So I Lied
Whatever happened to he abortion lobbyist who repented?Merle Hoffman remembers the shock she felt when she picked up her New York Times on the morning of February 26 and saw the headline: An Abortion Rights Advocate Says He Lied About Procedure."I said to myself, 'Who could they be talking about but Ron Fitzsimmons?'" recalls Hoffman, who runs CHOICES Women's Medical Center in Queens, New York. "I was, needless to say, shocked, amazed, and terribly, terribly distressed."Most people, at least outside the Beltway, don't recognize the name Ron Fitzsimmons -- that is, until you put it together with the loaded words "partial-birth abortion" and the phrase, "I lied through my teeth."This quote not only brought Fitzsimmons more than his fifteen minutes of fame, it has tarred the credibility of pro-choice advocates. His comment implied that all of them had been deliberately dishonest about the frequency and reasons that procedures like intact dilation and extraction -- the medical terminology for what pro-lifers call "partial-birth abortions" -- are performed.Fitzsimmons is still the executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers (NCAP), though he has assumed a low profile ever since his remark became headline news.After Fitzsimmons's recantation, anti-abortion activists reacted with glee, repeating his comments ad nauseam. The House revisited and approved the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act by an even larger veto-proof majority than it had the previous year. Some Representatives cited Fitzsimmons's comment that the procedure is used on healthy fetuses as the justification for their changed votes. And it gave some normally pro-choice Democratic Senators, such as Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, grounds to vote for legislation that intervenes in the doctor-patient relationship and a woman's right to choose. Senator Daschle even introduced his own bill to ban all post-viability abortions, except to save the mother's life or prevent grievous physical harm. The Daschle bill failed, but it did receive votes from such otherwise progressive senators as Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and Tom Harkin of Iowa.Some of Fitzsimmons's colleagues blame him for turning the tide against choice. "He called me in tears the day after that statement came out," remembers Hoffman. "My question to him then, as it remains, was, 'When are you resigning?' " Hoffman thinks Fitzsimmons did irreparable harm to the movement. "The most awful thing about it is it appeared to validate everything the antis have said about the abortion providers, which is that we lie," says Hoffman. "This is not a lobbying thing. This is not a political game. This is about women's lives. People have been killed; people have been shot; I've had death threats. How dare he, for whatever his personal agenda items were, say something so egregious? He should have resigned immediately."Yet some of the directors of clinics he represents say there is an up side to his comment: a new forthrightness to the abortion debate."My personal opinion about Ron Fitzsimmons is that he's done more for independent providers than any other person," says Sally Burgess, who runs Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois. "His intent was sincere. He was trying to do something helpful. While I do think Ron's statement helped the anti-choice legislation gather momentum, the good part is that it helped bring the pre-viability and post-viability issue into clearer focus. And I've heard from colleagues who say it made the whole debate more honest."Fitzsimmons is not apologetic."I was just putting out the facts as I knew them," he says. "I think the debate in Congress should be based on as many facts as possible. Our clinics have nothing to hide, and our doctors have nothing to apologize for. I believe I did the right thing."Ron Fitzsimmons was never a player in the late-term abortion debate. He confirms that, while he opposed the bill, he never lobbied on it or spoke publicly about it until this spring, except in the one Nightline interview where he now says he lied. (Ironically, in that 1995 episode, Nightline never aired his lie.)That's one reason why pro-choice advocates were shocked to see the media anoint him a prominent expert on the issue in the wake of his bombshell quote. "He's a Washington hustler," says Dr. Liz Karlin, who runs an abortion clinic in Madison, Wisconsin, and left NCAP several years ago. She adds with a laugh: "I would love to know why newspapers put it on page one that a lobbyist says he lied."Fitzsimmons is the first to admit that he's a lobbyist -- and a good one. He proudly recalls being named one of the top fifty hired guns in D.C. by Washingtonian magazine in 1992. Previously he lobbied for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), and was working for a private firm, when a handful of independent providers approached him in 1990 to represent them."I started NCAP by racking up about $15,000 on my credit card to travel around to clinics and convince people to get involved because the independent providers needed a voice," recalls the forty-seven-year-old Fitzsimmons.And he's produced some stellar results. For example, he organized a hearing on phony abortion clinics that were advertising in the Yellow Pages, and found a teenage girl to testify that she'd been lured into such a place and terrorized with gory films. He arranged for her to tell Congress her story on a slow news day."It was the first story on the national news on all three networks," he proclaims. And it got results -- Yellow Pages now prohibits that type of misleading advertising. He also made news when clinic violence was at a peak and he trotted out a doctor who held up his bulletproof vest for the cameras. With pride he recalls a lobbyist for the Catholic bishops complaining that, "Ron Fitzsimmons controls the national media."The Fitzsimmons controversy started with his statement a year and a half earlier to Nightline that only 450 dilation-and-extraction abortions are performed per year, yet he believed from talking to doctors and clinics and from reading