The Persecution of Dr. Pendergraft

By Mary Lou Greenberg, RCP, New York Branch

Revolutionary Worker #1093, March 4, 2001, posted at

Another vicious attack on women's reproductive freedom occurred on February 1 in a Florida courtroom when abortion provider Dr. James Pendergraft was found guilty on bogus charges of extortion and now faces the possibility of 30 years in prison and $750,000 in fines. His "crime"? He had the courage to begin providing abortion services in Ocala, a small town north of Orlando where the only other previous women's clinic had been burned down twice in the same week. And he had the audacity to defy an official letter from Marion County officials that he was not welcome in Ocala, a hotbed of antiabortion activity. Then when his clinic opened, antiabortion demonstrators harassed him, his staff, and his patients on a daily basis.

Dr. Pendergraft, an African-American who operates five Florida clinics and formerly practiced and taught in Washington, D.C., specializes in later abortions, up to 28 weeks, that only a few physicians in the country are qualified to do. At a ceremony in New York City in December where he was presented with a Courageous Resister Award by Refuse & Resist!, Dr. Pendergraft (known as "Dr. P") said that he became determined to provide these abortions when he realized the great need women had for them. He has stated in media interviews that he believes that providing abortions is "a cause worth dying for." About the recent verdict, he told an Orlando paper that he would "continue to fight [the verdict], and in the interim, I will take care of women in their most difficult time."

The trial revealed that the case developed from a set-up by the Federal Justice Department in collusion with Marion County officials to entrap Pendergraft and an associate on a charge of conspiring to extort money from the county. In addition, there was also a strong whiff of racism throughout the trial, including the prosecutor stating in his closing remarks that Dr. Pendergraft "shucked and jived" on the witness stand.

Florida, remember, is the state where anti-abortionists murdered two doctors and one clinic escort in two assaults in Pensacola. After the first killing, of Dr. David Gunn on March 10, 1993, a Pensacola newspaper published a letter from the KKK applauding his murder. And the KKK has marched in robes outside Florida clinics.

The move against Dr. P was initiated under the supposed pro-choice watch of Bill Clinton and his Attorney General Janet Reno. Clinton's mantra was that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare"--and while abortion continues to be legal it certainly became more and more rare, with murders and harassment of providers along with state laws limiting accessibility especially for young women and poor women. Clinton's statement that abortion should be "rare" implied that there's something wrong about women ending unwanted pregnancies and played right into the ideological offensive of the antis with their outrageous and guilt-creating lies that abortion equals murder.

On his first day as President, Bush 2 immediately threw down a gauntlet to all who support abortion rights by prohibiting international family planning organizations that get U.S. funds from even mentioning the "A" word. And he sent a warm message to the annual antiabortion march in D.C. on Jan. 22. This is big-time encouragement for the Christian fascists and all anti-women forces who are eager to push through further restrictive laws in the states as well as nationally.

What does all this tell us? First of all, that we need to grasp the seriousness of the situation and prepare to meet all attacks on abortion access and on providers with the most determined resistance. Dr. P's case also tells us that we can never rely on the legal system to protect or uphold providers and the right to abortion.

We have to build a mass political movement to support, protect and defend abortion providers and clinics, involving all the diverse streams of the pro-choice, women's and progressive movements. We have to reach out to those who support a woman's right to choose but who haven't felt the need to become active yet, especially youth who are the ones most affected by restrictive laws and declining access. We have to honor our doctors and clinic staffs on March 10, the National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers--and use the day to build ongoing, stepped-up support. And we have to boldly and persistently counter all the antiabortion lies and fight to change today's climate where women are made to feel shame and guilt about ending unwanted pregnancies.

For revolutionary communists, we have to build this movement in such a way that people gain political consciousness and organizational strength for the battles to come, and especially for the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the system when the time is ripe. That's the only way we'll be able to create a society where reproductive freedom will be assured for all women as a necessary requirement for women's liberation--and the liberation of everyone.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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