One of the country's last remaining providers of late-term abortion is in town this weekend to speak at the annual conference of the National Organization for Women, NOW, the largest group of feminist activists in the United States.
Dr. Leroy Carhart, a physician in Nebraska, has taken over the practice of Dr. George Tiller, who was killed last year by an abortion opponent. Clearly, it's a dangerous job. When Carhart travels to conferences and speaking engagments like this one, he does so with protection from the U.S. Marshal.
So why do this kind of work when it's such a personal risk? "Someone has to do it," he says. "Women that are not able to control their fertility do not have a chance to succeed in society. I feel that the anti-abortion movement is purely an anti-woman movement to keep them literally in their place."
Carhart says he considers abortion rights to be civil rights that need to be protected.
Late-term abortions, defined as those performed after the 24th week of pregnancy, are much more controversial than are abortions performed in the earlier stages. Carhart says he understands that some people can't fathom how a potential mother could undergo the procedure so late in her pregnancy, but says those people still have no right to interfere with another person's choice.
Carhart says such abortions are extremely rare, with less than a thousand performed in the United States every year — and only when there is a significant compromise to the health or life of the mother or the fetus. "It's major genetic defects that are usually incompatible with life after birth," Carhart says of the conditions under which a fetus would be considered appropriate for late-term abortion.
Carhart says there is no specific time within a pregnancy at which he would not perform an abortion, but "as the pregnancy develops, the reasons need to be more and more compelling to do it," he says.
The doctor regularly turns down abortion requests — twice this week, in fact. Carhart says he will not perform an abortion when a mother simply has not discovered that she is pregnant until the third term of her pregnancy. In that case, if the woman is not prepared to be a mother she should pursue alternative options such as adoption or foster care, Carhart says.
Pressed on whether he might ever regret his decision to perform abortions, Carhart was steadfast in his conviction. "I lived in a time when abortion was not available," he says. "I saw the desperate ends that women go to when abortion is not available."
This program aired on July 2, 2010.