media reports that a more accurate number was up to ten times higher.That lie, he says, haunted him with a "gritty, itchy sensation," and he felt he had to come clean."When I did the interview [on Nightline], the reporter asked me when are these procedures done," Fitzsimmons recalls. "This was my mistake, but at that point I elected not to tell the reporter what I knew. I elected to just go along and say what the pro-choice groups have been saying. The clinics have always had one rule: Tell the truth. If we have to lie, hide, or spin, then we're not being up front. When I did the interview, I didn't feel good about it. I didn't tell the reporter what I knew. And I decided that the next time that happened, I'd have to tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may."His first chance at candor was an interview with AMA Medical News, so he told that reporter his informal estimates indicated the procedure was used between 3,000 to 5,000 times a year, based on talks he'd had with providers.When asked if he'd ever discussed this before, he said yes, and blurted: "I lied through my teeth."In retrospect, Fitzsimmons says he'd take away the words "I lied through my teeth," but would still offer the information.His reputation for media prowess has sparked speculation that his bombshell confession was a ploy to get press. Fitzsimmons acknowledges it was a "red-hot quote" that was deliberately dramatic. But he responds that if his goal was to generate hype, he would not have given his numbers to a trade journal."If I were really calculating and wanted to make the news, I could have gone straight to The Washington Post or called a press conference and it would have been a mob scene. But the AMA News? Come on. If anyone says I'm calculating, they're giving me too much credit."Ron Fitzsimmons spent the four days after his statement hit the media trying to put out internal fires by calling every clinic he represents. The conversations, he says, went something like this: "Hi, Lorraine, this is Ron. I want to apologize for not handling this the right way. I made a dumb, unprofessional comment that really obscured the message and took the story in a different direction by making the story about me. I screwed up."He says that if the majority of clinics had told him to resign, he would have. But some directors say they had good reason to stand by him -- even though they were upset by the fallout from his comments.Peg Johnston is an NCAP founder who runs the Southern Tier Women's Services clinic near Binghamton, New York. She says whenever she needed to talk to someone about the stresses of running an abortion clinic, or wanted advice on a specific business problem, Fitzsimmons listened, while other pro-choice groups often treated providers like bowlegged step-children" of the movement."We providers were being told by the pro-choice people to shut up: We'd hurt the cause because we had a profit motive," says Johnston, whose clinic sees about 2,500 patients a year. "We felt we needed somebody who was going to state our case and show that providers are a wonderful group of people. One of the strengths of NCAP is that Ron is available and we can turn to him for moral support."While she says the impact of his quote was "dreadful" and she's found herself defending him "quite a bit," she blames the media for pouncing on one bad quote and making it into a story. And she says Fitzsimmons should stay at NCAP's helm because he has been helpful to the providers: "You don't want the antis and the media to run your organization. Up until now we've been happy with him, so we're not going to roll over and play dead after he's defended us when we've been in tight spots."Sally Burgess, who is one of NCAP's three board members, tells the story of a Saturday morning when one of her patients had surgical complications. The woman had to be rushed outside on a gurney to the emergency room across the street, passing through a gauntlet of anti-abortion protesters, who immediately called the media."No one from the other groups was available early on a Saturday morning, but Ron answered my call and offered good advice on how to de-escalate the crisis," recalls Burgess. "You just can't imagine how isolated people feel when they work in this field. The thing that causes me to stand behind Ron 100 percent is that he is committed to providers."Burgess plans on staying with NCAP, even though she says the results of Fitzsimmons's mea culpa were "swift and negative" in Illinois, where she works. Governor Jim Edgar has said he will sign a partial-birth abortion bill, even though he says he has always believed an abortion decision should be left to a woman and her doctor.But she believes NCAP has staying power because Fitzsimmons is one of the few pro-choice leaders who speaks from the perspective of the clinics. "In the first seven years of Ron's tenure, he had a stellar performance," she says. "And having done media interviews, there are several of us who have said, 'Whew, glad it wasn't me.'"These days, Fitzsimmons says he's made the debate over the procedure more honest -- something he believes is important if you don't want to be stuck looking like you're apologizing."I was trying to represent the clinics and their honest work in an honest way," he says. "And it is a more factual debate now. People are openly acknowledging that this procedure is done in the second trimester and, yeah, maybe there are a few thousand of them done. So that's out there, and we're not hiding anything, and they still don't have enough votes to override the veto. That's the way it should always be."Fitzsimmons points to the May/June issue of Ms., where former Planned Parenthood head Faye Wattleton talked about the late-term abortion controversy."Some people seem to believe that we cannot talk openly, honestly, and with confidence in making the case for late-term abortion and expect that the American people will be with us," Wattleton is quoted as saying. "That we cannot say that abortion is killing."One only needs to log on to an Internet chat group on abortion to witness how anti-abortion advocates have used Fitzsimmons's statement as fuel