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Prisoner of Choice

Dr. James Pendergraft is not about to be scared out of the business of providing abortions. Even before he opened a clinic in the small northern Florida city of Ocala in July of 1998, he was besieged by protests from many church-going folk, city officials, and local Dixiecrats. Strong-willed, tough-skinned, and a fierce promoter of a woman's right to choose, he ignored the onslaught and opened the Ocala Women's Center anyway. "It's worth it to me to fight," he says. "I believe in women's freedoms and being able to give them the best care."

Until July 25, 2001, Pendergraft did his rounds in a bullet-proof vest, hired full-time security, stayed in out-of-the-way hotels registered anonymously, and lived far away from his family.

But in July, Pendergraft reported to the Atlanta Federal Prison Camp instead of the clinic, beginning his four-year prison sentence for attempted extortion, conspiracy, and mail fraud. Pendergraft's motion for bond, which would have allowed him to stay out of jail and continue working pending his appeal, was denied three times.

According to the federal prosecution, Pendergraft had been trying to extort millions of dollars from Marion County by asking an unusually high price for his clinic building when the county commission expressed interest in buying it from him before the clinic even opened. The conspiracy charge comes from the prosecution's claim that Pendergraft and his business consultant, Michael Spielvogel, both lied in affidavits attesting to a bomb threat supposedly made to Spielvogel. There was in fact no bomb threat, but Pendergraft's lawyers argued that considering the intimidation and harassment Pendergraft had been subjected to, he had no reason to disbelieve Spielvogel who, during the trial, admitted he had misled the doctor. And the mail fraud charge? The fact that Pendergraft's lawyers had put the affidavits in the mail was apparently a further federal violation. Pendergraft and his lawyers maintain that all the charges against him were motivated by the personal antiabortion agendas of some Ocala officials and federal prosecutors who wanted to shut him down. They cite the government's case as an egregious example of the antiabortion movement's new modus operandi—attack through the legal system.

Pendergraft argues that local authorities had decided to target him, partly because he had a bias lawsuit pending against the county based on his attempt to get protection for his clinic. Since day one, the Ocala facility has been surrounded by noisy protesters trying to shepherd patients into the "Christian pregnancy center" next door. When Pendergraft asked for off-duty police officers to guard his patients and staff, both city and county law enforcement officials refused. He then filed suit, claiming their refusal was politically motivated.

The doctor has long been a public aggravation to conservative Florida. In a climate where silence is the safest approach for abortion providers, he talks to the media about the harassment he faces and has advertised his services on highway billboards and on the radio. NOW President Patricia Ireland observes, "Dr. Pendergraft is not someone who thinks that if you keep your head down things will go away. That's part of the reason he is being punished." After Buffalo abortion provider Barnett Slepian was killed by an antiabortion protester in 1998, Pendergraft told ABC News, "abortion is a cause worth dying for." He still believes it, and sees no option other than to speak out. "You've got a lot of people being scared out of this business. But I know how it would be if women were to lose access to safe abortions."

Raised in North Carolina, Pendergraft went to medical school partly at the urging of an aunt, whose illegal botched abortion made her infertile. A highly credentialed and well-regarded physician, Pendergraft probably performs more abortions in his five clinics than any other provider in the U.S. He

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