Can't do it alone 

Susan Cahill lost everything when her clinic was vandalized. Now western Montana risks losing one of its only abortion providers.

Susan Cahill sweeps a small pile of broken glass and two Band-Aids from the floor of her former treatment room into a dustpan. The room is otherwise empty. Gone are the ultrasound machine and the electric suction machine once used to perform abortions.

"It was smashed," Cahill says of the suction machine.

Also absent are the cabinets and the exam tables and the antibiotics and syringes. On the one-month anniversary of the night that Zachary Klundt allegedly destroyed the place, little remains of Cahill's All Families Healthcare.

"We lost everything," she says.

Moving men carry a small white refrigerator into a truck parked outside, then return for a large plastic bin full of forceps and speculums. The equipment will remain in storage until Cahill decides whether to use them again. Following the break-in and the calculated dismantling of her professional equipment and personal items, Cahill, 64, has yet to decide if she'll ever return to the Flathead Valley practice she's built up over the course of her career.

click to enlarge news_news1-1.jpg

Prosecutors say the 24-year-old Klundt broke into All Families Healthcare late on March 3 or early the next morning and proceeded to douse the office with iodine and, as if to ensure that nothing could ever be used again, spray a fire extinguisher that left a yellow coat of powder everywhere. Most horrifyingly for Cahill, the perpetrator used what appeared to be a claw hammer to gouge faces out of family photos.

This was no random attack, Cahill says. This was personal. As she takes stock of the empty office weeks after the incident, she still sounds shaken. "It's hard for me to be in here for very long," she says.

Cahill is a physician's assistant who for 37 years has practiced medicine in the Flathead Valley, curing sore throats and stomachaches, performing Pap smears and delivering babies. She believes that it's her work providing abortions that made her a targetand it wouldn't be the first time.

Cahill has weathered a lot of abuse from the anti-abortion contingent in this small conservative community of 20,000 people. She's been called a "baby killer" in the comment sections of local news websites, and been compared to Stalin and Hitler. In 1994, a pro-life extremist firebombed her Kalispell office. But Cahill says the past several months have been the most difficult of her career.

In February, she was evicted from the Meridian Road office she worked in for more than six years after the executive director of the local pro-life crisis pregnancy center, Hope Ministries, purchased the building. Hope's director, Michelle Reimer, discussed the transaction in a written statement released to Democracy Now after the sale. "We made a stand for the prolife position in a legal, peaceful and non-confrontational way," Reimer said, "purchasing the building in order to advance the cause of life."

click to enlarge Susan Cahill says she’s not sure if she’ll reopen her medical clinic after an early March attack destroyed her Kalispell office. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Susan Cahill says she’s not sure if she’ll reopen her medical clinic after an early March attack destroyed her Kalispell office.

Cahill believes the attack on her new office also aimed "to advance the cause of life." She had only moved in three weeks before Klundt allegedly broke in. Zachary is the son of Twyla Klundt, a longtime Hope Ministries board member who resigned from her post the day after Zachary was arrested. Cahill says it doesn't take much sleuthing to connect the dots.

"I think, in a way, that Zachary did something that his parents should be proud of him," Cahill says. "I think his parents believe that, too."

Since Cahill's practice was destroyed, there's been an outpouring of support from members of the pro-choice community. They say the attack constitutes a loss not only to Cahill, but to women throughout the region. There are no abortion providers in Idaho, Cahill says, nor any on the Blackfeet Reservation. She says her patients drove from as far away as Sandpoint, Idaho—more than 350 miles roundtrip—to terminate pregnancies.

With Cahill's practice closed, women from Browning seeking an abortion will have to travel some 200 miles to Blue Mountain Clinic in Missoula. The absence of local care prompted the Daily Beast to dub a 1,200-mile stretch of the northwest—from Idaho, across Montana east to the Dakotas, and south into Wyoming—an "abortion desert."

"I wander around and I look at all these young girls and I think, 'Where are they going to go?'" Cahill says. "Or, 'How are they going to get there?'"

The battle between pro-life and pro-choice supporters is nothing new. Legal and legislative debates garner most of the regular headlines, such as when Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis staged an 11-hour filibuster last year to protect abortion rights. But pro-choice advocates say the destruction of Cahill's office highlights a far more terrifying trend of increased violence and intimidation.

"It's an awful thing for me to admit, that these tactics really are working," says NARAL Pro-Choice Montana Executive Director Maggie Moran.

Since 1993, pro-life extremists have killed eight clinic staffers and volunteers. Forty-one abortion facilities were bombed between 1977 and 2009, and 175 set on fire. According to data compiled by NARAL, clinics reported more than 600 bomb threats during that same period.

"We know how to fight anti-choice legislation," Moran says. "But fighting this intimidation and violence is a whole other ball game."

Cahill knew the picketers were coming March 5. The anti-choice group, 40 Days for Life, announced it would protest in front of her new office on First Avenue East in Kalispell that day. The contractor Cahill hired to install an alarm system was slated to finish March 4.

click to enlarge Susan Cahill takes stock of her office in early March, shortly after Zachary Klundt allegedly destroyed the place. - PHOTO COURTESY OF NICOLAS HUDAK
  • photo courtesy of Nicolas Hudak
  • Susan Cahill takes stock of her office in early March, shortly after Zachary Klundt allegedly destroyed the place.

At first, Cahill thought it was bad luck the alarm wasn't ready when the break-in happened. Hindsight, however, along with the knowledge that Klundt was carrying a fully loaded handgun with a spare magazine in his holster when he was arrested, provides a different perspective.

"I thought, 'You know what? I think that it was damn good luck,'" she says, considering what would've happened if the alarm had thwarted his effort. "He would have destroyed me."

Cahill shares her thoughts while sipping tea and sitting on a cream-colored leather couch inside her Kalispell residence. She's spending more time at home lately. For the past four decades, she woke up most days at 6 a.m., drank coffee, read the news and then went to work. She still gets up early. But rather than treating patients, she's left to contemplate the fact that her practice is gone.

"That is a death to me," she says.

Cahill misses the work and the interaction with patients, but she also sounds like someone still coming to grips with a violation of her professional space and the systematic destruction of so many personal items. She mentions the art on the walls and how she specifically selected a wall paint to match. She wonders if, in the rush to push past the fear, anger and sadness stirred by the attack, she and her volunteer helpers, including patients and friends, rashly threw away keepsakes that could have been preserved.

"There was so much destruction and so much bad feeling in there," she says. "You just want to try and get rid of it."

Among the pieces she'll miss most is a painting by Norman Rockwell titled "Golden Rule," which features dozens of portraits of people of different ethnicities and reads, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Cahill purchased the piece with her former business partner, Dr. James Armstrong, while attending a National Abortion Federation conference in Philadelphia. Because it was out being framed in 1994, when her old office was firebombed, it survived that attack. This time it didn't.

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