A 40-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist has shut down his medical practice after telling patients he was terrorized by antiabortion activists who distributed "wanted" posters with his photograph, mailed threats to his home and listed his name on a "Baby Butchers" Web site.
In a letter to his patients, Steven M. Dixon, a solo practitioner who had an office in downtown Washington, said he retired last month because he was disabled by an overwhelming fear that radicals in the antiabortion movement would harm him or his loved ones.
"It is ironic that I am a target because my entire career has been about educating and empowering women to help them prevent unintended pregnancies," he wrote in an Oct. 20 "Dear Patients" letter. "And while I have always supported a woman's right to have this legal procedure, I actually performed relatively few abortions for my patients.
"In fact, I stopped performing them because of the stress associated with this terrorism," Dixon, who declined to comment for this article, said in the letter. "Sadly, the ongoing threat to my life and my concern for the safety of my loved ones has exacted a heavy toll on me, making it necessary that I discontinue practicing OB-GYN."
Sources with knowledge of Dixon's situation said a harassment campaign aimed at the doctor has come to the attention of the Washington field office of the FBI, but it wasn't clear whether the agency has identified suspects or pursued the case.
A medical associate of Dixon's, as well as one of his patients, said they had heard the doctor had been harassed by antiabortionists who, among other things, had distributed fliers in his Northwest Washington neighborhood.
Health specialists across the country said it is not unusual for physicians to avoid performing abortions because of subtle social pressures along with hounding by activists, but none interviewed had ever heard of a doctor giving up an entire medical career over such pressures.
"To quit the practice totally is a bit of a surprise, particularly for someone at such an early stage of his career," said Frank W. Ling, an abortion access researcher and chairman of the OB-GYN department at the University of Tennessee in Memphis.
Howard N. Smith, a former partner of Dixon's who now has a solo practice, also has been targeted by antiabortionists who have listed him on "wanted" posters and on the "Baby Butchers" Web site. Like Dixon, he stopped performing abortions, but said he never considered leaving medicine.
"Steve really took this as a very personal threat, and I can understand that," Smith said. "But you can't run away. We are what we are. We're physicians. It's the most noble profession in the world, despite how harassed it may be."
Dixon's retirement comes at a time when violence and other harassment aimed at abortion clinics and providers have dropped to their lowest levels in a decade, according to figures compiled by the National Abortion Federation. In the first 10 months of this year, 57 violent incidents have been reported--a fraction of the 437 logged in the peak year of 1993 and well behind the pace of last year, when 113 such incidents were reported, the group said.
Still, said Susan Dudley, the federation's deputy director, Dixon's letter is "heart-wrenching," and it "certainly draws into very sharp focus the effect of terrorism in the United States. These terrorists are hurting lots of people in direct ways, not to mention all of us they hurt indirectly by turning our society into a lawless one."
The Rev. Michael D. Bray, pastor of Reformation Lutheran Church in Bowie and an advocate of the death penalty for abortion providers, said he was happy to hear that Dixon had quit.
"I'm glad he is stopping the baby killing, whatever the cause," said Bray, who served nearly four years in prison in the 1980s for conspiring to obstruct abortion clinics in the Washington area and is among those who operate the "Baby Butchers" Web site.
Bray said he was not involved in any harassment of Dixon besides the Web site but added that "when you're talking about what amounts to the equivalent of a holocaust, what's out of bounds in terms of stopping one? If you are threatening someone who is in the process of killing another person, I don't object to that."
Dixon worked primarily at Columbia Hospital for Women, where he admitted private patients and was on the medical staff of the hospital's clinic for Medicaid and indigent patients. "He was a well respected member of the staff," said George Samman, the clinic's medical director.
As a clinical assistant professor at George Washington University Hospital, Dixon regularly instructed OB-GYN trainees. He received his medical degree from GW in 1983.
Colleagues say he ran a bustling practice; one new patient described him as a wonderful doctor.
"I had only been to see him once, and I thought he was great," said the woman, who is over age 50 and asked not to be identified. "He was very thorough and kind and professional."
Joseph Montedonico, a medical malpractice lawyer, has defended Dixon in two lawsuits in the past two years, and both cases were dismissed without Dixon's insurer paying any settlement on behalf of the doctor, he said.
"He's a nice guy, and . . . certainly takes any lawsuit against him personally," Montedonico said.
The "Baby Butchers" site lists several hundred U.S. physicians, including 32 from the District, with the names of slain doctors struck through.
The site remains visible on the Internet despite a Portland, Ore., jury award of $107 million in damages to doctors who said the people who operate the site--including Bray--were not protected by the First Amendment because they were threatening violence. The verdict is being appealed.
Staff writer David A. Vise contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Violence against abortion providers (This chart was not available)
Violence against abortion providers in the United States has declined in recent years, but the methods of violence and intimidation have broad range.
Incidents against abortion providers for 1999*
Attempted murder 0
Attempted bombing/arson 1
Assault and battery 1
Death threats 5
Hate mail and harassing calls 221
Bomb threats 21
* As of Oct. 27, 1999.
SOURCE: National Abortion Federation