RELIGION, POWER AND REPRODUCTIVE FREEDOM: A Checkered History of Conflict
RELIGION, POWER AND REPRODUCTIVE FREEDOM:
A Checkered History of Conflict
Warren M. Hern, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D. Director, Boulder Abortion Clinic Recipient, 2018 Faith and Freedom Award
Presented at the Faith and Freedom Awards Ceremony Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights.
Temple Emanuel, Denver, May 3, 2018
Thank you for inviting me to be here this evening and receive this award. It is a great honor, and it is a privilege to be here. It is also a privilege to do the work we do to help women and their families. It is my definition of practicing medicine.
It is ironic from my point of view that you are bestowing this honor on an apostate Methodist who gave up on Christianity nearly 60 years ago after reading Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, Why I Am Not A Christian, and Unpopular Essays, Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom, R.H. Tawney’s Religion and The Rise Of Capitalism, Charles Guignebert’s Jesus with Greek footnotes that I learned to read, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, A Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides, In Praise of Folly by Erasmus, the works of Baruch Spinoza, Plato’s Απολογία concerning the persecution of Socrates, Aristophanes’ satire of sophistry in The Clouds, Lessa and Vogt’s Reader in Comparative Religion, Man and His Gods by Homer Smith, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas á Kempis, the works of Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, and several times through The King James Version of The Bible.
I read some of these on my lunch time while sitting under my water truck on a construction job and while camped out in the mountains during another construction job. I had the heart of a believer and the mind of a skeptic. The skeptic won. I enjoyed the Unitarians at Dick Henry’s church on 14th & Lafayette, and the ritual was comfortable, but I found it disconcerting to go from “Our Father, Who Art In Heaven” to “To Whom It May Concern.” I had sung enthusiastically and joyfully in The Messiah every Christmas in excellent choirs from junior high through medical school, and I loved the music. I still do. But skiing and hiking in the mountains – my real cathedral – got to be more important than going to any church. I was baptized when I was very young, but it obviously didn’t have much effect.
In my work as a physician helping women by performing abortions, I have been confronted with the conflict among religions about this issue and, further, the checkered history of religion in matters of truth and power. While religious traditions may offer important insights into our relationship with the cosmos and our ethical relationships with fellow humans, I could not help noticing that religion has been sometimes on the side of truth and freedom, but at other times, it has been on the side of brutal power and repression. Socrates was prosecuted for doubting the gods of theocratic Athens and thereby corrupting the youth. The message was: “Believe this or die.” Two thousand years later, the medieval Catholic church carried out the Inquisition, whose victims included Galileo and Giordano Bruno, whose crimes were independent thought. Martin Luther, although cruelly anti-semitic, challenged the dogmatism and authoritarianism of the Catholic Church. Hitler described Christianity as the foundation of German values, which embraced anti-semitism for many, but not all, German Christians. Christianity was used to defend apartheid in South Africa and slavery in the United States, torture in the Inquisition, and the slaughter of Native Americans by both the Conquistadores and our own fellow citizens.
Then we have the awakening of the Christian community in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960’s in this country. The moral leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates is an historic beacon for all time.
In the 1960’s, tens of thousands of women throughout the country were given critical help in finding safe abortions by the Clergy Counseling Service. Those religious leaders held that having an abortion was a moral choice, and they gave women the support they needed to effect that choice.
Now, we have the radical religious right in the United States, which has joined with the radical political right in its effort to fight and destroy the reproductive rights of women and to make women servants of the fascist state. In 1986, TV evangelist and Republican candidate for President, Pat Robertson, said in Denver during a National Right To Life meeting that we must oppose abortion so that “we will have enough soldiers to fight the wars and people to pay the taxes.” Joseph Scheidler, a defrocked Catholic monk, went around the country urging violence against abortion clinics and doctors, and he came to my office several times in 1985 and 1986. One of his followers threw a stone through the front window of my office a few days after I had seen the flame scars on the Jewish Community Center and synagogue left from the 1938 Kristallnacht in East Berlin.
