In the more than two decades since he began offering abortion services, Dr. LeRoy Carhart has become one of America’s most prominent advocates for reproductive choice. Despite persistent harassment, Dr. Carhart continues providing abortion services at the Abortion and Contraception Clinic of Nebraska, and as a circuit provider in other states. For the past ten years, he has worked with Dr. George Tiller at his clinic in Wichita, Kansas. From 1997 to 2007, Dr. Carhart fought state and federal restrictions on abortion in two cases that led to landmark Supreme Court decisions.
He says of his commitment to abortion: “I just think that if you come to me and say, ‘I can’t carry this baby’ … my place in medicine is to give you the care you need.”
After retiring from a 21-year career in the Air Force, Dr. Carhart opened a small surgical practice in Nebraska in 1987. A former patient urged him to offer abortions at a nearby reproductive health clinic. As a student at Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, Dr. Carhart had seen many women suffering from botched abortions they attempted with knitting needles, crochet hooks, or caustic lye. “It was horrible, worse than watching people die in a war,” he recalls. Inspired by those memories, Dr. Carhart began to provide abortions.
Protestors soon targeted Dr. Carhart and his wife Mary, who manages his clinic. In 1991, their farm was burned to the ground, destroying the house and barn, and killing 17 horses and several family pets. Anti-abortion activists glued locks in the clinic doors, left pig manure at the entrance, and even followed the Carharts to the airport, distributing flyers to their fellow passengers. In an October 2000 article, the Washington Post described Dr. Carhart as “a marked man” for his vocal support of abortion.
Anti-choice politicians have also tried to stop Dr. Carhart by passing state and federal laws limiting access to abortion. In 1997, Dr. Carhart challenged a Nebraska state law banning so-called partial birth abortion. The Supreme Court stuck down the law in Stenberg v. Carhart, arguing that it posed an “undue burden” for women. Three years after that ruling, President Bush signed the “Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003” into law, and Dr. Carhart joined a federal lawsuit challenging the act. In its 2007 ruling on Gonzales v. Carhart, the Supreme Court upheld the federal ban, ignoring longstanding protections for women’s health.
In recognition of his commitment to women’s reproductive health, Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health honored Dr. Carhart with the 2009 William K. Rashbaum, MD, Abortion Provider Award. He served on the PRCH board of directors from 2004 to 2007. We are happy to share this video of Dr. Carhart accepting the Rashbaum Award.