Elizabeth Newhall, MD

Battling in the Courts

When Dr. Elizabeth Newhall, Medical Director of the Downtown Woman’s Center in Portland, Oregon, first learned about the so-called “Nuremberg List” (a list of abortion providers’ names maintained by anti-choice zealots), she didn’t think about her own safety. “I have a friend who is a provider in the Midwest and I was so worried that she would be on the list–it didn’t even cross my mind that I would be targeted,” she says. “But that same day (in January of 1995) the FBI called me up to let me know that my name was there.”

Dr. Newhall, who ultimately became one of the plaintiffs in the subsequent court case, was instructed by the FBI to implement the use of bullet-proof vests and have bullet-proof glass installed at the Downtown Woman’s Center. “We were in the middle of medical abortion trials, which we were concealing,” she remembers, “and needless to say, it was unnerving for the patients to see the employees in bullet-proof vests.” The case was decided in favor of Dr. Newhall and her co-plaintiffs in 1998, and in March 2001 an appeal was denied by a federal appeals court. The U.S. Supreme Court also declined to hear the case, leaving Dr. Newhall and her co-plaintiffs victorious. The amount of the punitive damages is still under appeal at present.

In addition to her duties at Downtown Woman’s Center, Dr. Newhall also works in private practice as a gynecologist at Everywoman’s Health and is Assistant Clinical Professor at Oregon Health Sciences University. But she has not suffered the extreme harassment that has plagued providers in other parts of the country. “In 12 years, I’ve had my house picketed a couple of times, my office picketed a couple of times,” she says. “Our clinic got an injunction against protestors and we’re located in an office building, so in general it’s not a problem.” Dr. Newhall calls the West Coast a “luxury spot for abortion providers” because of the high level of community support. “We’re at a disadvantage because as physicians we’re busy, and the people who would take away our right to reproductive autonomy generally don’t have anything else to do,” she says. “That’s why groups like PRCH are so important.”

Dr. Newhall calls her work providing abortions at the Downtown Woman’s Center the most satisfying part of her practice. “I really enjoy the people, and I enjoy the environment,” she says. “People who do this want to do this, and understand how to be respectful and caring. Mainstream medicine could learn a lot from how abortions are carried out. It’s the best example of Western medicine that I know of.”

Nonetheless, she firmly believes that abortion care needs to be absorbed into mainstream medicine. “We’ve been marginalized for so long that it’s easy to keep us on the sidelines,” she says. “If a gynecologist is pro-choice, she ought to provide the service to women. It’s that simple.”

Upon completing her medical degree at the University of California Davis and her residency at Oregon Health Sciences University, Dr. Newhall spent time as an emergency room physician. There she had an experience that inspired her to move into reproductive health. “I had a mentally unstable patient,” she says. “She was pregnant, and she had previously given birth to several babies who were taken away, and she desperately wanted an abortion. That’s when I decided to become an abortion provider, because it seemed clear to me that this was the right thing to do.”

Dr. Newhall cites an early-1990s ballot measure that would have outlawed abortion in Oregon as a turning point for her in terms of becoming a public advocate. “I am open and proud of what I do, and I think it’s important for the community to see that,” she says. “I respectfully provide services to women, and I am not afraid of people who would do me ill.”

It’s an easier decision to move into activism than people realize, Dr. Newhall says. “To be an effective activist you have to really care about the issue, and if you really care about the issue, you can’t not be an activist. Whatever area of medicine you’re in, it’s important to participate in this arena, because it has the most dramatic effect on women’s lives. It’s not hard, and it doesn’t have to take up a lot of time–you just have to be willing to stand up and be counted.” That alone, says Dr. Newhall, “has a big impact.”