In March, 1988, five shots were fired through the front windows of my waiting room, narrowly missing a member of my staff. I had just walked through the room. It was one of several attempts on my life. Randall Terry, surrounded by his followers, stood in the street in front of my office in 1991 and prayed for my execution. In March, 1993, Dr. David Gunn was assassinated in Pensacola, Florida by Michael Griffin, who was defended by Joe Scarborough, for whom this was a springboard to political stardom in the Republican Party, a seat in Congress, and a lucrative morning TV show. Later in 1993, Rev. David Trosch, a Catholic priest in Alabama, declared that killing doctors who perform abortions is “justifiable homicide.” A few days after his announcement, Randall Terry went on National Christian Radio Network, and, naming me and quoting scripture, invited his listers to assassinate me. The next day, Shelly Shannon tried to assassinate Dr. George Tiller in Wichita. Reverend Trosch formed the “American Coalition of Life [sic] Activists” and advocated the assassination of abortion doctors. Paul Hill, a member of the group, then assassinated Dr. John Britton along with Dr. Britton’s bodyguard, also in Pensacola. The “American Coalition of Life Activists” had a national press conference on January 22, 1995 and announced the hit list of the first 13 abortion doctors they wanted eliminated. I was on the list, and so was Dr. Tiller. Dr. Barnett Slepian was assassinated in 1998, and Dr. George Tiller, a close friend of mine, was assassinated in his Lutheran Church in 2009.
The Mafia has the decency to keep its hit lists private.
The last time I was privileged to visit this temple was in June, 2009, a few days after Dr. Tiller’s assassination, when I was invited by Rabbi Stephen Foster and Betty Serotta to speak here about my friend. During that month, an anti-abortion fanatic threatened the lives of my family. I received a letter from Shelly Shannon from her cell in Kansas state prison telling me that I’m next.
Quoting now from something about this subject that I wrote earlier:
“The murder of Dr. David Gunn [the first of the abortion doctors to be assassinated] was not the isolated act of a deranged loner. It was the inevitable consequence of 20 years of violent and inflammatory rhetoric from the radical Christian right that paints abortion as a “Holocaust” and doctors who perform abortions as “baby killers,” “murderers,” “Nazi doctors,” and other hateful epithets.
Dr. Gunn’s assassination culminated 20 years of violent terrorist acts that included stalking and harassment of patients and staff members and the bombing of clinics. The idea that a six-week embryo is equal to or more important than the life of a cantankerous adult doctor is no longer a sick private delusion. It is a collective psychosis masquerading as religion that has become a political force threatening democratic society.”
I wrote those words in an editorial published in The Denver Post in 1993.
Guess who’s running the country now?
It is difficult for me to be neutral and objective about Christianity’s contribution to this frightening fanaticism. There is much more to this story.
As personified by Pat Robertson and others such as Jesse Helms and Jerry Falwell, the Republican party has been taken over by Christian anti-abortion fanatics. The policy of the Republican Party is that women are for pleasure and having babies, and they should have as many as possible. The philosophy is clearly that individuals are here to serve the state and not the other way around. Individual freedom is subject to cancellation because it does not serve the needs of the State.
That is the current Republican philosophy, and it is a fascist philosophy. The underpinnings are both Protestant Evangelical and Catholic theology, and its advocates are in complete control of all three branches of the federal government of the United States at this time. Fanatic opposition to abortion has helped to elect Republicans across the country. It was critical to the success of Robert Dole, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush,, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, and Donald J. Trump, who had the overwhelming political support of Christian evangelicals. For forty years, for the Republicans, abortion has been the hammer and tongs to power.
What is the response of religious leadership in this crisis of not only reproductive freedom but democracy itself? Where is the high ground of moral leadership for Christians who support the rights of women to be healthy and to be free from the tyranny of their own biology? The Jewish community has been outspoken in support of reproductive rights in harmony with rabbinic law, which values the life of the woman over the life or potential life of the fetus. Since I am an admirer of Talmudic teachings but am not a Talmudic scholar, I refer you to Rabbi Foster and others who are experts on this. But I sympathize with pro-choice Christians whose faith is being given a bad name by the totalitarians who oppose us.
Whose morality? Whose “family values?” Whose virtues? It is not only a religious question. It is a matter of power. Who has the power to make the decision to transmit life to a new generation: the individual, or the State? You and I know that no government has the capacity, nor should it have the right, to make that decision for any woman, and that any woman is more competent to make that decision than any government. You and I know that safe abortion is a fundamental component of health care for women in the 21st century, and that affirming that during the past 50 years has been one of the great public health successes of all time. But those who lust for power and who are willing to walk on the bodies of women to get it are determined to eliminate that great step forward for humanity.
