The Brave Life of Abortion Provider Susan Hill

Michele Kort

Susan Hill died in January of breast cancer. She dedicated her life to expanding access to safe abortion services, and despite all the protests and threats she endured, she never gave up.

This article originally appeared in Ms. Magazine.

When Susan Hill was operated on for breast cancer several years ago, she
didn’t recognize the name nurses called out as she emerged from anesthesia.

"That’s because I was admitted under an alias," she recalled last year,
shortly after her longtime friend Dr. George
Tiller was murdered
by an anti-abortion extremist. The alias was necessary
because a threat against Hill’s life had popped up on the Internet the day
before her surgery.

"That’s how you’re forced to live–sort of in a box," said Hill, speaking of
herself as well as other abortion providers nationwide who continue to offer a
full range of reproductive options to women despite harassment and terrorist
acts. "But you also have to get up and live your life. I refuse to live in
fear. I refuse to be intimidated by them. I need to do two things: survive
cancer and get these guys [the anti-abortion terrorists]. I think god kept me
alive so I could go after these guys!!"

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Hill, 61, succumbed to the disease on January 30 in Raleigh, N.C.,
courageous to the end. Her colleagues haven’t skipped a beat, continuing her
work to provide safe abortions, but she will certainly be missed by those in
the reproductive rights movement who have counted on her steadfast commitment
since Roe v. Wade became law.

She began working as an abortion provider just two weeks after the Roe decision
was announced in 1973. "I tell people I still remember what I was wearing and
who I was talking to that day [Roe came down]," she recalled. "I was a
social worker in a hospital. I saw women coming in hemorrhaging from illegal
abortions. Once you see that, you don’t want it to happen again."

A doctor she knew immediately opened up a clinic in Florida and she became its
director of counseling, then overall director. After 1975 she decided to open
other clinics as well. "I came from a small city in North Carolina, and I
wanted to give access to women in smaller towns, smaller states," she said.

In 1977 and 1978 she was able to keep open as many as 11 clinics.
Anti-abortion protests were light during the Nixon and Carter presidencies, but
when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 and the Christian Right began its
anti-abortion crusade, once-peaceful protests took on a more ominous tone. Her
clinics began to experience arsons, firebombings, countless vandalism and
invasions. One militant anti-abortion protestor who torched Hill’s New Jersey
clinic came back to repeat the act two weeks later because it hadn’t been
completely destroyed.

"It was a game of war," is how Hill described those times, during which she
filed 34 federal or state lawsuits against protestors. "There were days when we
had 1000 protestors in front of a 1700-sq-ft. building in Ft. Wayne, Ind." In
1993, one of her clinic doctors, David Gunn, was the first provider to be
assassinated by an anti-abortion extremist.

If the stakes weren’t already high enough, Hill and other abortion providers
have also had to face constant legal battles aimed at limiting abortion access.
"Our opponents have been very good at restricting everything they can," said
Hill. "We’ve done a poor job of explaining to the public just how restrictive
it is. It’s our fault-but we were busy. We were being shot at, and had people
to treat."

After Tiller’s clinic, one of the few venues offering late abortions, was
closed following his murder, Hill quietly talked with other providers about a
possible network to provide late abortions in several locations around the
country. "In some ways I think it’s better to spread the services out as
opposed to having one focal point," she said. "We’re not going to give up."

She never did.

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