LeRoy “Lee” Carhart, who emerged from a two-decade career as an Air Force surgeon to become one of the best-known late-term abortion providers in the United States, has died. He was 81.
Carhart died Friday, according to Clinics for Abortions & Reproductive Excellence in Bellevue, Nebraska, where he was the medical director. His cause of death was not released by the clinic.
Carhart began focusing on abortions after retiring from the Air Force in 1985. He was one of only a handful of late-term abortion providers in the U.S. and was among the most vocal.
“Lee had a very simple belief that patients know what is best for their life plan and was there to support them,” the clinic’s statement said. “His lifelong commitment to serving patients seeking abortion services will be continued by his staff and doctors at both Maryland and Nebraska CARE locations.”
He founded his first clinic specializing in abortion in 1992 with a mission to provide abortion care in a compassionate, comfortable and personal environment, according to the statement. Carhart had specialized in vasectomies previously and said he wanted to offer women reproductive freedom. He defended the procedure as a way for women to control their fertility.
Carhart drew attention for twice taking his fight for abortion rights to the U.S. Supreme Court, after the May 2009 killing of friend and colleague Dr. George Tiller and when he expanded his practice outside of Nebraska after a 2010 state law limited it there.
“We have to keep talking about abortion until it doesn’t remain a four-letter word,” Carhart said in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press.
Opponents considered him a poster boy for a procedure they call partial-birth abortion to describe what is medically called intact dilation and extraction.
His Nebraska clinic, his house and those of his employees were picketed by abortion opponents, as was the equestrian center he owned and his daughter, Janine, ran. In 1991, his rural home was burned in a fire he believed was started by an abortion foe. The family dog and cat were killed, as were 17 horses trapped in a barn.
“It’s worth it to me,” he told The Associated Press in 2006. “You have to fight for what you believe in.”
Carhart was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1941 and earned his medical degree from Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, now Drexel University College of Medicine, in 1973. He received his medical training while he was in the Air Force and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He and his wife, Mary, ran the Nebraska clinic.
Carhart once said he was able to champion abortion rights because he didn’t have to rely on his medical practice to pay his bills; the military pension he received provided him enough income to support his family.
Carhart assisted at Tiller’s Wichita, Kansas, clinic from 1998 until 2009 and was considered likely to take it over after Tiller was gunned down at his church by an abortion foe. Carhart later said he didn’t because Tiller’s family was resistant.
Carhart opened clinics in other states after Nebraska targeted him with a 2010 groundbreaking law banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the disputed notion that fetuses can feel pain at that time. Previous restrictions in Nebraska and elsewhere were based on a fetus’ ability to survive outside the womb, or viability.
He also took his fight on so-called partial-birth abortion bans all the way to the nation’s highest court.
The Supreme Court ruled for Carhart in 2000 in striking down a Nebraska law because it lacked an exception to preserve a woman’s health and encompassed a more common abortion method. He lost a later legal challenge to the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.
In 2007, the high court upheld the federal ban on the procedure, which generally was used to end pregnancies in the second and third trimesters. Carhart said then that the ruling “opened the door to an all-out assault” on the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that landmark ruling last year, stripping away constitutional protections for abortion.
His Nebraska clinic posted on Facebook after the ruling that they were “devastated, heartbroken and angry” but remained committed to providing abortion care as long as it remained legal to do so.
A vote to ban abortion in Nebraska at about the sixth week of pregnancy failed Friday, keeping the procedure legal there through 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Former Associated Press writer Timberly Ross contributed to this report.