The 84 Year Old Defender
Today, we’re bringing you part one of our series finale. Dr. Warren Hern is one of the few remaining physicians performing abortions later in pregnancy. After decades in this fight – and serious threats to his safety – nothing is stopping him from this important work.
Learn more about the Boulder Abortion Clinic: https://www.drhern.com/
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Gloria Riviera and Samantha Bee are our hosts. Muna Danish is our supervising producer. Hannah Boomershine and Lisa Phu are our producers. Isaura Aceves and Tony Williams are our associate producers. Ivan Kuraev and Natasha Jacobs are our audio engineers. Music by Hannis Brown with additional music by Natasha Jacobs.Story editing by Jackie Danziger, our VP of Narrative Content. Fact-checking by Naomi Barr. Executive producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs
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To follow along with a transcript, go to lemonadamedia.com/show/ shortly after the air date.
Gloria Riviera, Samantha Bee, Dr. Tiller, Nick, Jordan, Dr. Warren Hearn, News 1
Gloria Riviera 01:30
This episode contains content about pregnancy loss, sexual assault and violence. Please take care while listening.
Dr. Warren Hearn 01:40
The first abortion that I performed was only a young woman who was 17 years old she was in high school.
Gloria Riviera 01:47
Dr. Warren Hearn remembers that day well. It was 1971 a couple years before the passage of Roe v. Wade.
Dr. Warren Hearn 01:55
I was terrified, I had a lot of surgical experience before that so I felt confidence of my abilities as a surgeon, but this was something quite different. I did the abortion I went well and after I got through, doing the procedure, I walked around the table to tell her that the patient that she was no longer pregnant, and she cried, because she was so relieved and grateful. And it it touched me also, so tears came to my eyes it was a very important moment for me that I was overwhelmed with what this small procedure had done to change this young woman’s life and her the way she wanted it to be changed. By the end of 1974, I had decided that performing abortions was the most important thing I could do in medicine.
Gloria Riviera 02:45
Today at 85 years old, Dr. Hearn is one of the most experienced abortion doctors in the US. He’s been doing this work for over 50 years. This is The Defenders a show about the fight for freedom in a post roe America, I’m Gloria Riviera.
Samantha Bee 03:06
And I’m Samantha Bee. This week, we’re bringing you part one of our series finale all about the older and younger generations fighting to keep abortion accessible.
Gloria Riviera 03:16
Today, part one, a physician who has dedicated his life to providing and performing safe abortions, facing threats to his clinic and personal safety. But after spending decades in this fight, nothing is stopping him.
Gloria Riviera 03:36
Dr. Hearn is a physician epidemiologist and director of the boulder abortion clinic. He specializes in abortions later in pregnancy, which are generally considered to be at or after 21 weeks. They are rare in the US they represent only 1% of all abortions. They’re also more involved meaning treatment over a few days, people often seek these abortions for medical reasons. Dr. Hearn is firm in his stance that all people should have access to abortion at any stage in their pregnancy and for any reason.
Dr. Warren Hearn 04:08
In my opinion, there is absolutely no justification for any law, restricting access to abortion in any way, as a medical condition that threatens a woman’s life practice she has a certifiable risk of death. And it’s now a maternal mortality ratio in this country is now more than twice it. It was 20 or 30 years ago. And there’s no justification for forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term if she doesn’t want to be pregnant.
Gloria Riviera 04:36
He is just one of the few doctors in the entire country who specializes in later abortions. Colorado where he practices has no cut off or limits on when you can access abortion. So all of the procedures Dr. Hearn performs are legal.
Dr. Warren Hearn 04:50
I want to help every patient who calls.
Gloria Riviera 04:53
Dr. Hearn has been especially busy since the fall of Roe before the dobs decision. He says a person seeking an abortion at his clinic would probably get an appointment in the next week. Now restrictions throughout the country are creating longer waits.
Dr. Warren Hearn 05:07
The main difference is the increased demand for services and calls from women who are frantic from all over the country who can’t get an abortion in their own state where it’s been made illegal. These women are in desperate situations. And they stupid and cruel laws make it difficult for them to end the pregnancy. And so they wind up having to put off getting a service. And they come to see me when they’re very far along.
