Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Missives from Grove, Part 3

You want to know what the difference between Grove 1956 and Grove 2006 is? In 1956 abortions were illegal, but you could get one from Dr. Henrie and no one thought much of it. No one picketed his clinic, and no one was rousing his parishioners to run this sinner out of town. In 2006 you have to drive 76 miles to Tulsa to get a legal abortion, and risk being harmed by zealous pro-lifers who threaten to bomb the clinics. The town would riot if comprehensive sexual education were taught in the schools. Just last year the ministers from two towns shut down an "exotic" club. In 1956 when abortion was illegal, you could count on getting a safe, compassionate one from your local doctor and not necessarily have to pay a dime. In 2006, when abortion is legal, you risk picket lines, pro-life terrorists, and powerful ministers blocking your path, and prohibitive cost.

This is only a fraction of what we discovered today when we interviewed 6 people from Grove, who were all over the age of 70. While we assumed we would hear at least one Grove citizen tell us that people were upset with what Dr. Henrie was doing or the churches were rousing their parishioners against him, instead we heard, over and over again, he did what he did to help people and because he loved them. Dr. Henrie always had time for his patients. He listened to what they needed and he tried to help them anyway he could. He acted from a place of profound compassion and selflessness.

We heard this uttered from people who belonged to the Assemblies of God, Baptist, and Methodist churches. Probably most of the people we spoke to were Republicans. One woman was put up by the party to run for national office in the 1990s, only to have the party change their mind once they learned she was not morally opposed to abortion in all cases. Not one person we spoke to--and remember, these are all church going people from the Bible Belt--thought Dr. Henrie was wrong or immoral for what he did.

What began to take shape in these conversations was that in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and early 60s, abortion was nowhere near the polarizing political issue that it is in 2006. People knew it happened. You might go to the midwife. Or, you would try to perform one on yourself, or you knew a man like Dr. Henrie.

Abortion has become the explosive political issue it is--one that polarizes people and consolidates political power--only after the New York successfully repealed its anti-abortion (Comstock) laws. When Republicans saw the political power they could tap--especially when Catholic priests and other conservative ministers started telling their parishioners to vote Republican--abortion became the hotly debated issue that it now is. [This is my theory, btw, not something these people said; this is my attempt to make sense of this].

We also heard from everyone that we interviewed that the only reason Dr. Henrie was finally indicted and subsequently convicted was because new doctors showed up in town wanting to cut into his business. Dr. Henrie was powerful competition because everyone in the town loved this man and were loyal to them. So, some doctors, jealous and ambitious, banded together to get the county attorney to go after Henrie. The entire town was shocked when their beloved doctor was put on trial. And, when he was convicted--because he plead guilty--they were shocked to see him off to jail. 1,000 people threw him a picnic to show him their love and appreciation. Many of them, including his nurse Ada, visited him regularly in jail and brought their children along. This man had spent his own money to put countless poor and needy children from Grove, like Ada, to school and they were loyal to him until the end.

The local dentist, who put up Dr. Henrie's bond, said: "Doc would tear up a car to get to someone who couldn't pay him a damn cent." After he uttered these words, he teared up and could barely speak for a moment. I wondered why. The more he talked, I think I figured out why. Dr. Henrie was a man who gave of himself so completely and totally to others that as this dentist remembered him, and thought about his own life, he felt that he just didn't measure up.

I could spend hours writing this entry and I am going to stop for now to get my sleep and keep strong for a round of interviews tomorrow. The reporter who has been working with us said, at the end of the day, "I have never taken this many notes about a story in my life." We are all blown away by the story we are uncovering here.

I can't imagine what it would be like to have the whole nation be able to listen to these people from Grove, OK talk about this man, how much he cared about his patients, how compassionate he was, and how complicated and "grey" abortion is. None of them--who grew up in a time when people quite simply couldn't afford to feed another child--could bring themselves to condemn a woman who made the choice to terminate a pregnancy.

I am going to sleep now. But, I will be back with more stories from Grove tomorrow.