While partisans debate whether a victorious George W. Bush would nominate Supreme Court Justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, a more immediate, less publicized threat to abortion rights is playing out around the country as clinics and providers come under a wide variety of local attacks. In Nebraska, new antichoice landlords threaten to evict Dr. Leroy Carhart, the state’s only provider of second- and third-trimester abortions and victorious plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s recent decision against "partial birth" abortion bans. In State College, Pennsylvania, the county’s only abortion provider has been fighting eviction for three years. Most egregious, in Florida Dr. James Scott Pendergraft is facing charges of lying under oath and extortion–because he sued the town for failing to protect his Ocala clinic from antichoice harassers.
Pendergraft is a tempting target for the antichoice movement: He’s African-American, superbly trained and credentialed, only 43 and flamboyantly ambitious. Not only does he operate five clinics around the state–he may well perform more abortions than any other doctor in Florida–he advertises his services on highway billboards and makes no secret of the fact that he performs abortions up until the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy. On opening day his Ocala clinic sported a huge American flag, a provocative gesture in a town whose previous abortion clinic was burned to the ground in 1989, a crime for which no one was ever arrested.
The case against Pendergraft could not be flimsier. At a session with Ocala officials, he and his lawyer, prochoice veteran S. LeRoy Lucas, were videotaped saying they would bankrupt the county in what was clearly the hyberbolic, nonliteral language of hardball negotiation–certainly not extortion. Strangely, what started as a local case has been taken over by the US Attorney’s office–despite the Clinton Justice Department’s general commitment to defending abortion providers and despite the usual reluctance of the Feds to get involved in local disputes. Adding to Pendergraft’s troubles, the Florida prochoice community has been slow to come to his defense. He’s seen as an abrasive outsider and a sharp competitor to boot.
Pendergraft’s trial is scheduled to begin December 11; he faces a possible thirty years in prison, loss of his medical license and a fine of more than a million dollars. Even if he is vindicated in court, his business has been damaged, and a message has been sent to other Ob-Gyns considering an abortion practice: Don’t even think about it. If the arsonists don’t get you, litigation may.
Donations to Dr. Pendergraft’s defense fund may be sent to: Right to Fight Defense Committee, c/o Orlando Women’s Center, 1103 Lucern Terrace, Orlando, FL 32806; (407) 228-4604; www.righttofight.org.