Gloria Riviera 05:33
Like you said, many patients are choosing to wait weeks or months, they’re forced to wait because they can’t get an abortion any earlier. By this point in this series, we’ve heard about the emotional toll of being pregnant when you don’t want to be no one should have to endure that. But since the fall of Roe, and because of the demand, Dr. Hearn can really only see people who are more advanced in their pregnancies.
Dr. Warren Hearn 06:00
There was one week a few weeks ago, every single patient was 30 weeks or more. One patient was 12 years old, and she was 34 weeks pregnant. And she was a victim of sexual assault has gone on for a long time.
Gloria Riviera 06:15
That same week, Dr. Hearn says another patient had half a dozen major medical problems that could have killed her.
Dr. Warren Hearn 06:24
And she is carrying a very desired pregnancy that was extremely complicated and had many many catastrophic abnormalities.
Gloria Riviera 06:33
Dr. Hearn saw this patient when she was at 31 weeks.
Dr. Warren Hearn 06:37
I mean, these are very difficult, complicated cases.
Gloria Riviera 06:40
He says a couple of other patients traveled from out of state. Both of them happened to be 30 weeks pregnant. All of that in one week.
Dr. Warren Hearn 06:50
I wouldn’t say it was completely typical week, but pretty close.
Gloria Riviera 06:55
This new normal has taken a toll on Dr. Hearn’s staff. After roe fell and the Texas abortion ban passed, he says they started seeing an influx of patients twice as many for a while.
Dr. Warren Hearn 07:07
I have a small staff, small facility, and my staff was up all night. We were taking care of patients over long, 12 hour days. And it was exhausting, it was impossible. And so we’re now seeing closer to what I would say a normal a number of patients because we simply can’t do it all. And so we have a waiting list for patients where we have patients scheduled several weeks out.
Gloria Riviera 07:33
I actually had the chance to talk to one of Dr. Hearn’s patients. Earlier this year, Jordan had to wait three weeks for an appointment because the clinic was so booked up. By the time she got there from her home in Oklahoma. She was 26 weeks pregnant.
Those three weeks were just I mean crazy. And they of course apologized for that and of course that’s not what they want.
Gloria Riviera 07:56
But let’s jump back in time for a minute to why Jordan needed an abortion in the first place. Months earlier in October 2022. Jordan and her husband discovered they were expecting their second baby a boy. They were overjoyed.
Everything was was pretty typical up until about 20 weeks.
Gloria Riviera 08:15
Jordan’s doctor was concerned by one of the anatomy scans of fetal MRI confirmed. There were more problems.
So she sat down and she said, Jordan it’s bad. Oh, god, yeah sorry. And it was, it was bad.
Gloria Riviera 08:36
Jordan learned that her son would need immediate surgery right after birth. Her doctor said the chances of him surviving that surgery would be very, very low. So she might also consider terminating the pregnancy. Jordan told me she knew in that moment, she needed an abortion. But she and her family live in Oklahoma, where abortion is illegal in most cases, including Jordans so after some research, she found Dr. Hearns clinic in Colorado, where it like I mentioned earlier, abortion later in pregnancy is legal.
When I called and had a conversation to schedule the appointment with them. I just I knew this was the place I needed to go to I felt like they were the most even just over the phone. They were the most caring and I wasn’t just a number.
Gloria Riviera 09:30
Jordan says the three day procedure went smoothly again an abortion later in pregnancy 26 weeks in Jordans case, takes longer because it requires more care. That means time for ultrasounds, blood tests counseling dilation and the procedure itself. Jordan describe the counseling session as amazing. Overall she felt cared for by Dr. Hearn and his staff.
And I think then that last day, maybe because I was on a lot of you know meds but as I was walking out I was just like, thank you so much for doing what you do. You know, I was just so thankful.
Gloria Riviera 11:18
That acceptance and desire to help has made Dr. Hearn and his staff a vital resource for patients across the country. But their work has come at a cost.
Gloria Riviera 11:49
If the anti abortion people know where I am, I’m not safe, that’s all there is to it.
Gloria Riviera 12:04
That’s after the break.
Gloria Riviera 12:05
Over the years, Dr. Hearn and his staff have been targeted by anti abortion protesters. It all began shortly after Dr. Hearn opened his own practice in 1975. It only took two weeks for the threats to start rolling in.
