Monday, September 21, 2009

The Last Abortion Doctor


This post is admittedly long overdue. In the August issue of Esquire magazine, John Richardson wrote an article about Warren Hern, the last doctor in America who performs late abortions. The entire piece (it's really long) flows so easily and reads like a movie being played out on the big screen. The theatrical manner that Richardson chose to take with this piece works, mostly because the subject is just so dramatic. In some cases, I think Richardson's style actually enhanced the story, making each "scene" seem like there is more than one side to the story. And as it is in real life, people are always multi-dimensional.

I can say truthfully that this was one of the best articles I have read in a long time. If you get the time, give it a read, and don't be intimidated by how many pages there are because it really just flies. Richardson gets down to the nitty-gritty details but it's always relevant to the story – like how Hern's windows are bullet proof and the window shades must always be drawn. There is a careful amount of time spent on Hern's receptionist and nurses, but his detail to attention really conveys how incredibly unique this abortion clinic is. Like by allowing us to listen in to the receptionist's side of the conversation with the patients who call in asking for an appointment for an abortion. At one point during a particular phone conversation, the receptionist says I also want you to know, we don't care what your reasons are. We're not going to judge you.

And that's another thing: Richardson does not use quote marks to show quotes. Instead, he employs italics for quotes, which adds a sense of urgency to everything that is said. It makes it seem like everything that is quoted in this article is important, even if it is something simple like I'm Dr. Hern. Where are you from? Lie down now. Put your hand on your chest. This gave me the sense that every single quote was carefully ruminated over by the author before adding it into the piece. In a way, sensitivity to how Hern is conveyed is extremely important because of his controversial work.

With most profiles (especially in magazines), writers often take a side of the subject, and they stick to it. They find a quirk, and they make that quirk translate into his entire being. Like how President Obama is both African and American, so a profiler might highlight his worldliness and his ability to reach out past party barriers, and the words "born of two worlds" will probably be used a lot. I think this is actually a pretty effective way of showcasing a point, but Richardson does not do that in this article. I initially thought that the article was going to be like a manifesto for liberals and people who are pro-choice. I thought it was going to solidify my opinion on the abortion battle and this man's story is the answer. Something like that.

But Richardson neither lionizes nor demonizes Hern. What we have here is just the tip of the iceberg, a little glimpse into a very complicated, troubled man who believes, above all, that a woman should have the freedom to choose what to do with her own body. The key word here is "believe" because he does so fervently and almost angrily - but Richardson never writes any sort of opinion about it. I know the point in journalism is to be objective, but in a magazine such as Esquire – which famously painted John Walker Lindh, an American who converted to Islam and is allegedly a terrorist, as "a better person than you or I" in an amazing article by Tom Junod titled "Innocent" – I expected some side-taking to happen. It didn't, and the result is that Hern is just as much of a mystery as any normal person is. We are not one-dimensional talking boxes; we have opinions and thoughts and sometimes these two do not mesh together into a picture that makes sense. Richardson successfully paints Hern as not just an abortion doctor, a performer of disappearing acts (I'm sorry, was that too crude?); Hern is a person who believes so hard that it's almost difficult for us to empathize with him. At some points, his rants about how the people who are pro-life (Richardson writes that every time he uses that word, he employs air quotes) can seem almost vigilante-like and hateful.

And then Richardson will completely change it up by interviewing his wife, who is 27 years his junior and describes him as the most passionate and caring man she has ever met. To say the man is an onion is just so cliché, but I just ate everything up because it was so unexpected and yet so realistic. At one point, Hern says about his work you can never get used to this.

You can't, he says. I think we're hardwired, biologically, to protect small, vulnerable creatures, especially babies. The fetuses may not be babies, but some of them are pretty close.


I really could go on forever about how nuanced and amazing this profile of Hern was, but it seems kinda funny (funny strange, not funny ha ha) to me for that to be said, because what Richardson did was actually show the man as he is, with no verbal badges of honor and no condemnation. I do wish most profiles can be true to a person, but at the same time, most people aren't as interesting and complicated as Hern is. So it probably wouldn't work as well.

I should probably add that Hern disagreed with this article, mostly because he is not the last abortion doctor (Richardson probably did that for punch) and he hated being called an abortionist. I think the irony is that Richardson's repeated use of "abortionist" actually humanized Hern because this technical term, paired with all those effective stories from those close to him, painted a complete picture of the man.