This, then, at this moment, is completely about power: Who has it, and who doesn’t? Which way are the guns pointed? That’s a matter we decide at the polls in a democracy. But we are now faced with an ignorant, cruel, corrupt, autocratic, racist, misogynist, authoritarian criminal regime in Washington, D.C. that hates individual freedom, the rule of law, civil rights, voting rights, any part of the natural world not being exploited for profit, democracy, the free press, facts, and thought itself. We have an existential threat to democracy in America. Unless we secure it by our voices and votes, and with the help of this religious community, women will not have reproductive freedom, and if women are not free, none of us are free.
Bibliography of published commentary on reproductive choice by
Warren M. Hern, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D.
Family Planning and the Poor. The New Republic, November 14, 1970
Biological Tyranny. The New Republic, February 27, 1971
The politics of abortion. The Progressive, November, 1972
Abortion: the need for rational policy and safe standards. The Denver Post, May 27, 1973
Abortion issue: The state vs. the individual. The Denver Post, March 23, 1975 Single pregnancies: are they really accidental? Denver Singles Guide, April, 1975
Abortion issue muddles presidential politics. The Denver Post, October 31, 1976
Administrative incongruence and authority conflict in four abortion clinics. WM Hern, M Gold, and A Oakes. Human Organization 36:376-383, 1977
Abortion in the Seventies. Proceedings of the Western Regional Conference on Abortion. WM Hern and B Andrikopoulos, Eds. National Abortion Federation, New York, 1977
New attack on abortion under way in Colorado. The Denver Post, February 27, 1977
The concept of quality care in abortion services. Advances in Planned Parenthood
What about us? Staff reactions to D & E. Advances in Planned Parenthood 15:3-8, 1980
Helms’ abortion amendment unenforceable. Daily Tar Heel (University of North Carolina) February 18, 1981.
The human life statute: will it protect life or power? The Denver Post, June 21, 1981
Secretary Schweiker’s flawed plan to curb teenage sex. NewYork Times, Editorial page, Friday, February 26, 1982
Discussion remarks. In Shaw MW, Doudera AE (eds): Defining Human Life: Medical, Legal, and Ethical Implications. Ann Arbor, AUPHA Press, 1983. Proceedings of the conference Human Life Symposium: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Concept of Person, Houston, Texas, March, 1982
Reagan’s war on abortion. The Sunday Camera, December 9, 1984
Reagan turning abortion into crime against state. The Rocky Mountain News, December 14, 1984
The antiabortion vigilantes. The New York Times, Op-Ed Page, Friday, December 21, 1984
Abortion `compromise’ flawed. The Denver Post, April 27, 1985
`Silent Scream’ is propaganda. The Denver Post, July 6, 1985
Drug won’t end abortion dilemma. The Daily Camera, April 5,1986 (concerning RU486)
Must Mr. Reagan tolerate abortion clinic violence? The New York Times, Op-Ed page, June 14, 1986
Reagan faces anti-abortion terrorists – and winks. The Rocky Mountain News, Commentary, June 17, 1986
Protect Abortion Rights. New York Times, Op-Ed page, January 22, 1987 Protect Abortion Rights. The Rocky Mountain News, Jan. 23, 1987
Anti-abortion campaign rhetoric prompts attacks on clinics. Sunday Camera, September 4, 1988.
Abortion clinics under siege. The Denver Post, November 1, 1988.
Abortion as Insurrection. The Humanist 49 (2):18, 1989, March/April issue.
Abortion as insurrection. In Births and Power: Social Change and the Politics of Reproduction, W. Penn Handwerker, Ed. Boulder, Westview Press, 1990.
Proxemics in the abortion debate: the use of anthropological theory in conflict arising from antiabortion demonstrations. Population and Environment 12(4): 379-388, 1991
Colorado voters sent a clear pro-choice message. The Daily Camera, December 18, 1992.
Family planning, Amazon style. Natural History 101(12):30-37, 1993. December. (Included in anthologies Conformity and Conflict, Eight Edition. Spradley JP and McCurdy DW, eds. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.)
Hunted by the right, forgotten by the left. The New York Times, Op-Ed page, March 13, 1993.
