News & Features » News

Right to fight



The familiar media image of an abortion provider, head down, racing in or out of a clinic as protesters shout epithets and wave posters bearing graphic images, isn't likely to be captured next week if news cameras are trained on either of two Orlando clinics run by Dr. James Scott Pendergraft IV.

Those clinics are targeted by Operation Rescue as the anti-abortion lobby decamps in Orlando for a national protest and a week of demonstrations starting May 31. Police expect thousands of the conservative activists for protests that also will target Disney World, for its embrace of gays and lesbians by extending insurance benefits to employees' same-sex partners and by allowing Gay Days at its theme parks, and Barnes & Noble bookstores, for selling what Operation Rescue deems pornography.

Yet it's abortion that defines the protest group's name and politics. And since arriving in Central Florida two-and-a-half years ago, Pendergraft, 40, has put a human face on those incendiary politics. Whether confronted by media-savvy activists imported by bus or the few stray protesters who randomly show up at his Orlando clinics -- he plans to open a third this summer in Ocala -- Pendergraft takes the same broad view of his mission and what's required to accomplish it.

"Abortions are going to remain legal," he says. "But in order to get to the clinic, there's a pool of big sharks surrounding the whole abortion clinic. And somehow you've got to cross from one side to the other without being eaten by the sharks."

His resolve can only be strengthened by a new shark repellent in the guise of the National Organization for Women's success last month in using the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute to win damages from anti-abortion activists. In a case with roots in Chicago, NOW argued that those activists are engaged in what amounts to a nationwide conspiracy of forcible, violent acts aimed at shutting down abortion clinics. The civil victory against Operation Rescue, among other defendants, allows NOW to receive triple the damages caused by the defendants' acts.

Pendergraft already has demonstrated his own survival skills when under direct attack.

First there was the battle just to set up shop in Orlando. He'd bought a building in October 1995 on Lucerne Terrace, in an area near downtown Orlando zoned for offices and residences. The city denied him a permit after an abortion opponent claimed that women ending second-trimester pregnancies, which are Pendergraft's specialty, typically require more than an hour of recovery; the distinction would mark Pendergraft's facility, according to the city's definition, a "clinic," not an "office." Pendergraft argued that virtually none of his patients would require more than an hour of recuperation. But in March 1996, the City Council rejected the recommendation of its own staff and denied Pendergraft his permit.

He sued for damages and to force the city to grant the permit to which he was legally entitled. By the time a federal judge ruled in his favor and the city gave him both his permit and $325,000 in damages, Pendergraft says he was broke and living off of his credit cards. Though the city clearly had denied the permit for political rather than legal reasons, Mayor Glenda Hood justified the council's actions, saying, "Ordinances are put in place because the community has made `those` decisions."

Pendergraft says, "I was absolutely shocked. And to see those people up there `on the council` laughing, trying to figure out how they can do this legally because ‘we don't want another abortion facility in Orlando' ..." He shakes his head. "Here we are, dealing with a legal issue, and they decided that there was no need for another abortion facility here and that there wasn't any need for a second-trimester facility here, that second-trimester terminations should be done at hospitals." He adds, "Of course, when you look around and try to find out where you can go get a second-trimester abortion done at a hospital, there's no place that you can go!"

Late-term abortions have generated intense political efforts to ban them at both the federal and state level. President Clinton has twice vetoed a proposed ban on so-called "partial-birth" abortions, and while more than 20 states have made this practice illegal, the prohibitions are being challenged and overturned. In late March, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Ohio's appeal of a ruling that struck down its late-term abortion ban. And in Florida, abortions are legal through the 28th week -- the beginning of the third trimester.

Pendergraft says he set up practice in Orlando because there was a niche for him: No other physicians here were performing abortions past the 18th week. Ending pregnancies at such a late stage makes him a welcome and much-needed presence to some, a reviled barbarian to others. But he isn't about to apologize. Rather, his posture is one of confident pride in his work. And he believes private sentiment is quietly in his favor.

Indeed, posted on the bulletin board in the waiting room of his Lucerne Terrace office are thank-you notes from patients. There is one from a woman who terminated her pregnancy at six months because the baby had Down's Syndrome; another aborted her child because it had spina bifida. One note mentions the staff's "warm stance, understanding and cheerfulness" and the doctor's "genuinely caring nature."

When Pendergraft left a practice in Washington, D.C., that specialized in high-risk pregnancies to move here, he became one of the 9 percent of abortion providers nationwide who terminate pregnancies past the 20th week. That would make him a rarity wherever he practices.

