Shameless in Colorado
by Sharon Lerner
Cella Roberts was 23 weeks pregnant when she discovered her fetus had a heart defect that would make it unable to survive outside the womb. Roberts herself was suffering from a blood sugar problem she had developed during the pregnancy and, as it wore on, she was getting sicker and sicker, facing the potentially fatal complication of toxemia. Though an abortion seemed the most logical choice–her doctor counseled it, and everyone from her neighbors to her in-laws urged her to follow his advice–Roberts wasn’t sure what to do. So she brought her rabbi along to a doctor’s appointment to help her make the wrenching decision.
“We asked all the questions we could,” remembers Roberts. “Then I cried, and cried, and cried.” Rather than risk her life to deliver a dead baby, Roberts decided to end the pregnancy. She was referred to Warren Hern in Boulder, Colorado, virtually the only physician in a six-state area who could perform an abortion at that stage. The four-day procedure was excruciating. But Roberts, who already had a four-year-old daughter at the time, eventually managed to put it behind her. “I had responsibilities to people who were already living. I was a mother and a wife and a sister and a friend and a neighbor,” she says. Roberts had to move on–and she did, adopting a baby last year.
But the trauma of that terrible period, already more than two years in the past, has resurfaced recently, since Roberts learned that, unbeknownst to her, the ashes from her cremated fetus had been buried in a secret ceremony at the Sacred Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Boulder. The church had gotten the ashes from Crist Mortuary, which had contracted with Hern in 2001 to dispose of medical waste. Though their contract specified that the material would not be part of a religious ceremony, the mortuary company had given each of seven shipments of ashes received under the contract to the church, which had placed them near a “memorial wall for the unborn,” while a church bell tolled to the rhythm of a beating heart. Crist also gave the church ashes from fetuses that were miscarried at Avista Adventist Hospital in nearby Louisville, Colorado.
On January 23, one day after the anniversary of Roe v. Wade decision establishing the right to abortion, the church went public, inviting press to its ritual service involving the ashes of these miscarried and aborted fetuses, and beginning one of the most bizarre and unsettling chapters in the struggle over abortion. Much of the media attention has focused on the intentions of the church (“We want to give dignity to the short lives of these babies,” the Boulder County Daily Camera quoted the organizer of the services as saying), and the no-hard-feelings stance of the hospital (“It’s a neat thing what they’re doing in Boulder,” Avista CEO John Sackett said in an AP story.) But few have asked how the women directly affected by this gruesome theft feel about it.
While she had cried in sadness many times over the loss of her pregnancy, Robert’s response was pure anger. “This time, I cried out of fury,” says Roberts. “That was my fetus! I had worked out a situation to take care of that fetus in a way that was appropriate for me and my family and our religious views.” Roberts knew she had to respond to the indignity. But what is the appropriate reaction to such a bizarre and personal affront? “I can’t imagine going to a Catholic grave and digging it up and saying I don’t think this should be here, I’m going to put it in my Jewish graveyard,” she says. Once again, she turned to her rabbi for advice. “When I asked him if this was worth pursuing, he said, ‘Sue the bastards,'” says Roberts, who took his advice and is now consulting lawyers.
Hern, too, is mulling over his legal options. Though outraged about this latest turn in local abortion politics, he does not seem terribly surprised by it. Perhaps the doctor, who runs the Boulder Abortion Clinic and specializes in second-trimester abortions, has gotten used to being a target. Indeed, this wasn’t the first time fetal remains from his clinic had ended up the Sacred Heart church. In 1999, when another company had the contract to dispose of fetuses from the clinic, an employee at that mortuary passed the ashes along to the church, according to a piece that ran in the Boulder Weekly at the time. (That employee was subsequently fired and hired by Crist.)