Doctors disparaged in abortion debate. The Daily Camera, March 19, 1993.
Florida doctor’s death resulted from 20 years of inciting violence. The Denver Post, March 20, 1993.
The Pope and my right to life. The New York Times, Op-Ed Page, August 12, 1993.
Anti-abortion movement put weapon in slayer’s hand. Daily Camera, Guest Opinion, March 20, 1994.
Life on the Front Lines. Women’s Health Issues 4(1):48-54, 1994.
Anti-abortion zealots’ grasp for power. The Rocky Mountain News, Guest Opinion (“Speakout”) Column. December 19, 1994.
Abortion. Chapter I in Encyclopedia of Marriage and the Family. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1995.
An electronic demon stalks clinic workers. The Daily Camera, Commentary. January 9, 1995.
How it feels to be on anti-abortion hit list. Letter to the editor, The New York Times, February 4, 1995.
Parental notice is bad legislation. Commentary, The Colorado Statesman, March 10, 1995. Parental notification law should be rejected. Editorial, The Rocky Mountain News, March 19, 1995.
‘Killing for Life’ is senseless. Op-ed piece, The Denver Post, April 8, 1995.
Hern. W.M. Population and Peace. Colorado Peace Mission 6(5):1-2, 1995.
Who wanted to ban ‘partial birth abortion’? The Daily Camera, December 16, 1995.
Abortion: the numbers game. Op-Ed page, The Washington Post, October 17, 1996.
Abortion bill skips the fine print. Op-Ed Page, The New York Times, May 24, 1997.
Life on the front lines. In Abortion Wars: A Half Century Of Struggle, 1950 – 2000, by Rickie Solinger (Ed.). Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1998. pp. 307-319.
How Roe v. Wade has shaped my life and work. In Conscience 18(4): 26, 1998. Special issue on 25th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Defeat of SB 80 protected us from anti-abortion violence and terrorism. Commentary, The Colorado Statesman, April 9, 1999.
Dodging Bullets in the Abortion War Anthropology News Volume 41, Issue 1, pages 7– 8, January 2000
An abortion doctor’s fear. Letter to the Editor, The New York Times (concerning the Ashcroft nomination). January 10, 2001 (response by J.C. Watts, January 12, 2001).
GOP will attack abortion. Guest Opinion, The Sunday Camera, January 21, 2001. Free speech that threatens my life. Op-Ed Page, The New York Times, March 31, 2001.
(Letter responses 4/6/01)
Repressive abortion policy of Owens and GOP is similar to Taliban’s 9th century attitudes.
The Colorado Statesman, Commentary, January 23, 2002
Abortion. Chapter I in International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, Second Edition, MacMillan Publishing Company, New York, 2003. J. J. Ponzetti, Jr. (Ed.) Vol. 1 pp 1-7
Anthropologists, abortion and the cultural war in America. Anthropology Newsletter
46(2):16-18, 2005 (February)
Burial of ashes an unethical spectacle,. Daily Camera, March 6, 2005
When is an egg not an egg? Guest opinion, The Colorado Statesman, July 27, 2007
Thirty-five years in a whirlwind. Guest Opinion, The Daily Camera, 8 November 2008
Dr. George Tiller’s political assassination is result of rabid anti-abortion harassment. The Colorado Statesman, June 19, 2009 (Text of invited speech at Temple Emanuel, June 4, 2009).
Frances Kissling’s call for restrictions on late-term abortions as a strategy for the pro- choice movement is like offering the crocodile your arm so he won’t eat the rest of you. Letter to the editor, The Washington Post. February 24, 2011.
Performing abortions is my life’s work. Terrorism won’t stop me. STAT, December 4, 2015; The Boston Globe online at
An abortion doctor on Trump’s win: ‘I fear for my life. I fear for my patients.’ STAT, November 11, 2016; The Boston Globe online at
For bibliographies of clinical and scientific publications in professional journals:
www.drhern.com > News and Publications
The Global Library of Women’s Medicine
Second-Trimester Surgical Abortion
Fetal diagnostic indications for second and third trimester outpatient pregnancy termination
14 January 2014 https://doi.org/10.1002/pd.4324
Dr. Warren Hern stands next to a window broken Friday at the Boulder Abortion Clinic.
The Daily Camera, October 22, 1985
November 27, 2018
November 17, 2018
March 24, 2018