Dr. Warren Hearn 12:56
I started getting obscene death threats in the middle of the night at my home in the mountains, which is quite isolated. And at 3am very vicious calls that were very frightening and I started sleeping with a rifle by my bed. And I as I got home at night I would check around and see if I could see anybody waiting for me and I will offer the same when I get ready to leave for work in the next morning.
Gloria Riviera 13:23
Sometimes those fears of violence became a terrifying reality. One year anti abortion activists fired five gunshots through the clinics office window. Another time Dr. Hearn says one of them attempted to run him over with a car. These experiences have given Dr. Hearn a real brush with the more extreme side of the anti abortion movement.
Dr. Warren Hearn 13:45
The main difference between the American anti abortion movement and the mafia is that the mafia has the decency to keep his hitlist private.
Gloria Riviera 13:55
Okay, that’s a joke, but there is real truth behind it. Anti abortion violence is a decade’s long concern that is back on the rise. And who better to give us a crash course on this than Sam Bee.
Samantha Bee 14:09
Thank you, Gloria. Okay, listeners, we’re going to be touching on some very dark stuff here. Usually I try to keep these things fun, or at least a little bit light hearted, but we have to treat this one with the gravity it deserves. Let’s look at the numbers. Since 1977 anti abortion protesters have carried out 11 murders 26 attempted murders, four kidnappings, 42 bombings, 200 arsons, that’s all according to the National Abortion Federation. But it’s easy to list numbers. We’re used to it in a country where people get shot all the time. So let me tell you a story about one man, Dr. George Tiller. Maybe you’ve heard his name.
News 1 14:54
Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed in church yesterday for years till there was a lightning the rod for abortion rights opponents.
Samantha Bee 15:02
Dr. Tiller never intended to become an abortion doctor. His dad was a family physician and Dr. Tiller wanted to be a dermatologist. But after his dad and several other members of his family died in a plane crash, Dr. Tiller moved to Kansas to raise his nephew. And there, he found out his dad had been keeping a secret. He had been illegally providing abortions. Oh, wow yeah. And he went on to beat some of the women whose lives had been changed by his father’s work. So after abortion was legalized, he started performing them himself. Dr. Tiller was one of only a few doctors in the whole country who performed abortions for women in their third trimester. This made him a target, anti abortion extremists wanted to stop him by any means necessary. In 1986, someone planted a pipe bomb in his clinic, which detonated overnight. Dr. Tiller didn’t give up. In 1990 1000s of protesters descended on his clinic leading to more than 2700 arrests. Dr. Tiller kept working in 1993 he was shot five times by an anti abortion terrorist. He was back at work the next day, he kept going no matter what hundreds of people in impossible situations got abortions every year because of Dr. Taylor’s […] endurance.
Dr. Tiller 16:29
What I am doing his legal what I’m doing is moral what I’m doing is ethical. And you’re not gonna run me out of town.
Samantha Bee 16:38
He was also a devout Christian and a regular at church. That’s where he was on May 31 2009. Serving as an usher handing out programs. He was wearing a bulletproof vest to church, his wife was waiting for him in the sanctuary. And a man walked in and shot him in the head at point blank range. He was 67 years old.
Gloria Riviera 17:05
I remember this, it was so chilling to think of a man shot in the head at point blank range in church.
Samantha Bee 17:13
Yes, it was so shocking. It felt like one of those turning points you can only see in hindsight, like there was before Tller and after he left a massive void behind these days, there are very few doctors who provide abortions later in pregnancy. It’s a huge risk for physicians but Dr. Tiller always maintained that for him, the rewards far outweigh the dangers.
Dr. Tiller 17:39
If you have a willing heart to help women in catastrophic situations, you could be an abortion provider. There are all sorts of dangers. Everything has a risk to it. I would prefer personally to have a challenging, stimulating, emotionally and spiritually rewarding career that is short. Rather than have a long one that is filled home, mundane mediocrity feeling as if you don’t make any difference to people, you will make a difference in women’s lives.
Gloria Riviera 18:16
You will make a difference in women’s lives. When I hear that from Dr. Tiller. I think about how some people are truly called to do this work, even in the face of violence and intimidation. In fact, Dr. Hearn knew Dr. Tiller very well. They met back in the late 1970s at an abortion conference. Over the years they became good friends. Dr. Hearn remembers the phone call. It was 2009 he was eating breakfast. Dr. tiller’s wife, Jeannie was on the other line.