for their fire with headlines like: Child Killing Promoter Confesses, or The Truth is Given by an Abortionist.Arne Owens, communications director for the Christian Coalition, confirms that Fitzsimmons helped his cause."As far as the impact of Ron Fitzsimmons on the debate, I think it undercuts the credibility of the pro-abortion movement," says Owens. "It exposes the wall of deception behind which they hide the reality of abortion."The Washington Post cited Fitzsimmons's statement in an editorial saying President Clinton could no longer justify a veto of the ban: "Mr. Fitzsimmons's revelation is a sharp blow to the credibility of his allies. These late-term abortions are extremely difficult to justify, if they can be justified at all."Pro-choice advocates do have a plausible explanation for the differing number. The figure of 450 to 600 such abortions performed in the third trimester annually is backed by the Centers for Disease Control and the Alan Guttmacher Institute.What was not included, which Fitzsimmons added, was second-trimester abortions. In an interview with Salon, Dr. Suzanne Poppema, a board member of the National Abortion Federation who runs a clinic in Seattle, offered her explanation of the seemingly contradictory statistics."When this bill was initially introduced in 1995, the understanding of many of us was that it was aimed at third-trimester abortions," she wrote. "We said they're exceedingly rare; that they're almost exclusively done when there's a fatal or very severe anomaly and/or when the mother's health is at risk. Then all of a sudden people were talking about 'thousands' of these procedures being done and how everyone in the pro-choice community had misinformed everyone. What they were talking about were procedures being done in the second trimester, which we never thought was an issue because, as you know, Roe v. Wade protects abortions through the second trimester from interference by the state."Some see the proposed ban as a mere starting point for pro-lifers. "Their agenda is to ban abortion in the United States and there is not support for that in this country," says Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation. "They thought that if they could focus on the medical aspects of abortion and make people feel uncomfortable with that, they could gain support to ban abortion, basically procedure by procedure."Saporta says the main problem with the 1997 Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act is it doesn't address a specific medical procedure."It says it is illegal to partially vaginally deliver a living fetus," says Saporta. The impact it could have is to ban all abortions after the first trimester. It would be a challenge to Roe v. Wade, which protects second-trimester abortions as well. (Current law protects the right to an abortion only before fetal viability, that is, before the third trimester. States can already prohibit late-term abortions except in cases where the woman's life or health is at risk.)If a pregnant woman had a fetus stuck in the birth canal and begins hemorrhaging, the doctor might have to choose between risking the woman's life with a two-hour delay to prep for a Caesarean section or risk being dragged into court for using what they believe to be the best medical procedure."To tell doctors that they're going to go to jail for doing what's in the best interest of their patients is tantamount to legislating malpractice," says Saporta. "It is ill-advised and dangerous for the government to be intruding into medical decisions, making decisions based on political agendas, and ignoring the medical and health consequences for women."The ban, passed by the House and Senate, is sitting on Clinton's desk -- and opponents expect a veto. The House has the votes to override, but the Senate is three votes short.If trends continue, the legislation may come back right before the next federal election. But providers in the field, like Jeri Rasmussen, who runs the Midwest Health Center for Women in Minneapolis, worry that the worst impact of the controversy will be felt at the local level."I think we'll probably see greater attacks on minors, attempts to restrict insurance that is privately held, and further erosion of what medical assistance can cover," says Rasmussen, who lobbies the Minnesota state legislature. "And at this level it's hard to put out those fires all the time."Rasmussen quit NCAP after Fitzsimmons's recantation. "Ultimately, I think Ron just hastened his own demise."Fitzsimmons downplays the fallout, although when pressed he admits he lost eight or nine clinics and an $8,000 grant from Merle Hoffman's foundation, which was earmarked to compile a history of the abortion-provider movement. In his NCAP newsletter, Fitzsimmons also estimates his group will lose at least $15,000 in support due to people withdrawing from the organization, which has meant he had to lay off a member of his staff. And he writes that he's received letters from pro-lifers congratulating him for coming over to their side, something he promises he has not done.In 1996, NCAP had total revenues of $207,000. Fitzsimmons's salary was $97,200. To recover, he plans to focus NCAP on promoting the clinics and what they do -- without emphasizing hardship cases or apologizing for any procedures. He hopes to open up the clinics, inviting in media and politicians, to make it clear they have nothing to hide.But first, he knows he has more fences to mend."I'm not going to sugarcoat things: tensions between NCAP and the pro-choice groups are extremely high," he wrote in his April 4 newsletter. "But at some point we are going to have to sit down together and thrash out how this train wreck occurred."The controversy may actually have helped the organization, he added. "The net effect of this 'confession' has been an appreciable increase in credibility and visibility for NCAP ... I believe that I could call a press conference tomorrow on any issue and we would be guaranteed a good turnout."Melanie Conklin is a staff writer at Isthmus, the weekly newspaper of Madison, Wisconsin. She wrote "Out in the Cold" in the March issue of The Progressive.