The RW Interview

The Brave Mission of Dr. James Pendergraft

By Debbie Lang

Revolutionary Worker #1105, June 3, 2001, posted at

The RW Interview is a special feature to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music, literature, science, sports and politics.

The views expressed by those we interview are, of course, their own, and they are not responsible for the views expressed elsewhere in the Revolutionary Worker and on this website.

Dr. James Pendergraft is an African American physician who operates five full service health clinics in Florida. After medical school he served as a medical officer in the army to pay off his educational loans. He completed a two-year fellowship in maternal fetal medicine and specializes in performing late term abortions for women 18 to 28 weeks into their pregnancy--which only a small number of physicians in this country are qualified to do. When abortion provider Dr. Bernard Slepian was murdered in Buffalo, Dr. Pendergraft told ABC's Peter Jennings that "abortion is a cause worth dying for."

On May 24, Dr. Pendergraft was sentenced to 3 years 10 months in prison and fined $25,000 on a bogus extortion conviction. He recently learned that Florida state authorities may try to revoke his medical license. Dr. Pendergraft's "crime" is that he opened a clinic in Ocala, Florida to provide abortion services to women who need them. The government hopes his conviction will send a chilling message to other doctors. Dr. Pendergraft and his supporters are determined to fight this outrageous injustice. His attorneys have appealed the verdict and requested that he be freed on bail while the appeal is heard. (For more see RWs #1093 & 1103.)

Recently, RW reporter Debbie Lang interviewed Dr. Pendergraft.

RW: Can you talk about your background, where you grew up and why you decided to become a physician?

Dr. Pendergraft: I was born and raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Actually I was born when my mother and father were in college. My father was in a New York City college and my mother was going to school in Hampton to be a registered nurse. So I stayed with my grandparents until I was eight. In my younger years I didn't care too much about school. I was sort of a bully. And I guess now that I reflect on it, it had a lot probably to do with the fact that I just was seeking something to do 'cause I hadn't gotten to the point where I was focused as of yet.

One day I was playing tackle football. The next morning I woke up and thought I had hurt my right lower side. The pain got worse during the day. I wound up going to the hospital later on that evening and was found to have appendicitis. It was sort of a revelation--a blessing that that occurred. Because when I saw these physicians walking around the hospital with white coats on and very clean, I wanted to know what it was that you had to do to become what they were. If all you had to do is ask questions and operate, that's basically what I wanted to do. Essentially the gentleman I talked to told me that you just need to make straight As and keep clean. So my grades changed from C's and D's to A's immediately. And that's what started the whole process. My father also was a mortician and he had a book of anatomy, specifically the bone structures. So I started to learn all about the names of the bones.

I found out my aunt had had a botched abortion where she became sterilized. It must have been in the late '40s when that occurred. She was not able to bear any children of her own. And she influenced me to go to medical school as well -- not necessarily to do abortions. Her grandfather was a physician--my great grandfather--and she wanted me to be a physician. My mother, my father and my aunt--those were the three people that really sort of influenced me to go into medicine.

RW: When you were coming up abortion was illegal. Were there experiences that women you knew had?

DP: There was none except for when I was in Tuskegee in my third year of medical school--which would be in 1980. There were several women on the ward there that had had botched abortions. One woman had tried to self-induce the abortion with a coat hanger--which is the first time I had ever come across that scenario. And in 1980 abortions were legal. There were women that were still getting these back-alley abortions or trying to self-induce themselves to have terminations.

RW: Do you know if these were poor women who couldn't afford the procedures or couldn't find abortion providers?

DP: I don't know the circumstances and, you know, unfortunately I just wasn't thinking at that time. I wish that I had interviewed them and really listened to their history. I mean I knew that they had done it but the why they had done it I didn't ask. Later on I came to realize that abortion is illegal in most countries and that women will use--of course--whatever means necessary if they don't want to be pregnant. And I assumed that that was the case with these women or they wouldn't have gone through those steps to actually do what it was that they did.

RW: Why did you specialize in ob-gyn and in particular late term abortions?

DP: That's a good question. I was [in the army, working] at the Pentagon and what I wanted to do initially was orthopedic surgery. I always liked o.b. There used to be a lot of women that had o.b. problems. Of course at the Pentagon I was just a general medical officer, which is like a general practitioner. So they all came to me with their female problems, whether it be birth control pills or vaginitis or whatever the situation was. I found myself reading more about ob-gyn and decided that this is what I wanted to pursue.

