internet or by word of mouth.
Pastel pink with an American flag flying from a thirty-foot pole, Pendergraft's Ocala Women's Center would stand out among the city's auto-repair shops and IHOPs even if it weren't surrounded by protesters. Greater Ocala is an old agricultural community of 46,000 that sprawls across lush, tropical Marion County, renowned for its thoroughbred horses and hot springs. Although it's just an hour's drive from Disney's Florida, the county, dotted with Southern Baptist churches, is culturally and ideologically closer to the Dixiecrat Deep South.
African-Americans make up about 22 percent of Ocala's population and 12 percent of Marion County's. As recently as March, local civil rights groups asked the County Council for the third time to remove the Rebel flag from its compound. Yet even after state capitol buildings in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama have taken down that relic of their Confederate past, the City of Ocala refuses to do so. Close to Pendergraft's clinic is West Ocala, the black section of town. A striking contrast to the palatial houses nestled in rolling hills that have lured many retirees to the area, West Ocala features shabby bungalows, boarded-up buildings and faded stores lining a highway. The NAACP office sits among them, a small house distinguished by only a hand-painted sign.
Pendergraft has encountered various obstacles to operating abortion clinics over the years, but in Ocala, he says, there was a concerted, official effort to keep him out of town. Shortly after he purchased the clinic building in September 1997, the Marion County Board of Commissioners sent him a letter asking him to "reconsider" opening, citing the "controversy" an abortion clinic would bring to Ocala's "family-oriented community." Pendergraft received hundreds of similar letters from other citizens, and thousands of parishioners signed a petition asking him not to come.
The board's letter especially worried Michael Spielvogel, a former real-estate broker who had recently begun helping Pendergraft to manage his business. Spielvogel spoke with board chairman Cretul about selling the clinic building to the local government, which he viewed as a possible way out of an increasingly tense situation. For the most part, Pendergraft stayed out of these negotiations. As it turned out, Spielvogel's plan backfired: Cretul went to the Ocala police, suspicious that Spielvogel might be trying to extort money from the county. His theory? Spielvogel was angling to capitalize on the community's fear of an abortion clinic by selling the building at a profit without ever opening up shop.
At this point, Pendergraft still wanted to open his clinic as planned in the spring of 1998. But one evening in January of that year, he finished work to find Spielvogel in a clinic office, apparently on the phone with Commissioner Cretul, flushed and upset. During the encounter, Spielvogel appeared to repeat a threat from Cretul, which rang to the effect of "what happened in Alabama is nothing compared to what's going to happen in Ocala," referring to the 1997 bombing of a Birmingham abortion clinic. "I told him, 'If you're scared, call the FBI,'" recalls Pendergraft. Actually, he already had. But here's the twist: Cretul, who taped his conversations with Spielvogel, never made such a threat; Spielvogel, as he later admitted on the witness stand, had lied to Pendergraft. A month later, without disclosing that it had discovered Spielvogel's fabrication, the FBI informed Pendergraft and Spielvogel that it would not be investigating Larry Cretul.