Abortion on Trial
To make matters worse, there was racism to contend with, inside the courtroom and out. "Racism here is more of a factor than you first realize," says Elizabeth Van, an Ocala Women's Center volunteer escort who has lived in Ocala for three years. "Here it's not just acceptable, it's expected." Until the local NAACP branch took an interest late in the trial, Pendergraft and his two attorneys were the only African-Americans in the courtroom, save the one black juror. So maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise when prosecutor Devereaux described Pendergraft as having "shucked and jived" on the witness stand. This mocking remark made headlines in the Ocala Star-Banner and pushed the outraged defense to demand a public apology; Devereaux continues to insist it was not a racial slur.
On February 1 the jury convicted Dr. Pendergraft on all counts. The prosecution's evidence? As proof of conspiracy, they had Pendergraft's last letter to Larry Cretul offering to discuss the building's sale, but directing correspondence to Spielvogel, as well as the affidavit saying Pendergraft believed that Cretul had threatened the clinic; for extortion, the tape of the settlement conference, during which Pendergraft "threatened" to bankrupt Marion County; and for mail fraud, the fact that he sent his affidavit and FACE lawsuit through the US mail. SUNY Buffalo law professor Lucinda Findley, who is working on Pendergraft's appeal, said, "This is one of the most mind-bogglingly outrageous prosecutions that I have ever encountered."
Yet the medical and feminist mainstream has been slow to come to Pendergraft's defense. Fellow abortion providers, divided by fear and fierce competition, have mostly turned a blind eye to his case. In a climate where the heads-down approach is the safest and most acceptable route for abortion providers, Pendergraft is a shameless marketer, taking full-page ads in the phone book and advertising on highway billboards and local radio stations. "Nobody I've heard suggests that he's not a top doctor and a caring guy," explains attorney Susan England, "but the community of providers is in denial. They have to be in denial or they won't get up in the morning."
In addition, some argue that Pendergraft's decision to open a clinic in Ocala was a strategic mistake. Says fellow clinic owner Baird-Windle, "going into Ocala was not a wise move. It was waving a red flag at a bunch of bulls in a minuscule market with good service available only thirty-five miles away [in Gainesville]." Similarly, Pendergraft was criticized for opening the Orlando clinic in 1995. Three providers were already operating there, although the vast majority of US counties have no provider at all. "People feel I bullied my way into Orlando," Pendergraft admits, but he is quick to point out that there is great demand for his low-cost late-term procedures.
At the April 22 NOW Emergency Action for Women's Lives in Washington, DC, where close to 10,000 rallied for reproductive rights, NOW president Patricia Ireland introduced Pendergraft to a cheering crowd as "one of the brave men who keeps our rights accessible." But many groups that shared the stage with Pendergraft at the rally--Planned Parenthood, the Feminist Majority Foundation and Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health--have yet to sign the petition supporting him. During Pendergraft's trial, members of the local NAACP, NOW and his defense committee led by Refuse & Resist! were his only backing in the courtroom, and the only activists talking to the press or raising funds for his case. According to Ireland, because many groups that represent providers see Pendergraft as a lightning rod, they didn't initially grasp the implications of his case. "I think the trial made a lot of people finally recognize that there was this alliance among the public officials in the county--the FBI agent, the police chief and the antiabortion churches that are doing the harassment," she says.
The prochoice community's cautious response to Pendergraft's case speaks to the culture of fear and aversion around abortion, and a stigma against abortion providers so great that even advocates of choice back away from contentious cases. Furthermore, reproductive rights groups are continually fending off antichoice attacks--in the form of malpractice suits and targeted restrictions against abortion clinics--leaving little resources or energy for grassroots-level and individual casework. But leveling criminal charges against an abortion doctor is a new and dangerous mode of assault that demands a vigorous response from the prochoice movement. Activists and lawyers warn that Dr. Pendergraft's conviction has dire implications for abortion providers nationwide. "Providers have been frightened off in a variety of ways--they've been murdered, they've been harassed--and this is a new version," says Susan England. "The message here is if they want to get you, they can."