Barnett Slepian wasn’t the first American doctor killed for the anti-abortion cause, but his murder in October 1998 did signal a ghastly point of no return: He died by a single bullet blasted through the kitchen window of his home in suburban Buffalo, in front of his children. In Liz Mermin and Jenny Raskin’s On Hostile Ground, a pithy video documentary that chronicles the day-to-day lives of three abortion providers, Slepian’s death is a galvanizing shock. Morris Wortman of nearby Rochester starts carrying a gun. Richard Stuntz, an aging Baltimore doctor who spends three days a week traveling a 500-mile roundabout of clinics in Alabama, decides to keep his drapes closed all the time, and affirms, “It’s not safe for a doctor to live in the community where he works.” Susan Cahill, a physician’s assistant in Montana, begins to wonder if her dangerous obligations at work are outweighing her duties as a wife and mother.
On Hostile Ground points up an odd rule of semantics that applies to both sides of the debate: An OB-GYN who doesn’t perform abortions is called an OB-GYN, while an OB-GYN who does perform abortions is called an abortion doctor (or, according to the Daily News headline when Slepian’s alleged killer was finally apprehended last Thursday, “Abort-Doc”). Wortman says that terminations make up only a small part of his practice, but he doubts he’ll be remembered for anything else. Mermin and Raskin’s subjects are self-chosen exceptions to an unwritten rule (88 percent of OB-GYN residents don’t receive abortion training), and Wortman could be speaking for all of them when he says that after Slepian’s death he felt “branded.” A pro-life landlord evicts him from his clinic, while Cahill, whose office was firebombed in 1994, is singled out by a bill in the Montana state legislature that would prohibit PAs from performing abortions (the state supreme court finally struck it down).
Wortman, the most overtly activist of the trio, is a constant media presence in western New York, and goes so far as to say that his murder is an acute possibility that he accepts. In the interview segments, he often returns to his late, beloved mother—a Holocaust survivor who, while pregnant with Morris, tried to abort by repeatedly jumping off a table onto her belly. “It was unfortunate that in those days women like her didn’t have a choice,” he says. “People with money had choices, but women like her didn’t.”
In certain crucial ways, of course, that statement is true now. During Campaign 2000, blue-zone Gore supporters always flogged Bush II as a threat to abortion rights—without mentioning that Roe v. Wade is already moot in huge patches of the red zone (84 percent of U.S. counties lack an abortion provider), or that enforcement of Roe ultimately rests in the hands of doctors. Mermin and Raskin’s film will no doubt be tagged with testimonials like “a compelling call to action” (per Julianne Moore, an outspoken supporter of the film), and indeed, it could prove so for a young medical student. Wortman, Cahill, and especially Stuntz share a matter-of-fact, low-key rectitude that can be intensely moving. But On Hostile Ground, to its credit, is inevitably a tale more cautionary than inspirational. The film rightly presents its subjects as a rare breed who started their path in another era, and it’s difficult to imagine who at this stage would follow them.