Since abortions performed as late as the 28th week give even some pro-choice activists pause, it's not a service many would boast about offering. But Pendergraft proudly says he's an expert. "I do them safely," he explains, noting that only about 10 percent of the abortions he performs take place past the 16th week. (He declines to disclose the actual number of abortions he performs each week.)

Why he operates, figuratively and literally, in the contentious atmosphere whipped up by his chosen field is a question perhaps answered mostly by his nature, a bit by naivete. "After I got into it," he says with a laugh, is the first time he realized his goals put him at odds with a lot of people.

But he was no stranger to confrontation. The eldest child of a mother who was an emergency-room nurse and a father who was a mortician, Pendergraft is a self-described former bully who, as a child growing up in Chapel Hill, N.C., did poorly in school until a brush with illness made him choose a constructive course. When Pendergraft was in sixth grade, he developed appendicitis. What he saw in the hospital while recovering gave him a sense of direction. "When I saw how nice and clean the physicians looked and the fact they had clean fingernails and they wanted to help and save people, I decided at that point in time that that's what I wanted to do."

He played the saxophone in the school band and became captain of his high school football team. He continued to play football in college and earned his medical degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville in 1982. He initially wanted to be a general surgeon. But he changed his mind while serving four years in the Army to pay back his medical school loans.

During those years, he worked both as an ER physician and a general practitioner. He wound up treating many women for gynecological problems. He says that, in fact, he'd been drawn to obstetrics but didn't want to commit to it because he knew the hard work and dedication it would require, and he wasn't sure he wanted to make that commitment. After the Army, he accepted a fellowship in high-risk obstetrics at Tampa General Hospital, then returned to Washington and practiced maternal-fetal medicine for a few years.

He began performing abortions in 1987 during his obstetrics residency. He says he was "lucky enough" to be trained in first- and second-trimester abortions then because, today, residency programs seldom provide such training out of a desire to avoid the political fallout. But that prospect was no deterrent to Pendergraft when weighed against the two events in his life that drew him into performing abortions in the first place.

In 1980, when he was junior in medical school, he spent time at Tuskeegee University in Alabama. "What I saw firsthand were women in the hospital there that were dying of backstreet abortions," he says. Due to unsterile methods, these women had become infected and wound up in the hospital where some had to undergo hysterectomies. Within one month, he saw two patients die. "I couldn't understand why it was that a woman would put her life on the line to have an abortion," he recalls.

The issue also had struck close to home: He had an aunt who became pregnant as a teen-ager and, as a result of a back-alley abortion, was rendered sterile.

Thereafter, Pendergraft came to believe, "Abortion is a right for women. It is something to be taken seriously. It is a constitutional right." Simple though his words are, Pendergraft is keenly aware of the unpopularity of his stance.

"A lot of OBs want to do abortions," he insists. "But because of the politics, because of the fact that they're going to be harassed ... and their children and their wives, they choose not to do it. Why should they have that undue burden and pressure on them and their families? It's a very scary situation."

Personally, Pendergraft insists he lives without fear -- at least of the routine violence against abortion providers that, according to a survey by the Feminist Majority Foundation, increased slightly between 1996 and 1997. The most common forms of violence reported by clinics were vandalism, reported by 22 percent of the clinics, and bomb threats, reported by 12 percent. But harassment has continued locally, with foul-smelling acid attacks in just the past two weeks disrupting one clinic in Orlando and two in the Daytona Beach area. Because of his ability to shrug off such acts, Pendergraft says, "I guess that's why I'm one of the few that are in the business."

And yet he doesn't minimize the very real, deadly violence carried out against abortion providers and their clinics, such as the 1994 shooting of a Pensacola doctor and his escort, and the shootings at two Boston clinics that killed two and wounded five others. Pendergraft wears a bulletproof vest when entering and leaving his clinics, and sometimes carries a gun. Surveillance cameras are mounted inside the waiting room and outside the building at every corner. A uniformed Orlando Police officer -- hired and paid for by Pendergraft -- is stationed inside. Signs at the entrance read, "Please be advised that there are no pocketbooks, backpacks or bags of any kind allowed inside this building. Thank You."

Asked if abortion is a cause worth dying for, Pendergraft seems, curiously, caught off guard. He takes a deep breath, then says haltingly, "I guess so. I haven't thought about it in that respect." He adds softly, "I hope I don't die."

