An employe at Columbia Hospital for Women who said she became disgusted with the abortions the hospital performed leaked names of patients scheduled for abortions in 1981 and 1982 to Olga Fairfax, the head of a Maryland right-to-life group. Fairfax then visited the patients at night trying to talk them out of their abortions.
Fairfax swamped the patients with literature. She showed them color slides of aborted fetuses. She argued abortion was murder. Over several months, she said, she contacted more than 40 Columbia patients and persuaded about 30 to cancel their abortions.
"I was saving babies' lives like crazy," Fairfax said. As to the question of patient privacy, she said: "Murder is not a private act."
The hospital employe, a 47-year-old mother of three from Suitland, eventually was fired for reasons unrelated to the leaked abortion information. She said hospital officials never formally accused her of being the source, but she acknowledged that role in an interview with The Washington Post. The Post first learned of the underground operation from her, and she agreed to describe her activities on the condition that her name not be used.
Columbia Hospital officials say Fairfax and her informant were not saving lives but rather breaking the sacred bond of confidentiality between doctor and patient. The hospital has a policy that nurses or doctors morally opposed may excuse themselves from abortions. But the leaking of names by a trusted employe and the approaches made to patients caught the hospital by surprise.
"We find it reprehensible that anybody would take advantage of a patient being treated in our hospital," said G. Patrick Kane, president of Columbia Hospital, in a statement issued to the Post. "We, like other hospitals, consider confidentiality and patient privacy a vital part of the relationship between the patient and the health care provider."
Seeking to isolate the source of the leaks, the hospital held staff meetings, removed phone numbers of patients from internal records, even used codes to conceal abortions from hospital personnel. But the calls and visits to patients continued.
"I just can't think of anything more cruel," said Dr. Elizabeth Crisp, several of whose patients were contacted. Crisp said she had to increase the anesthesia given to one woman -- making the abortion more risky -- because the woman was so traumatized by Fairfax's call the previous evening. The woman was wheeled into the operating room in tears, Crisp said.
Another patient was shown the graphic pictures of fetuses the night before her scheduled abortion. Her doctor, Sylvester Booker, recalled: "She was ambivalent to start with and this really sent her into a frenzy . . . . Would she be called again? Harassed again?" The woman waited until it was too late, Booker said, and had no choice but to have her baby.
A 27-year-old woman said she received her first call from Fairfax on March 25, 1981, at about 7:30 p.m. -- three days before her abortion at Columbia. The patient said she had the impression Fairfax was affiliated with the hospital. She said Fairfax told her she had obtained the patient's name from hospital records. Fairfax proposed a visit to "counsel" her, she said. Fairfax says she did not identify herself as a hospital employe.
The next evening, Fairfax was in the woman's Northwest Washington apartment, showing her color slides and demanding that she cancel her abortion.
When she resisted, the woman said, Fairfax started screaming at me. She was saying, 'How can you commit murder?' "
Fairfax left, but at 6 a.m. on the day of the abortion she called the woman again. "She said that I would pay," the woman said. "She said, 'You will have to answer to God.' "
The woman had her abortion. Later, in the hospital waiting room, she met two other women who had received Fairfax's calls. Both were crying. "One said she wasn't sure she had done the right thing," the woman said.
On Feb. 3, 1982, hospital legal counsel Thomas Raysor wrote to Fairfax, demanding that she stop contacting patients.
"This is a serious matter to the hospital, its patients and their physicians. It is a violation of physician-patient privilege, right of privacy, contractual rights and confidentiality of hospital records," Raysor wrote. "The hospital has a 'leak' among one of its employes . . . which should be 'plugged.' "
Fairfax said she ignored the letter. She said "the vast majority [of patients] were very receptive to me. They never accused me of harassment. They're so grateful today that they have children."
Fairfax and the former hospital staffer who leaked the information both said in separate interviews that they were once strong supporters of abortion.
The former hospital staffer acknowledged disregarding Columbia's rules on patient confidentiality. She said she felt she was working toward a higher moral purpose.
She said that for a time she worked in the obstetrics and gynecology unit, each day taking down the intimate details of patients' medical histories, and came to see many of the abortions as unnecessary. She cited one day on which one patient went into premature labor and delivered a 20-week-old fetus that died, and later a woman in her 19th week was admitted for an elective abortion. The staffer said she could not understand why there was a death certificate and burial arrangements for the first fetus, but not for the second.
Thus began her crusade. She said she contacted a friend, who agreed to act as an intermediary and pass on names to Fairfax. To this day, Fairfax says, she does not know the name of her informant.
Even after the hospital removed patient phone numbers from printed abortion schedules, the leaks continued.
"All I had to do was go into the computer [and] go through all the names of people coming in for abortions," the former staffer said. "There would be the patient's last name, first initial, date of birth and the doctor . . . I'd punch them in and get the phone number that way . . . I would go through all the [names] when I didn't have anything else to do."
The calls ended, according to the former staffer, after she was fired from the hospital for unrelated reasons.
Fairfax said she came to the conclusion that abortion was wrong after suffering a miscarriage and witnessing the emotional collapse of a friend who had an abortion.
In 1978, Fairfax resigned her post as associate pastor of the Glenmont Methodist Church in Wheaton to protest its support of abortion. Now, she claims, her Methodists for Life organization has 13,000 members nationwide. Her front door is plastered with prolife stickers and slogans, and her life centers on her antiabortion activities.
Fairfax has no children of her own, but has agreed to care for a 2-month-old Nigerian baby whose mother, she says, initially intended to abort him. She has twice been arrested in demonstrations against abortion, most recently in Baltimore, and continues to picket local clinics with her friends.
To her supporters, Fairfax is a hero. "Olga is just such a special one of God's workers . . . so on fire for this abortion business," said Ila Ryan, who runs the Maryland chapter of Women Exploited by Abortion. "She is going to be one of the great people in the prolife movement. I'm sure historians are going to look back at this."
While counseling women, Fairfax often uses a preserved, 12-week-old fetus that was given to her by a sympathetic obstetrician. She calls the fetus "Baby Roe", after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. She expects a constitutional amendment banning abortion to be passed, and says that when that happens she will bury the fetus. "Until then, he can do no good in the ground."
Fairfax said she usually received the names of Columbia patients by phone in the early evenings. She then called each woman, asked if she could visit, mapped out their addresses and drove to them. She said that she identified herself as a "crisis pregnancy counselor," and that only a few patients were hostile to her.
"And I'd just tell them my little spiel . . . I would try to keep the conversation short because I had to dial five or six others . . . I couldn't stay but 30, 40 minutes with each one of them because I had to hit so many. I'd show them the slide show. I'd give them the literature. I'd listen to them, give them my card and just literally rely on the strength of the truth in this."
Fairfax was unable to reach one patient before her abortion and the next morning dialed her directly in the hospital. "You still have time," Fairfax told the woman. "You can get up, walk up off the operating table and save the baby's life."
"You don't understand," the woman said. She just had had her abortion. Fairfax was stunned. She offered to visit the hospital and sit with the woman in her room. "As much as I don't like what happened I'll come down there and I'll hold your hand," Fairfax said. "You should not be alone."
The woman declined the offer.