Dr. Warren Hearn 18:48
And I picked up the phone and Jeannie said he’s gone.
Gloria Riviera 18:52
And he was your good friend.
Dr. Warren Hearn 18:53
Yeah. I was horrified, deeply saddened, not surprised. So no, no one knows why this has been coming for a long time. And George was a very fine person and Christian. Very forgiving, I knew George quite well we did a lot of things together. He invited me to his daughter’s wedding, we went skiing together. We both had a hard time staying on the trail. You know, and anyway, it makes me very sad to think about this.
Gloria Riviera 19:27
It’s heartbreaking to hear Dr. Hearns pain at the loss of his friend. And to be reminded that we continue to live in a country where physicians who provide these health services are gunned down. Dr Hearn told me anti abortion protesters have said he shouldn’t bother wearing a bulletproof vest because they’re going to aim for his head the same way his friend Dr. Tiller was killed.
Dr. Warren Hearn 19:53
I may not assume ever that I’m safe. That will never happen in my lifetime.
Gloria Riviera 19:59
Dr. Hearn says that even if he stopped performing abortions today, his life would still be at great risk. So at age 85, he carries on. Dr. Hearn you’ve been doing this a long time, how much longer will you keep at it?
Dr. Warren Hearn 20:13
Long as I can, I mean, survival is my revenge for one thing. But I think that I clearly at the point where my job is to teach other doctors how to do it properly. And that’s what I’m working on, and doing as much as I possibly can.
Gloria Riviera 20:28
As of September 2023, Dr. Hearn shared with our team that he is in the process of training two physicians with a third, fourth, and maybe even a fifth joining soon. While he has affiliations with the University of Colorado, he has not had the opportunity to teach at a medical school. So instead, he works with physicians who seek him out.
Dr. Warren Hearn 20:49
I need to for a lot of reasons, turning the clinical care patient over to other people, and I’m working on that. I would like to wake up, you know, in the morning and say, you know, what shall I do today well, that hasn’t been true for a long time.
Gloria Riviera 21:04
Because of his line of work, and the fact that so few other doctors do it. Dr. Hearn says he can’t retire. After 50 years he does have a unique vantage point. He’s seen the world before Roe, when illegal abortions left people in unsafe and deadly situations, then the majority of his career existed in the era of Roe. Now he’s seen the reversal, all in one lifetime. It would be easy, given everything for Dr. Hearn to be cynical, but he has some hope.
Dr. Warren Hearn 21:38
It’s a new world and I feel that the young people have a clearer sense of perhaps of what’s going on and maybe we did when I was younger. I hope that we find a way to get through this political mess in our country and treat women and other people with proper respect and decency.
Gloria Riviera 21:58
To chart this political mess, we need more muscle. We need activists, a new generation ready to take the mantle of reproductive freedom.
Do we want to ask, like ask them what the fuck they’re doing, I’m miked up so any anything they’ll say to me is recorded.
Gloria Riviera 22:15
Take Nick’s route, a young activist in New York, who started a movement to bring abortion pills to their college campus.
I think we came into it kind of like, oh my God, this is a great school, it’s feminist. If we tell them they’ll be really receptive, and it will happen in like a couple of months tops.
Gloria Riviera 22:34
But of course, it wouldn’t be that easy. That’s next time on The Defenders.
Gloria Riviera 22:55
There’s more of The Defenders with Lemonada Premium subscribers get exclusive access to bonus content, like extended interviews with organizers, abortion providers and experts. Subscribe now in Apple podcasts.
The Defenders is a production of Lemonada Media. We’re your hosts Gloria Riviera, and Samantha Bee. Muna Danish is our supervising producer. Lisa Phu is our producer. Isaura Aceves and Tony Williams are our associate producers. Ivan Kuraev and Natasha Jacobs are our audio engineers. Music by Hannis Brown with additional music by Natasha Jacobs. Story editing by Jackie Danziger, our VP of narrative content. Fact checking by Naomi Barr. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs. This series is supported by Charles and Lynn Schusterman, Family Philanthropies, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Levi Strauss foundation. Follow The Defenders wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership.