A sad death turns into misplaced activism

Petula Dvorak
Columnist October 17, 2013

LeRoy Carhart isn’t going anywhere.

Antiabortion extremists did their best to use a dead woman’s name and face to go after Carhart, one of only four doctors in America who publicly acknowledge performing late-term abortions. But those tactics didn’t work.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

The Maryland Board of Physicians ruled in Carhart’s favor this week, finding after an extensive review that he was not responsible for the death of a 29-year-old kindergarten teacher who had an abortion at his Montgomery County clinic when she was 33 weeks pregnant. She died afterward because she suffered from a rare condition in which amniotic fluid was pushed into her blood system, medical authorities said.

When antiabortion activists learned about her death at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in February, they were salivating at the chance to blame a personal tragedy for her and her family on Carhart’s Reproductive Health Services clinic in Germantown. Carhart has become one of the country’s highest-profile magnets for antiabortion protesters since his mentor, George Tiller, was gunned down while going to church in Kansas in 2009.

The activists have tried everything they can think of to shut Carhart down.


Dr. LeRoy Carhart (Nati Harnik/AP)

Last year, they targeted the clinic’s landlord, Todd Stave, by handing out heinous fliers in his neighborhood and by picketing his children’s school on back-to-school night with graphic, intimidating signs.

They even protested outside the dental offices of Stave’s brother-in-law, where people go to get fillings and crowns.

Then the woman from New York died when she sought an abortion just seven weeks before her due date because of serious fetal abnormalities.

I understand that late-term abortion is a horrible procedure to think about. I couldn’t imagine. But I also have no idea what each woman and each family is going through when facing that decision.

When the kindergarten teacher arrived at Carhart’s clinic with her husband and her parents, she was hounded by the protesters, who tried to stop her from going to the clinic. As her family was grieving her death, its privacy was violated when the young woman’s face was plastered on antiabortion posters and when her name was put online and in newspapers.

The activists clogged the state’s medical board with 6,000 student letters and filed a formal complaint against Carhart.

The complaint was filed by a Kansas woman — Cheryl Deann Sullenger — who served two years in federal prison for conspiring to blow up a medical clinic in California with a gasoline bomb.

In line 6 of the complaint form, the state asks Sullenger to best describe her relationship to the patient. Is she herself the patient? No. The spouse? Nope. A relative? No again. Sullenger checked “No relation.”

And that’s where this case should have ended.

The activists regularly file lots of complaints against Carhart, he told me. They dig through the garbage behind the clinic and file long narratives about a drug they found that shouldn’t be used at the clinic. And it turns out they were right — it shouldn’t be in the clinic. And wasn’t.

“It’s something from the dental office next door,” said Carhart, exhausted after another day of pursuing his embattled profession.

He flies in from Nebraska during the week to work at the clinic, never staying in the same hotel, always changing his route to work. Dangerous to be too predictable, he told The Post’s Lena Sun in 2011.

He has tired of the stream of complaints filed by Sullenger, who ties up the state medical board’s investigators again and again.

According to the medical board’s records, Carhart has never had a disciplinary action or a malpractice settlement or arbitration. Nor has he been convicted of any crime involving moral turpitude in Maryland or any other state.

So what’s happening is an activist from Kansas is tying up taxpayer dollars and government time fighting a four-decade-old Supreme Court decision she disagrees with and refuses to accept. Sound familiar to a certain government shutdown we just endured?

Similar tactics have been seen across the country in the form of TRAP laws — Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers.

They create strict and detailed regulations of janitorial closets, drinking fountains, hallway width, temperature, door type and even lawn care. They are designed to make it easier for states to close down abortion providers.

“It’s an abuse of government and an abuse of women,” Carhart told me.

But it won’t end. Carhart knows it. The folks who long to shut him down — they’ll keep looking for ways to win.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak

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