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National NOW Times >> Spring 2002 >> Article

Florida Abortion Provider Behind Bars

by Rebecca Farmer, Press Secretary, with research by Rati Bishnoi, NOW Intern

In the state where two providers, Dr. David Gunn and Dr. John Bayard Britton, were murdered by anti-abortion terrorists, Florida physician Dr. James Pendergraft found himself in a different line of fire. In an unprecedented attack on abortion rights in early 2001, he was slapped with federal charges of extortion, tried and put behind bars. Dr. James Pendergraft marched on the front line of NOW's Emergency Action for Women's Lives on April 22, 2001.

Pendergraft, a moving speaker at NOW's April 2001 Emergency Action for Women's Lives, provided abortion services to women at five clinics in three Florida counties despite constant harassment from violent protesters as well as from local and federal government officials.

On May 24, 2001, one month after speaking to more than 10,000 abortion rights supporters in Washington, D.C., Pendergraft was sentenced to 46 months—nearly four years—in prison, a $25,000 fine and two years probation upon release.

He is now in a federal jail in Atlanta as his case is being appealed. Pendergraft's lawyers filed an appeal in June, challenging the underlying charges and alleging that the prosecutor in the case made racist and other inappropriate remarks during the trial.

"Government officials and clinic terrorists sometimes work hand in hand to drive these doctors out of business and out of town," said NOW President Kim Gandy. "The outrageous criminal charges against Dr. Pendergraft and his subsequent imprisonment are a compelling example of why women do not have access to abortion services in more than 85 percent of U.S. counties. Plain and simple, doctors are afraid of what will happen to them if they provide abortions."

Pendergraft was tried and sentenced in Ocala, in Florida's Marion County, where his newest clinic faced hostility from the outset. After Pendergraft bought the building, the county's Board of Commissioners sent him a letter asking him to "reconsider" opening a clinic in Ocala's "family-oriented community." Thousands of "pro-life" church members also signed a petition asking Pendergraft to stay away.

Pendergraft was not swayed by the opposition and opened the clinic in July 1998. Soon after, the city police chief prohibited the clinic from hiring off-duty officers as security guards, protection routinely permitted to other area businesses. As a result, out-of-control protesters wreaked havoc at the clinic, frightening patients and staff and forcing Pendergraft to wear a bulletproof vest and helmet.

In December 1998, he filed a civil lawsuit against Marion County and the city of Ocala for failing to protect employees and patients at the clinic.

Recounting the hostile climate, Pendergraft said: "I am an abortion provider in a town where the last clinic was burned to the ground ... My clinic is the site of daily protests, and I fear for the physical safety of my patients, my employees and myself. But women still need abortion services, and so we provide them."

In a settlement conference set up by Marion County attorney Virgil Wright, Pendergraft played hardball, saying he would bankrupt the county if the case went to trial. In a show of bravado, he added that he would use the money to build a statue of himself in the town square that "states that Dr. Pendergraft brought freedom to Ocala."

Pendergraft, his associate and his attorney were unaware that the meeting was being taped by the FBI, and would be used against them later to justify a charge of extortion.

"These statements were an angry (and clearly facetious) response to the city's unjust attempt to close his clinics, and clearly were not extortion," Gandy said. "Local and federal officials in Ocala used Pendergraft's statements of outrage as an excuse to file criminal charges against him."

Abortion rights supporters in Florida and around the country have rallied behind Pendergraft. His supporters filled the courtroom throughout his trial.

Dr. Sangeeta Pati, a physician and supporter who attended most of the trial, described gross prosecutorial misconduct, open racism in the court, inappropriate jury selection and the judge's denial of defense witnesses.

"To those in the courtroom it appeared that the crime was on the other side," said Pati. "It became clear that government officials used their powers working in unison with area church leaders to get rid of Dr. Pendergraft."

The Right to Fight Coalition, formed by Pendergraft's supporters, report that he is currently sharing a cell with three other inmates and has been assigned the job of picking up cigarette butts from the canteen area.

Many activists suspect that Pendergraft's high visibility approach to reaching out to women in need of abortion, combined with his practice of performing medically necessary late-term abortions, made him a prime target of anti-reproductive rights forces.

NOW activists have supported Pendergraft both locally and nationally, understanding that this new tactic for putting abortion providers out of business spells serious trouble for women.

"All of Dr. Pendergraft's clinics are in jeopardy, as are the rights of women in Florida and across the country as a result of this prosecution," Gandy said.

"The behavior of the prosecutors and judge in this case serves as a case-in-point for NOW's campaign to save Roe v. Wade by protecting the courts from being further stacked with anti-abortion judges. Currently, eight of the 13 federal circuit courts are controlled by conservative judges. George Bush's current appointees to federal appellate judgeships, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, could bring that number up to 13 out of 13 circuits. We cannot afford to let that happen, and we will do what it takes to make sure that women's rights are protected."

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