The violation of his mortuary contract–and his patients–is far from the worst thing that’s happened to Hern since he began performing abortions in 1973. In 1985, someone threw a brick through the window of his office. Three years later, five bullets were shot into the same window. He’s been stalked, received obscene death threats and, fearing for his life, slept with a shotgun beside his bed. Most days, when Hern pulls into the clinic parking lot, he stays inside his car for a moment scanning nearby rooftops for snipers. “The anti-abortion folks are trying to ruin my life, and they’re succeeding,” is how he sums up his situation.
Indeed, Hern has lately spent much of his time testifying against local anti-abortion legislation and taking calls from distraught patients. One of them, a 24-year-old construction manager named Jennifer Rogers, has been fantasizing about revenge. When Rogers learned that the Catholic church had gotten hold of the remains from her abortion, “My original response was wanting to take a bat and smash every window in the church,” she says. A friend suggested throwing eggs at it, while another friend, who had had a miscarriage at Avista Hospital during the same period, suffered in silence.
But after the initial wave of shock and anger ebbed, Rogers had a different idea. She thought she might start volunteering at the clinic that performed her abortion in 2001. At the time, her relationship with her boyfriend was ending and Rogers didn’t feel ready to have a child on her own. Though she was clear about what she wanted to do, the experience of walking past rows of protesters on her way into the clinic was terrifying. Some screamed that she was killing her baby, others that she would regret her decision for the rest of her life. “These people who are supposed to be God-fearing and loving, the same ones who took my ashes, were yelling hateful things at me,” she remembers. “For a year or two, I could still hear these same people screaming at me in my nightmares.”
Rogers hasn’t regretted her decision, which is part of what she’d like to share with others who brave the gauntlet into the clinic. “I want to let them know that there are people who come out of it who aren’t raging basket cases for the next ten years,” she says. Part of why she was able to come to peace with her abortion, she thinks, is that she performed her own rituals of grief, writing a detailed account of her feelings at the time, something a therapist had suggested.
Yet another of Hern’s patients, Povy Atchison, and her husband Lloyd Athearn devised their own elaborate rituals. Because of a malformation of their fetus’ lungs that made it unable to live outside the womb, Atchison had an abortion about five and a half months into her pregnancy. At the time, she didn’t think much about what would become of her fetus. “You’re going through the most emotional thing you’ve ever gone through–you’re not thinking about that,” she says. But when Hern offered her the ashes, she agreed to take them.
The two planted a tree in their back yard and sprinkled some of the ashes around it. Athearn dusted some over Mt. McKinley. And they put some of them in one of their favorite hiking spots and held a ceremony to say goodbye. Then they took some ashes to the North Oregon coast, where Athearn grew up. “It was our desire to show what we hoped had been our child many places that were special to us,” says Atchison, who fumes when she thinks of how she would have felt had her ashes been included in the church’s mass burial. “I would have felt that this baby’s been taken away from me again,” she says. “I would be so incredibly angry.”
It’s hard to know, though, exactly what you’d do in a situation unless it happens to you. Most of Hern’s patients already appreciate that. None I spoke with was without sadness about what happened. One even saw the appeal for a healing, religious ceremony and considered going to Sacred Heart’s, before realizing that the Church was holding “a political show,” not a religious ceremony. When it gradually dawned on her that her fetus had been used as part of that political show, she got angry. “Sacred Heart should not take it upon themselves to assume what a woman wants, they don’t know me,” she says.
Nor do they know the story of a woman who had been 22-weeks pregnant when she found her way to Dr. Hern. She had been married just a few weeks at the time, and her new husband had recently thrown her into a wall. During their short marriage, his violence escalated and he eventually threatened to hire someone to kill her and her 11-year-old daughter. “I knew I could not be tied to this man for the rest of my life,” she says.
“It was just a whole devastating thing that you can’t talk to anybody about,” she now says of her abortion. She fell sick, spending days in bed, when she first heard that her fetus had been part of the church’s ceremony. Perhaps, she offers generously, the church didn’t realize the pain it would cause by conducting services for fetuses without the consent of the individual women who had carried them. “I don’t think they understand how we all have our own wacky story of what led us to have that experience.”