Since the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in May, many people, including me, have written a great deal about the risks late-term abortion providers face every day, about the lengths they must go to to stay alive -- let alone stay in practice -- about the tragic reasons why women seek their services, the vicious and often illegal behavior of "pro-life" protesters, and the loneliness of the work. So when I started seeing references last week to a long Esquire profile of Dr. Warren Hern, now the last resort for many women needing a late-term abortion, I didn't rush to read it, assuming I wouldn't learn anything I didn't already know.
Having read it now, on the advice of a friend of Broadsheet, I can say that's partly true: As far as factual information goes, little of what writer John H. Richardson reveals was new to me. But sometimes, the way in which something is said can have as much of an impact as the content. Richardson writes in the second person, putting "you" in the place of a journalist entering an abortion clinic through multiple bulletproof doors; trying to gather information from people you can't name because it might put their lives at risk; visiting the doctor's 92-year-old mother and hearing how she fears for her 70-year-old son; listening to the phones ring ceaselessly and the staff try to comfort sobbing, freaked-out women; interviewing a young Canadian couple whose wanted pregnancy went horribly wrong, and who could not find a doctor in their own country with the skill to terminate it as safely as Hern would. The technique is sometimes a bit grating, but its immediacy has a powerful effect. "He's sorry, he says, but he must turn down your request to ride in his car to the Tiller memorial in Denver. He has to go with four U. S. marshals in an armored car. Even his wife can't ride with him. Same with dinner in a restaurant. I will never be safe, he says. I'm always looking over my shoulder." For the time it takes you to read the article, you are there -- and reminded that Dr. Hern is there every single day.
There's also a lot to be said for such an article appearing in Esquire, which one female friend (and longtime subscriber) described as "a magazine with a history of terrific longform journalism that has too often, of late, fallen into a rut of puff pieces about George Clooney and how to tie an ascot while drinking scotch." The grim realities of Hern's life and work may no longer be shocking to those who keep abreast of reproductive rights news, but it's probably safe to assume that many readers seeking ascot-tying advice do not count themselves among that crowd. And on the occasions when I've been able to eavesdrop on men discussing abortion among themselves, I've rarely seen it done with such nuance and sensitivity to the complexity of the issue.
Let's hope it provides a far more sobering wake-up call to men who haven't kept up with what pro-choice advocates have been talking about all along: That not only choice as an abstract concept, but real people -- pregnant women and the doctors who help them -- are under attack in this country. Literally.