A Conversation with Dr. James Pendergraft

Fighter for Women, Doctor for Choice

By Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #1103, May 20, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org

"I do abortions because I think that every woman should have the right to choose to have an abortion and it should be done safely and legally. It shouldn't be something that's hidden. It shouldn't be something that's frowned upon. It shouldn't be something to be sad about.... I'm proud of what I do. Women should be proud of being able to control their bodies and have a choice. Because you don't want to go back to the old hook. That was something that was devastating--something that killed a lot of women and destroyed a lot of people's lives. And the way I look at it, it is giving women a choice of their freedom. I have no shame in what I do. I enjoy what I do. I'm happy with what I do and I'm going to do it until somebody makes me stop."

Dr. James Pendergraft, talking with the RW at the
Emergency Action for Women
's Lives, Washington, DC, April 22

Dr. James Pendergraft was convicted on bogus extortion charges in Ocala, Florida on February 1. He faces up to 30 years in prison, $750,000 in fines, and the loss of his medical license. On May 24, he will appear in federal court to be sentenced. Dr. Pendergraft's real "crime" is that he opened a clinic in Ocala to provide abortion services to women who needed them. He did this despite the fact that a previous clinic had been burned to the ground and despite an official letter from county officials warning him that he was not welcome. Wearing a bulletproof vest for protection, he continued to provide abortions in the face of daily demonstrations by anti-abortionists (antis) who harassed him, his staff and patients.

Dr. Pendergraft is an African American physician who operates five full service women's health clinics in Florida. He specializes in performing abortions for women 18 to 28 weeks into their pregnancy--which only a small number of physicians in this country are qualified to do. He advertises on highway billboards so women will know where they can go when they need such a medical procedure. He told Business Week: "I never try to sneak into a city. I want people to know they're coming to someone who is not a back-alley kind of individual."

Since abortion was legalized in the U.S. in 1973, abortion rights have been under attack. Cuts in federal funds made it difficult for poor women to obtain abortions. Teenagers in many states have been forced to obtain parental consent. Women have had to run a gauntlet of anti-abortionists at clinics. Eighty-six percent of counties in the country offer no abortion services. A critical front of this attack has been on the abortion providers themselves. Doctors have been murdered and clinics have been bombed--and the Ocala area has been a hotbed of anti-abortion activity.

I met Dr. Pendergraft at the Emergency Action for Women's Lives in Washington, DC. He said he thought one of the reasons for attacks on abortion providers was to send a message to other doctors: "They look at that and they say it's dangerous. They gonna hurt my kids, maybe even kill me. So why should I take the chance to do that?" When I asked him why he was willing to risk his own life he said, "I love it. I get complete satisfaction from doing this. I'm well-trained. I'm board certified in ob-gyn, a maternal fetal medicine specialist. But there was something missing with maternal fetal medicine where you could only go so far with the diagnosis, you know? Once you had found a mother with an abnormality, the majority of the times you couldn't abort the pregnancy because the hospital didn't believe in that being done. Here I am a physician, well trained and can do abortions, and yet I was not able to do it. So I was at a loss with that. And I decided that initially I was just going to go to Orlando a couple of days a week. When I opened the facility there I was just going to go on Fridays and Saturdays. But the demand was so great that I found I didn't have time to do other things. So I just focused on doing abortions and taking care of women that needed my services."

Taking a Stand for Women's Lives in Ocala

Dr. Pendergraft was set up by the federal Justice Department and county officials who tried to entrap him on a charge of conspiring to extort money from the county. The prosecutor stated in his closing remarks that Dr. Pendergraft "shucked and jived" on the witness stand. Dr. Pendergraft told me: "The government was able to weave their story the way they wanted to--into a completely fabricated story, to what it was they wanted with no proof.... The government wants to be able to silently come in and tear apart a person or people that are in the women's rights scene that believe that abortion should be something that's done on demand. They didn't like me. They didn't like my kind. It was a racially motivated thing as well as an anti-abortion motivated thing.

"It's a conspiracy from the church, from the clergy to the anti-abortionists to the chief of the county commissioner at that time to the county attorney. Because those people are all members of the same church. Their pastor wrote me a letter stating that he would use everything in his power--including his 4,500 parishioners--to prevent me from coming to Ocala to open up my facility. And that's exactly what they did."

"Their objective is to go step-by-step, stone-by-stone, to be able to eliminate by any means necessary the path to women being able to have the right to choose.... Women are not treated as equal today. They've never been treated as equal and the struggle continues to go on. And this abortion issue is basically--as far as the antis are concerned--to maintain their inequality. So this goes very, very deep.... This fight is very much along the lines of what was going on in the '60s with the civil rights issues where people weren't treated equal. Blacks were not equal and they were considered not deserving to be citizens in this country. And that's the same approach with women and their bodies--they feel they shouldn't be treated as equal and a woman should not have control over what she does with her body. That's just absolutely wrong."

I talked with Dr. Pendergraft about the stakes of this battle and the need for a movement that can go on the offensive against the attacks on abortion rights. Dr. Pendergraft said, "The stakes are very high and the key is organization. The antis are very organized and it all starts with the churches. We need to get more organized. We need to be just as organized as them.... It's a very serious crisis because these organizations--these anti movements--they're not playing. Their objective is very clear and it's unfortunate because if they succeed there will be many, many women dying again."

As we sat on a park bench and talked, over and over again, women came up to hug "Dr. P." or shake his hand and thank him. Women were inspired by his courageous stand and he in turn was warmed by their support. He said: "This demonstration makes me feel good. Because a lot of times it is very difficult when you are home at night or driving in a car from one medical reproductive facility to another by yourself. And you wonder. I mean you know you're doing good things. I know I'm doing good things. But you don't really see it all in one time like this too often. So this makes me feel good. It makes me know that there is support out here for women's rights and women's issues, which is what it's all about."

Dr. Pendergraft gets many letters of appreciation from women and said that's what keeps him going strong. Many organizations and individuals have spoken out against the outrageous attack on Dr. Pendergraft including Medical Students for Choice, the National Organization for Women, Gloria Steinem, the National Abortion Federation (the professional association of abortion providers) and the Center for Reproductive Law & Policy.

On November 13, 2000, Dr. Pendergraft was presented a Courageous Resister award by Refuse & Resist! R&R! National Secretary Dr. Robert Rockwell said: "We are pleased to honor Dr. Pendergraft for his daring defiance of many attempts to intimidate him to stop providing abortions, including later-term abortions, for women who come to him from all across the country. Despite threats and harassment and the current, politically motivated indictment, he has continued to stand strong and persevere. Without providers like him, there can be no 'choice' for women."

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