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Broken windows into abortion doctor's life

Decades of threats have taught Colorado clinic founder Warren Hern to live and work under tight security. But they didn't prepare him for the slaying of his friend and fellow doctor George Tiller.

June 05, 2009|DeeDee Correll | Correll writes for The Times.

BOULDER, COLO. — At the Boulder Abortion Clinic, Dr. Warren Hern leaves no window uncovered.

Full-length blinds shroud the bulletproof entryway; in his office, vinyl shades block a small window.

This is one of the facts of Hern's life -- no windows, ever. That was how Dr. Barnett Slepian's killer shot him in upstate New York, through a kitchen window. Slepian, like Hern, performed abortions.

"I can't sit in front of an open window. The shades have to be drawn," Hern said.

After Slepian's shooting in 1998, Hern predicted another would follow. "Will I get to live out my life?" he asked in a newspaper column in 2001. ". . . Who's next?"

On Sunday, that turned out to be George Tiller, a Kansas physician who was shot dead in a church foyer. Like Hern, Tiller was one of the few doctors in the U.S. known to perform abortions late in the second trimester through the third trimester of pregnancy. The two also were friends -- "I loved him," Hern said -- who hiked and skied together in the Colorado mountains.

This week at his modest office, a somber Hern fielded calls from reporters as he juggled patients and adjusted to the presence of U.S. marshals assigned to protect him. Though Hern did not discuss the details of his security, several well-muscled men hovered in the hallway.

In the hushed, almost somber, waiting room, several women sat, reading pamphlets about the procedure they were about to undergo. One man held a woman's purse in his lap as she studied a brochure. They didn't talk. Another couple whispered to one another. Tables offered facial tissues and free condoms, while brightly striped fish swam in an aquarium -- a spot of color in the room with white walls and worn teal carpet.

On the door, two signs distinguished this clinic from countless other doctors' offices. One prohibited cellphones or cameras. Another admonished: "For your safety, do not open this door for anyone who has not accompanied you."

Hern may have grown accustomed long ago to working under such conditions, but that did not diminish his shock or grief over Tiller's death. He learned of the killing when Tiller's wife, who was at the church when her husband was shot, called Hern to tell him. "I liked the world a lot more before Sunday morning," he said.

Hern spoke vehemently during a brief break between seeing patients. "It's grotesque," he said. Sitting beneath a covered window in a small office, where a phone repeatedly rang for him, Hern spoke heatedly of the abortion foes, scorning the statements by antiabortion groups that condemned violence after his friend was shot.

"It's exactly what they wanted," Hern said. "Give me a break."


Bob Enyart, spokesman for Colorado Right to Life, which has demonstrated against Hern for decades, said that although his group doesn't condone Tiller's slaying, abortion providers should expect that violence begets violence.

"If a Mafia hit man gets killed, people recognize it's an occupational hazard," he said.

Hern has been familiar with the hazards for decades. After performing abortions for more than half of his life, the 70-year-old doctor has never been injured, but the constant threats with which he has lived since 1973 have transformed his life into a series of security measures: sleeping with a rifle, scanning rooftops for snipers, wearing a protective vest.

"It ruins your life," Hern said.

The son of a carpenter, Hern grew up in Englewood, a Denver suburb. Though his parents didn't make much money, he said, they were resourceful and determined to broaden his horizons. His mother took him to political events -- he saw Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy as they campaigned for president. At home, his family discussed current events and issues, although abortion was not one of them.

As he studied medicine, Hern said he encountered women ill from botched illegal abortions. In the early 1970s, Hern -- who had planned to become an epidemiologist -- became convinced that the Supreme Court's 1973 decision to legalize abortion would mean nothing if doctors would not perform them.

"I felt doing abortions was the most important thing I could do with my life," he said.

When Hern performed his first abortion, on a 17-year-old girl, he later wrote, he cried with a sense of relief because he had made a difference in her future. Now, the patients in his waiting room included another young woman, who appeared to be sitting with her mother.

These days, few people remember the injuries or deaths from illegal abortions, Hern said. He added that women today take the right to the procedure for granted. "They get mad about having to wear paper gowns," he said. "It's absurd."

In 1975, he opened the Boulder Abortion Clinic, a blunt name meant to convey his philosophy that he had nothing to hide. Hern soon became a prominent figure in the abortion debate, attracting patients from across the country.

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