Kansas killing calls former Everett doctor to speak

Back in the 1980s, when Dr. Suzanne Poppema had a family practice clinic in Everett, a patient asked her a blunt question. The doctor still remembers her straightforward answer.

“She was a very conservative, religious person,” the 61-year-old Poppema recalled Tuesday. “She said, ‘Is it true you provide abortions?’

“I said, ‘Yes, I do. It’s part of family medicine. It’s important for me to help women who want to have babies, and to help women who don’t want to have babies.’ “

Poppema said the woman chose to remain her patient. “I had already established myself as a caring physician in her mind,” she said.

That is her truth. She spoke plainly about it then, and is outspoken about it today.

Poppema, who lives in Edmonds, is retired from working with patients. She is chairwoman of the board of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, a national network of doctors committed to providing access to abortion and other reproductive health services. She is also co-author of “Why I Am an Abortion Doctor,” written in 1996 with Mike Henderson, a former Herald writer.

This week, Poppema has been called by national news organizations to comment about the killing of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider shot Sunday at his Kansas church.

Married and with two grown children, Poppema said Tuesday that her family expressed concerns about her face being broadcast on a CBS newscast in the wake of Tiller’s killing.

“It never goes away,” she said. Fear, though, never kept Poppema from the work she believes in.

She remembers driving different routes to work and wearing a bulletproof vest when she ran Aurora Medical Services, a north Seattle clinic where she performed abortions and offered birth control services. She opened the clinic after leaving her Everett family practice, where she worked from 1980 until 1989.

A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Poppema came to the University of Washington School of Medicine in the mid-1970s for her residency. Since then, she has seen the language and actions of some who oppose abortion become increasingly heated. Tiller’s death is only the latest in a list of violent acts against providers of abortion — a legal medical procedure.

“People have every right to believe it’s a moral wrong, and a mortal sin,” Poppema said.

In Everett, participants in a 40 Days for Life anti-abortion campaign recently marched and prayed on the sidewalk outside a Planned Parenthood clinic. Those demonstrators were following their conscience, just as Poppema has followed hers.

Poppema believes rhetoric that equates abortion with murder, “a horrible criminal act,” only serves to fuel violence. “That word itself ignites the fire,” she said. To say “abortion is an absolute moral wrong for me” would deliver a powerful message, she said. “Once you demonize them, you can eliminate them,” she said about violence against doctors who perform abortions.

She believes that at its extreme, the anti-abortion movement is not unlike Islamic extremists who would say “if you do not believe in my level of Islam, you should die.”

Ours is a nation of laws. It would be absolutely wrong for a gunman to walk into a courtroom and kill a convicted murderer. What happened to Dr. George Tiller on Sunday was absolutely wrong.

Poppema has seen the issue from a place few of us ever will. In her practice, she said, women who had protested outside later came seeking her services.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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