Not everyone in his family agrees with his chosen career. But Pendergraft says everyone respects his work. His oldest son, 16, is "a little questioning sometimes," he allows. His other three children, ages 7, 9 and 10, are aware of what he does for a living but don't yet think of his work in terms of morality. He describes them as "excited about the fact that their father owns a business and that I'm the boss and I can tell people what to do when they come here." For safety's sake, he tells his children not to discuss his work at school, not to get embroiled in discussions about the politics of his work because there will always be people who won't understand, who will be vehemently opposed, and he doesn't want them to bear the brunt of others' objections to him.

Pendergraft is no less prudent in his own encounters. If people inquire about his line of work, "I never voluntarily just come out and say I do abortions," he explains; he says that he's an OB/GYN or a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, both of which are true.

He says he doesn't live an isolated life. And yet to a degree, he is, admittedly, isolated from the mainstream community of his peers. Though he sees himself as a social person, he has not joined in that community, nor has he been sought after. But he doesn't feel like a pariah. "People want to do what I do, but they're afraid to do it. They're glad that I'm here. They don't want to take the heat. They like that Dr. Pendergraft is here to take the heat. And I don't mind doing it; I've always been that way. I've always been the person to step out and say and do what I want to do." After all, "I was the bully. I know how to do that," he says with a laugh.

But Pendergraft hardly seems to be looking to bully anyone. A typical day at work is spending 14-16 hours, five or six days a week, mainly tending to administrative duties and, secondarily, providing medical care with four other doctors at Orlando Women's Center and EPOC, a clinic on Virginia Avenue that he bought last October. Though Pendergraft says he doesn't know what his ambitions are, he's trying to grow his business by offering "more mainstream" gynecological services and is working to "get the word out that this is the place that all women in Florida should come to."

With Operation Rescue certain to pose, at the least, a nuisance next week, the doctor doesn't dwell on what may or may not happen.

"I don't expect to come into direct contact with any of those people, and I don't think any of those people expect to come into direct contact with me." As for the need for heightened security, he says, "I'm always aware that when I approach this building, there could be some conflict. Every day." He has never been in a direct confrontation with opponents, he says. "And I hope I never do."

His priority, he says, is his work. Operation Rescue won't change this.

"I'm just enjoying the ride," he says. "And I'm having the best time in my life. It's fun to come to work." Protesters are unimportant to him. "What these people are doing out here -- of course they're trying to be bullies! But I'm the biggest bully! You can't bully the biggest bully!" It is an intense moment. But he quickly breaks into laughter, saying, "Those people don't know who they got in here! These people don't frighten me."

While those others may differ with what he does, Pendergraft makes clear there will be no quarrel with the way he does it.

"I've decided that this is going to be my dedication and my thing," he says. "And I'm going to try to make it the safest place, and the most dedicated place to women, that there is. And there's nobody that's better than I am, and there's nobody that treats women better than I do or that my people do."

When all is said and done, he notes, "I wish nobody to have an abortion; I don't want my girlfriend or my wife to have one. But I want it to be done safely if they choose to do it."

A protest and a response

Police are on alert, their vacations delayed and time-off put on hold. Counterprotests have been rehearsed. And activists for gays and lesbians and pro-choice constituencies all have been in regular contact with law enforcement officers, who have stayed abreast of the people and protest tactics headed their way.

Even the source of the anxiety -- the national anti-abortion campaign known as Operation Rescue -- has participated with police in the weeks-long prelude to its May 31 arrival in Orlando, which Operation rescue has tagged as a "national protest site" this year against abortion, homosexuality and pornography. A reliable agenda now tells police just exactly when and where those protests will be.

With preparations that are likely to include street closings (if only to empty and park the buses that cart demonstrators), the right-wing lobby naturally can claim victory almost before thousands of protestors shuttle into their host hotels for the week. Flip Benham, Operation Rescue's national director, has said only that Orlando was chosen for its four area abortion clinics, its Barnes & Noble outlets that stock books the group deems pornographic, and Disney World, which will host thousands of gays and lesbians for the annual Gay Days June 5-7.

"We want to make sure that disruption to area businesses is minimal on this," said Sgt. Jeff Goltz of Orlando Police. "We want to maintain the peace. We don't want anybody hurt."

The FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement, meanwhile, are continuing to investigate a recent spree of foul-smelling acid attacks that disrupted 10 abortion clinics statewide, including one in Orlando and two in Daytona Beach.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Orlando Weekly. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Orlando Weekly, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club for as little as $5 a month.