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End of the Line

Last month, a federal judge shut down Bill Graham's notorious anti-abortion phone line. Behind the national headlines is a rare look at women who seek abortions and why.

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On Aug. 4, U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval gazed down at Bill Graham, the man in the wrinkled suit sitting alone at the defendant's table. Saying that Graham had caused "irreparable harm" to women, Duval ordered the immediate disconnection of 834-5483. For a decade, that phone line had linked Graham to the one-man, one-phone operation he called the Causeway Center for Women.

Graham, who's representing himself in federal court, called the outcome "pretty predictable." In upcoming months, he faces a trial on a lawsuit's allegations that he used "malicious and willful tactics" to string along each pregnant caller, often until she was too far along to receive a legal abortion. His legal opposition includes longtime New Orleans abortion-rights lawyer Bill Rittenberg, attorneys from the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, and pro bono lawyers from Morrison & Foerster, one of the largest law firms in the world.

The day after Duval's ruling, the London Guardian ran an Associated Press story below the headline, "Judge Cuts Phone at Sham Abortion Clinic." Within subsequent days, pieces about Graham ran in The New York Times, on National Public Radio, and on CNN, where anchor Anderson Cooper introduced the segment with the line, "Next, an abortion scam."

In suburban New Orleans, a 19-year-old girl clipped a Times-Picayune article about Duval's ruling and hung it on the family's refrigerator. She's not a named plaintiff in the lawsuit, but she called Graham's phone line last fall and spoke for several weeks with someone who called himself "Dr. Green," she told Gambit Weekly.

In Texas, a young woman named Erica took an evening walk with her toddler son, who was singing in the background as she discussed her reaction to the ruling. "I'm glad to hear it," she says. "It -- being a parent -- is a hard job to sign up for, and I realize that even more now, having a child." She had no part in the lawsuit either. But, three years ago, she and Graham spoke for a few months when she tried, unsuccessfully, to arrange for an abortion. Interviews with Erica at the time led to Gambit Weekly's first story about Graham ("No Choice," Jan. 8, 2002).

No one knows how many other women contacted Graham since he began advertising his phone line in the BellSouth Yellow Pages in January 1993. In 2002, Causeway Medical Clinic director Kay Kelly emphasized that they do not see every Graham victim. But, she said, her abortion clinic in Metairie sees, on average, one woman each week who needs to have an expensive late-term procedure after being delayed and re-delayed by Graham. Those incidents stick out particularly because late-term procedures themselves are unusual -- 90 percent of the abortions in this country are performed during the first 12 weeks, the first trimester.

(Kelly wouldn't talk to the media about the ruling because Causeway Medical is a plaintiff in the ongoing suit, alleging, among other things, that the name of Graham's "sham service" is confusingly close to the clinic's name.)

Attorney Suzanne Novak from the Center for Reproductive Rights says that she's heard from 35 women since the suit was launched in June. "Only once the case became publicized did women realize how many other women were in the same boat," says Novak, who believes that the final count may be in the hundreds.

BILL GRAHAM DOESN'T BUY THE IDEA that the women suing him were powerless. "All of these folks that are putting these orchestrated affidavits together, they didn't have to keep calling me," he says. For his part, if the telephone rang, he picked it up. "It would be impertinent not to at least answer the phone," he says.

"These women could have gone to any of these (abortion) places. They chose not to," says Graham. "They chose to continue their pregnancy. Not because I'm such a Svengali -- I cannot talk anybody into or out of anything. Š I just answered the phone and told women what we won't do and what we can do."

Graham deserves much credit, if you ask the Rev. Bill Shanks of Metairie's New Covenant Fellowship, a familiar face on the Causeway clinic's picket line. "How many people live their whole lives and never save another human being?" asks Shank. "And here this man has saved I don't know how many. Little babies are alive because of what he did."

Still, Graham doesn't seem to be a favorite within the state's anti-abortion movement. Typically, Louisiana's abortion-related court battles -- over the Choose Life license plates, for instance -- have featured two expert legal teams. But Graham's case hasn't attracted even one pro bono attorney.

Some like-minded groups want no part of his work. "We don't have anything to do with Mr. Graham," says Peg Kenny, speaking for the Louisiana Pro-Life Council and its Crisis Pregnancy Centers.

Shanks acknowledges that, while he approves of Graham's results, he doesn't agree with his methods. "I think that some folks just felt like Bill was doing something they wouldn't do," Shanks says. "When we're out in front of the clinic, we tell people who we are."

Graham says that he finds the idea of "being for or against abortion more a distraction than anything else." The real issue, he says, is this: "We're not going to send women to places that we know in advance have a history of injuring women." It's Graham's mantra, a phrase that he will repeat over and over as the answer to any question about his views or his final objectives.

He got into "this business," he says, by renting a place next door to Dr. Sidney Knight, known by some abortion rights supporters as a crusader who dared to perform abortions here before Roe v. Wade made abortions legal in 1973. Graham uses other terms to describe Knight, which include the words "back alley." Knight died in 1993. "So we just simply shut down the physical location and kept the telephone line," Graham says. "We started talking to a lot of women, and it evolved into what it became."

Former Planned Parenthood CEO Terri Bartlett remembers Graham from as far back as 1989. She describes him as "a long-standing foe of a woman's right to choose." Often, Bartlett recalls, Graham would stand outside their events, videotaping. He says that he was looking for anti-abortion activists attending Planned Parenthood events. On occasion, Graham says, he used his tape to say, "Here's an individual who you seem to think is something they're not."