When I got into the maternal fetal medicine fellowship we were diagnosing a lot of fetal abnormalities. And yet we couldn't do abortions on those patients because we weren't allowed to by the hospital--or even some of the physicians. Some of our professors wouldn't do abortions. They just wouldn't do them--didn't want to do them at all, period. It was sort of ironic to me that here we are, we can diagnose these fetal abnormalities. We've got all this wonderful equipment--the latest technology around. Yet when it came to dealing with the individual patient with this particular problem, this particular emergency, this particular crisis in their life at one of the most important times of their needs--probably the most important time of their need--we couldn't help them. I couldn't help them. Or I wasn't supposed to help them. And that's when it struck me that something was wrong.

I was very good at maternal fetal medicine. I'm very good at diagnosing patients. I'm very good at taking care of patients. I'm very good at taking care of high risk patients--whether they have heart disease, whatever the situation is. But I didn't feel complete as a physician by allowing these patients to be just more or less thrown to the winds and allowing them to be taken care of by somebody else when I knew I could take care of them. So that was what made me focus in on the second trimester patient more than what I had been doing.

RW: One of the things that opponents of abortion have used to put women on the defensive is to say fetuses are children. We say fetuses are not children, women are not incubators and abortion is not murder.

DP: Well, I agree with that. If I thought something was wrong with doing abortions in the first place I wouldn't do them. I feel strongly in women's rights--in a woman's right to choose. This is her body and she should be able to choose what it is that she does with her body in any circumstances. And especially after 24 weeks if it's going to be a threat to her life or you know that you have a fetus that won't be compatible with life, why are you going to force that woman to bear a baby that you know is not going to survive --that you know is going to cause trauma and turmoil to that family, psychologically, financially? It's not right.

RW: Can you explain why so few doctors are trained to perform abortions? Is it part of the routine training in medical school?

DP: No. There is a lot of controversy about abortions and there are more and more ob-gyn physicians that are not being trained. It used to be that there were only like 25 percent of residents being trained to do abortions. Probably that percentage goes down every year. It was mandatory for residents to be trained. Then it got down to being voluntary.... But the main reason that physicians have stopped doing abortions is because they're afraid. They're afraid of being harassed themselves, they're afraid of their families being harassed, they're afraid of exposing themselves to death. They don't want to have to wear a bulletproof vest. They don't want to have to be exposed to the negative issues that come with abortion. It's becoming more of a sacrifice for family members, for your children--the things that they have to go through at school with somebody coming up to them telling them your father is a murderer, these type of things.

So most physicians, most ob-gyns don't want their families to have to be exposed to that. Of course the majority of them support a woman's right to choose. There are a few, of course, that don't. But that's the reason that they don't want to deal with it is because they don't want to be harassed. I can remember when we stopped doing second trimester terminations when I was a resident because of harassment--political groups harassed the hospital board to stop abortions and to stop second trimester abortions in the hospital.

RW: You're very bold in advertising the services that are available at your clinics. You use highway billboards, radio and TV ads. You had 50,000 condoms distributed at nightclubs with your clinic name on them. Why do you take an approach like that?

DP: Well, first of all, I don't see anything wrong with it. Is abortion supposed to be something that you keep in the closet? Something that you are supposed to be afraid to talk about? Something that's dirty? I don't look at it that way. I'm a well trained, board certified ob-gyn with two years of maternal fetal medicine behind me. I don't have anything to hide. My record is very good and I want people to know that if they have a problem they can come to a place that's proud of what it is that we do, what it is that I do--and I'm every good at what I do.

So why not go to clubs and give out condoms? Why not put yourself on a billboard? Why not be on the radio? I mean why not? This is America. At least I thought it was. I'm starting to question that. But that was my upbringing--that you are equal in every way. So if McDonald's and Coca-Cola and Nike can advertise on billboards, what makes me not be able to do that? Nothing makes me not be able to do it and I should be able to do it....

I don't see anything that I should apologize for. I don't see anything that a woman should apologize for if she winds up being pregnant and it was a mistake or she's pregnant and she has an abnormality. You can question why--why does god allow certain things to happen? And I can understand that because all of us do that who believe in god. But at the same time you've got a problem and if that's what you choose to do then I'm there to take care of that problem. That's the way I look at it.

RW: The antis have mounted a systematic campaign of harassment and intimidation at your clinic in Ocala. Can you describe what it's like for a woman when she comes to the clinic to get services or for the staff when they come to work?

DP: They have anywhere from 5 to 15 antis there on a daily basis. Their objective is to make everybody know that they're there--to make a scene. It's meant to be intimidating and it's meant to be something that prevents people from using the services there. That's what the whole situation is about and they know that. And they'll tell you that.

