LeRoy Carhart, a Midwestern doctor who became an archnemesis of abortion opponents and a leading defender of late-term abortions, died on Friday at a hospice in Bellevue, Neb., a suburb of Omaha. He was 81.
The cause was liver cancer, his daughter, Janine Weatherby, said.
Dr. Carhart came to national prominence in the 1990s as an improbable progressive crusader in one of the nation’s most bitter moral debates.
He was a soft-spoken Methodist, a 21-year veteran of the Air Force and a registered Republican. He was married to a woman he met in elementary school, and he lived on a large farm with a horse stable.
Yet he had a personality trait that would prove to be a decisive force in his life. He was “stubborn, very stubborn,” his wife, Mary Carhart, told The New York Times in 2000.
He was a doctor performing abortions part time on Sept. 6, 1991, when a fire destroyed his farm and killed his dog, cat and 17 of his 21 horses. That same day Nebraska passed a law requiring parental notification before minors could receive abortions (and it was also the 21st birthday of his horse-loving daughter, Janine). The next day, Dr. Carhart received a letter informing him that the fire was retaliation for his performing abortions.
“That was when I decided I would not be part time,” he told The Washington Post in 2011. “It’s where my tenacity comes from.”
He dedicated his family clinic in Bellevue to abortions the next year. “I decided I wasn’t going to just be a provider,” he continued. “I was going to be an activist.”
In the aftermath of the fire, he told The Times in 2000, “Women’s health became my life.”
He named his facility the Abortion and Contraceptive Clinic of Nebraska, eschewing the euphemisms common in his field. He embraced the label “abortionist,” which is often used as a smear, and he compared abortion opponents to the Taliban, describing their ethos as “religious terrorism.”
When his friend and colleague Dr. George Tiller, known for performing late-term abortions, was shot to death in 2009, Dr. Carhart began offering them in his own clinic, having previously performed the procedures only during regular visits to Dr. Tiller’s facility in Wichita, Kan.
Dr. Carhart was publicly associated with late-term abortions starting in the late 1990s, when the anti-abortion movement found a potent rallying cry in the phrase “partial-birth abortion.” It was used to denounce a procedure doctors call intact dilation and extraction, which involves removing an intact fetus and, typically, piercing or crushing its skull.
Around 30 states, including Nebraska, outlawed the procedure. It was one that Dr. Carhart said he never used and that he described as “distasteful.” Nevertheless, he believed that the wording of the law was so broad that it could render illegal other types of abortions, and he sued Nebraska’s attorney general, Don Stenberg.
Dr. Carhart became the lead plaintiff in two Supreme Court cases. He won the first, Stenberg v. Carhart (2000), with the court ruling that the Nebraska law and others like it unconstitutionally prohibited what in some cases might be the most medically appropriate way to terminate a pregnancy.
When the George W. Bush administration enacted the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, Dr. Carhart sued again. The Supreme Court reversed course, however, with the author of the decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy, arguing that the federal law “expresses respect for the dignity of human life.”
Beginning in 2010, Dr. Carhart began commuting weekly from Nebraska to another clinic that he had opened in Germantown, Md., that specialized in late-term abortions. He was the medical director of both facilities, and he continued working until this month. Abortion opponents considered him a prime target for criticism, and in 2013 operatives posing as patients recorded visits with him, drawing wide publicity.
His facility in Bellevue currently lacks a permanent successor. He told CNN last year: “I’m 80. I don’t need to do abortions anymore. I’m looking for doctors to replace me right now, or to help me, but the biggest problem is finding somebody that’s willing to take the target off my back and put it on theirs.”
LeRoy Harrison Carhart Jr. was born on Oct. 28, 1941, in Trenton, N.J. His father ran a printing press for small newspapers in the Trenton area, and his mother, Verona (Morgan) Carhart, was a homemaker.
As a young man, he considered becoming a Lutheran minister. He married his high school sweetheart, Mary Clark, in 1964; graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration; and joined the Air Force. He trained as a fighter pilot but never saw combat. He was honorably discharged in 1985.
While still in the military, he began medical school at Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia (now Drexel University College of Medicine). He graduated in 1973, the same year as the Roe v. Wade decision. Previously, abortions were not widely available in Pennsylvania.
He often spoke about his memories of regularly seeing the side effects of self-induced abortions performed with knitting needles or coat hangers, sometimes resulting in the women being left sterile, on other occasions killing them.
“It was horrible, worse than watching people die in a war,” he told The Times.
In 1978, he began working as a surgeon at the military hospital of the Offutt Air Force Base, just south of Bellevue. That year, he bought a farm of about 65 acres, and he never left. Ms. Weatherby operates a horse business on the property, doing boarding, breeding and competitions.
In addition to his daughter, Dr. Carhart is survived by his wife; his son, LeRoy; and a grandson.
Dr. Carhart tended to be modest in philosophical comments about abortion. He thought that a perfect world would have no abortions — and also that he did not live in a perfect world. He argued that neither he nor religious scholars nor scientists knew when life began, adding that the only experts on that question were mothers.
He had a concrete belief in something else: that abortion was inevitable, and that abortions done unprofessionally could result in grievous harm or death. That motivated him to train his colleagues. His daughter estimated that over the course of his life Dr. Carhart trained 300 to 500 doctors in how to perform an abortion.