In court, Judge Duval asked Graham, "Have you ever made a bona fide appointment with a woman for an abortion?" Graham walked up to the microphone, breathed deeply, and said, "I'm going to have to say no." The doctors he works with, he said, certainly can provide abortions. But they would not want their names revealed, because "this is a controversial procedure." And he wouldn't know if any abortions have actually been performed, because that's confidential, best kept between doctor and patient.

That argument failed. A few minutes later, Duval ruled from the bench that he was concerned about the placement of Graham's ad in the Yellow Pages. "Because I find that he is not providing abortion services, but is using it as a guise to preclude women from receiving abortion services," Duval said.

Graham, reached at home after the ruling, offers his opinion about why this lawsuit went forward. "These women are very embroiled in their situation. They don't want to be pregnant; they don't want to subject themselves to a lot of this stuff. My own mother went through a lot of this, probably. Maybe yours did, too.

"There's a fellow," he says, "who once made a very astute observation about women when they're pregnant -- they're insane. Temporarily so, but they are insane."

THREE YEARS AGO, ERICA, a college freshman, waited until her roommate left their dorm room, then began to dial the numbers listed under "Abortion Services" in the Yellow Pages. At first, she reached a few harried receptionists who had no time to talk.

Then she dialed 834-5483 -- Bill Graham's number. "He was so comforting," Erica recalls. "I told him that I wasn't from here, and he told me that all the clinics here hurt women."

That scared her. Graham offered an end-of-Saturday appointment with a private OB/GYN at a nearby hospital, then spoke with Erica for quite awhile, she says. "He was nice. He explained that I don't want to go too early, because then they won't get all of the fetal tissue. He sounded like he knew what was going on." But the ob/gyn appointment never materialized. In the end, Erica says, Graham strung her along until she was 22 weeks into her pregnancy and unable to afford the procedure, which gets more expensive every week and had by then reached $1,700.

"I always like happy endings," Graham said when asked about Erica.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which researches reproductive health, nearly one out of every four pregnancies end in abortion. Most of those are the result of unintended pregnancies, which amount to nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States.

Still, the stigma about abortion has gotten worse since the anti-abortion movement picked up steam in the 1980s, says Guttmacher researcher Stanley Henshaw. "But even if there isn't a real stigma to it, women feel kind of a sense of failure -- 'Why did I let this happen to myself?'"

Henshaw believes that people would be less stigmatized by abortion if they realized how common it is. Today, abortion is one of the most common surgical procedures in the United States. At current rates, one in three American women will have had an abortion by the time she reaches age 45. She also will keep mum about it, whether or not she supports abortion rights. "People don't like to talk about it, so you won't necessarily know that your friends have had abortions," says Henshaw.

In 2002, Henshaw and other Guttmacher researchers published a study about women who obtained abortions. In it, they developed sort of a composite: "The typical woman having an abortion is between the ages of 20 and 30, has never married, has had a previous birth, lives in a metropolitan area, and is economically disadvantaged and Christian."

Most of the women named in the Center's lawsuit seem to roughly fit that profile. Jane Doe is a 21-year-old university student, Jane Doe Two is a 26-year-old mother of two, Jane Doe Four is a 22-year-old single mother, Jane Doe Five is a 24-year-old college student, and Priscilla Cabrera is a 33-year-old single woman.

The Guttmacher Institute also researches the reasons that women cite for choosing abortion. Only 3 percent shared Jane Doe Four's reason -- a fetus with possible health problems, in her case, severe Hemophilia B. Only 1 percent shared Jane Doe Five's situation, pregnancy as the result of rape.

Most have reasons similar to Jane Doe One, who, according to the lawsuit, "decided immediately that she was not prepared to have a baby." Typically, three out of four women say that a baby would interfere with work, school, or other responsibilities; two out of three say that they can't afford a child.

"A majority of women having abortions already have children," Henshaw explains. "So it's not as if they don't know what abortion means or they don't know what it means to have children. They do know. That's one reason they're having the abortion -- they can't take care of another child under their circumstances."

THE 19-YEAR-OLD FROM SUBURBAN New Orleans has an extremely close relationship with her mother. As a result, she says, Graham told her exactly what she wanted to hear. "He comes off like he's real easygoing," she says. "He said my mom could come with me. That was one of the reasons we went with him."

The girl became pregnant last fall, during a turbulent time. "My mom was in the hospital for about three months. She was about to die," she says.

Her mother says that, at the time, the doctors told her daughter and her husband that she wasn't going to make it. "My husband was either working or at the hospital," she says. Her daughter, an honor-roll student who had just graduated from high school, began seeing an older guy.

"The day before I left the hospital, she said, 'I have something to tell you.' She was pregnant." They came home and began calling abortion providers. "You're just in a shock and you want a couple of answers, a helping hand. But they're so abrupt -- maybe they get a lot of crank calls," says her mother.

The mother says she then spoke with a man who called himself Dr. Green. "This guy said all the right things. At first I thought he was perfect. Then when he said it would be this week and it wasn't, then another week and it wasn't, I began to think, 'Maybe it's too good to be true.'"

After being rescheduled four weeks in a row, they called the Causeway Medical Clinic and were told about Bill Graham.

This time, the daughter picked up the telephone. "I called him back and I was like, 'Is this a real clinic?' And he was like, 'Yes.' I was like, 'Well, can you give me an address?' And he was like, 'No.' I was like, 'Why?' And then my friend got on the phone with him and he hung up on her. So once he found out that we knew he was fake, he didn't want to talk."

GREG FRIEDLER
  • Greg Friedler

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