Abortionist James Scott Pendergraft IV’s mobile phone rang. It was Nov. 8, 2011, and a man on the line said his wife was almost 25 weeks pregnant. They wanted to terminate the pregnancy, the man said, because of a “fetal anomaly.”
Pendergraft knew what to do. He told the caller to wire $6,000 cash to a Florida bank account, and promised to give directions for reaching an undisclosed clinic near Washington, D.C., as soon as the funds transferred.
The caller sounded uncertain. “You’re saying something that’s a little bit odd. It’s a secret place, and I have to wire you the money, and then—”
“I’ve been in business for over 30 years, OK?” interrupted Pendergraft. He assured the husband the procedure could begin as early as tomorrow.
Pendergraft himself wouldn’t be doing the procedure, though. The caller asked who would.
“We don’t reveal the doctor until you arrive at the office.”
“OK, that gives me a little hesitancy. …”
Peeved, Pendergraft’s voice rose: “I clearly understand what you are saying. But I don’t know you, OK? You called me—and I have the experience.”
Unknown to the abortionist, the caller wasn’t a worried husband, but Troy Newman, president of the pro-life organization Operation Rescue. Last July Operation Rescue revealed the results of a seven-month undercover investigation, including sting calls, proving Florida-based Pendergraft was running a late-term abortion business in Forestville, Md., although he had no license in Maryland. Pendergraft employed another doctor, Harold Alexander, to do the abortions.
The Forestville center specialized in ending 24-week-plus pregnancies using “intra-cardiac injection,” a technique Pendergraft honed at one of his Florida abortion businesses, the Orlando Women’s Center. “A spinal needle is guided slowly into the fetal heart, where a feticide agent or 50 [milliliters] of air is injected via a syringe to stop the fetal heartbeat,” explained Pendergraft’s website, LateTermAbortion.net, advertising his D.C.-area availability.
Gruesome late-term procedures like these remain legal in many states, sometimes under the guise of protecting a mother’s mental health or preventing a baby from being born with an abnormality. Abortionists find late-term killings financially attractive: A first-trimester abortion costs around $400, but abortionists like Pendergraft charge $5,000 to $10,000 per late-term procedure, depending on the gestational age.
Pro-life forces are making late-term abortions less common, though, thanks to a wave of legislation restricting abortions after about 20 weeks gestation. The laws are based on scientific evidence suggesting an unborn child can feel pain at that age.
Maryland law formally prohibits abortions once the baby has developed enough to survive outside the womb. But the permitted “health” exceptions—a mother may abort if she feels “distress … associated with the unwanted child”—is so broad as to render the ban meaningless. That made the state a convenient location for Pendergraft to funnel late-term clients.
Pendergraft, now in his mid-50s, has a shady history. Florida has suspended Pendergraft’s medical license four times for improper medical practices, including performing a third-trimester abortion illegally. In April Florida’s Department of Health filed a complaint against Pendergraft for his failure to pay $122,303 in disciplinary fines from the state medical board. In 2005 WORLD reported how, according to staff and clients at Pendergraft’s Florida abortion centers, women sometimes delivered live babies into toilets following incomplete abortions (see “Death by drowning,” June 18, 2005).
The Maryland State Board of Physicians investigated Pendergraft’s Forestville activities after Operation Rescue submitted its undercover findings. Since Pendergraft wasn’t licensed in Maryland, the board merely shooed him out of the state. It also suspended the license of his partner Alexander in August for illegally shredding medical records, making sexually inappropriate remarks to female patients, providing unprofessional medical care, and prescribing Viagra to friends.
What happens during a late-term abortion? Ask Anthony Levatino, an OB-GYN from Las Cruces, N.M., who from 1981 to 1985 performed 1,200 abortions, over 100 of them second-trimester D&E’s—dilation and evacuations. Last May, during a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, Levatino—now an advocate for the unborn—described what he used to do.
He held up a “Sopher clamp”—stainless steel forceps about 13 inches long—and invited House members to imagine themselves performing the procedure: “You introduce this instrument blindly, and start pulling off limbs. Feel yourself grabbing and pulling hard—and I do mean hard—and out pops an arm about that long.” Levatino held a thumb and finger about 4 inches apart.