The employees are not as intimidated as they used to be. But still in the back of their mind when they come to work they have to be cautious. They have to be cautious about first hitting somebody as they come into the driveways because it's not unusual for any of those people to just walk across the way and obstruct the driveway. They hold these grotesque signs. When my employees get out they call them by their first name. They always tell them, "Why do you work here?", "Why don't you stop working here? We can help you find another job."

Each patient that comes there is harassed. They say, "Dr. Pendergraft is a murderer." Now they say, "He's been convicted of three felony counts. He's a criminal. Why do you want to go see a doctor that's a criminal?" Of course they don't get into the reasons why I was indicted in the first place. You see them writing down license plates. They go around with a videotape camera. One of the guys used to sit in the parking lot with a power lens taking pictures of people that come and go in the facility. Everybody could see what he was doing. It's an environment of harassment and intimidation all around. There are patients that see this environment and they become very reluctant to come in. And there's a certain percentage of patients that leave. They don't want to come there because they're afraid of what somebody's going to say, who they're going to report to, whether or not it's going to get back to whoever....

They scream out to the doctors, "Look at him running to the clinic -- he thinks he's going to get killed today" and these type of statements. And every time they hold these grotesque pictures up and tell me to stop "killing the babies" and that they're praying for me--in the back of my mind I think about the two physicians that got killed in Florida as well as other physicians that have been shot and murdered in different parts of the United States and Canada, about Dr. Slepian. These are real things that happened to people. There have been many staff members that have quit because of the fear and the terroristic tactics these people have used to intimidate them and harass them.

RW: Describe what day-to-day life is like for you. You are hounded and harassed. I understand you wear a bulletproof vest and that you carry a gun.

DP: Well, I can't carry a gun now. I haven't been able to for a year since the judge told me that I had to turn in my arms --which is pretty ironic, me walking around with no gun with these people out there. I mean this whole thing is just absolutely crazy. So I don't have any protection for myself....What the antis try to do is locate you through your license plates and credit cards and those type of things--or try to find out where your house is. So essentially I don't have anything that leads to anyplace where I reside. Everything either goes to my post office box or to my office because if I had someplace that I was staying that they could get to they would be at my house.... My kids don't live in Florida. I try to see them at least once a month. That's basically the way I live my life.

RW: Do your kids not live in Florida to protect them?

DP: Yes. Absolutely.

RW: Many people don't understand that while abortion is legal something like 86 percent of counties in the country don't have providers and a lot of poor women can't afford to pay for the procedure. Do you provide abortions for women who can't afford them and what would these women do if they couldn't come to your clinics?

DP: I don't know what they would do if they couldn't come to my clinics. We do a lot of abortions for either reduced or for free. There are a lot of non-profit organizations that have monies for indigent women that we can call up and get a few funds for them that way. But most of the time they don't take care of the whole situation and there are times when these non-profit organizations don't have any money and we wind up doing them for free.

That's just the way I've always done it. I've been to other facilities and I used to work in other facilities that wouldn't do them. I mean they would just send them away. I know a physician now that won't do procedures for reduced costs. And that saddens me. But that's on them. That's not on me. I feel that you have to do things for people and the more you give back, the more you get. Whether it's financially or whatever the situation is I think I'm going to get it back. The money doesn't mean anything to me. I mean I'm not going to lose my next meal just because there are two or three procedures that I do for free a week. That doesn't affect me one way or the other.

RW: What do you think it's going to take to defeat the attacks on women's right to abortion and how did you feel about the recent Emergency March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C.?

DP: I thought it was wonderful to see those young people there and that is a start. But I unfortunately still believe that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Because there are too many people that take abortion rights for granted. They think it's legal. They are complacent about it. You know, there are so many women that come to me and say I don't believe in abortions but I need to do this. Well, you really do believe in it. That's why you're here today. You have to believe in it or you wouldn't be here. We have to get people to understand that the need should be there for everybody--not just for that one individual at a time. It should be there all the time or you're going to get doom and gloom. You're going to get a lot of women dying. And when somebody dies that's significant--and that's what it may take, though I hope not--then you'll begin to see people demonstrate and to rise up like they did before. And hopefully at that time it will be so significant that nobody will ever want this to ever happen to anybody again. You would have thought that the first time. But it didn't gel. So there needs to be another uprising. There needs to be another Tea Party. There needs to be another 'Bama situation....

I'm glad to see young people out in support of abortion rights and I'm glad to see the support that's come out for myself and support for the cause. Because this is not about me. This is a whole agenda beyond me. And I think that it's important for people to show their support and to support women and continue to support women's issues--especially abortion rights.

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