The difficult part, he said, is extracting the head, about the size of a plum. Levatino grabbed his fist with the forceps to illustrate: “You know you did it right if you crush down and white material runs out of the cervix. That was the baby’s brains.”
The doctor peered over his glasses. “If you think that doesn’t hurt, if you believe that isn’t an agony for this child, please think again.”
In spite of Levatino’s vivid testimony, the House, in a 220-154 vote on July 31, failed to win a two-thirds majority needed to pass the bill, which would have banned most abortions in the District of Columbia at 20 weeks post-fertilization. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., said the bill represented a conservative “war on women,” and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) argued that medical science suggests fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.
Colleen Malloy, a neonatology professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, says that’s preposterous. She told me last month that neonatal intensive care staffers, who care for preemies as young as 22 weeks gestation, see the babies react to the prick of an IV needle. Malloy said one study showed an unborn child’s stress hormones rising significantly when doctors draw blood from the baby’s liver, in utero, for medical purposes: “The baby’s flinching and moving, and kind of wincing. … How could anyone say that baby is not feeling pain?”
Malloy said a study published in 2005 in the Journal of the American Medical Association claims fetuses under 29 weeks don’t feel pain. One of the study’s authors, Eleanor Drey, is an abortion center director at San Francisco General Hospital, but she did not disclose to journal editors her conflict of interest. ACOG and other opponents of fetal pain laws cited that study, but several neurology experts disputed its conclusion.
Nebraska in 2010 became the first state to outlaw late-term abortions on the grounds that the baby can feel pain after a certain point in its development. Today, nine states have passed laws banning abortion at 18 or 20 weeks post-fertilization, based on the fetal pain argument. (In all, 41 states limit abortions after “viability” or a specific gestational age, with various exceptions for the life or health of the mother.) Texas Right to Life director Elizabeth Graham recently said she was optimistic her state would pass a fetal pain law in 2013.
The American Civil Liberties Union has sued to overturn new late-term laws in Georgia and Arizona. Late in December a state judge blocked Georgia’s law, and Arizona’s law is also on hold while a federal appeals court considers whether it encroaches on women’s Roe v. Wade rights, as the ACLU argues. The ban in Arizona is stricter than those in most states because it prohibits most abortions starting at 18 weeks post-fertilization.
Pro-life forces won a landmark victory in 2003, when lawmakers in Washington, D.C., passed a national partial-birth abortion ban. Under the law, abortionists face a two-year prison sentence for suctioning out a baby’s brains during birth, unless the mother’s life is in danger.
The law has scared some abortionists into ensuring the baby is dead on arrival. After the ban took effect in 2007, following a series of court challenges, The Boston Globe reported that some hospitals had added a protocol to their abortion procedures as a precaution against accidental live births. The protocol was an injection of lethal drugs, digoxin or potassium chloride, into the fetal heart. (After that, another dose of drugs, given to the mother, starts contractions to expel the dead child.)
Abortion proponents say late-term procedures like these are “rare.” According to the most recent estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2009 just 1.3 percent of abortions occurred later than 20 weeks following the mother’s last menstrual period. But that “small” percentage is less comfortable after multiplication: Assuming 1.2 million abortions took place in the United States that year, around 15,600 must have occurred after 20 weeks. Forty-three per day.
James Scott Pendergraft currently oversees five abortion centers in Florida, where his medical license is under probation. He is no longer working in association with any doctor’s office in Maryland—or so the Maryland medical board last year informed Operation Rescue.
An inquiry from WORLD, though, suggests Pendergraft is still arranging late-term abortions in the Washington, D.C., area through his website, LateTermAbortion.net. When I asked Pendergraft by email where he refers website clients, he responded from a BlackBerry: “Regarding our referral offices in the D.C. area, we do not disclose their locations due to harassment and intimidation from pro-life groups and a host of others.”
Late-term abortionists find certain states more hospitable for performing their work, either because they have no restrictions on late-term procedures, like Colorado and New Mexico, or because they offer cavernous loopholes for the health of the mother, like Maryland. For example, abortionist LeRoy Carhart, a former associate of George Tiller, moved to Maryland from Nebraska after the latter state passed its fetal pain law.
In a Google search for “late-term abortion,” the Wikipedia entry comes first—and Pendergraft’s website is second. —D.J.D.