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.

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As the Right to Life Association lobbied to shut down Armstrong and Cahill's clinic through legislative action, anti-choice extremists across the country took a more deadly approach. In 1993, David Gunn became the first abortion clinic staffer assassinated. Michael F. Griffin reportedly yelled, "Don't kill any more babies," as he shot Gunn in the back as the doctor walked through an anti-abortion protest at Pensacola Women's Medical Services in Florida.

In 1994, the director of an anti-abortion group called Defensive Action used a 12-gauge shotgun to kill 69-year-old abortion provider John Britton and his 74-year-old clinic escort, James Barrett, outside a Pensacola, Fla., reproductive health clinic. Barrett's 68-year-old wife, June, was also wounded. When law enforcement arrested the shooter, Rev. Paul Hill, he said, "I know one thing, no innocent babies are going to be killed in that clinic today."

Between 1994 and 2009, pro-life activists killed two clinic receptionists in Brookline, Mass., a security guard in Birmingham, Ala., and a gynecologist in Amherst, N.Y. The last provider to die, physician George Tiller, was killed while attending church in Wichita, Kan. Tiller had survived two earlier assassination attempts, including a 1993 shooting and a pipe bomb explosion seven years earlier.

Cahill says the deaths illustrate the dangers of the pro-life movement's rhetoric and how it's interpreted by extremists. Language that prioritizes a fetus over a woman is inherently damaging.

"When you slowly insinuate that people who provide abortion services are murderers," Cahill says, "you are setting the stage for somebody like Zachary Klundt to do damage."

Twyla Klundt says since her son's arrest, she stopped reading the newspaper. Even with the blackout, it's tough to avoid the coverage. National publications including Democracy Now, the Daily Beast, and the Associated Press reported on the crime, quoting Cahill and reproductive rights advocates who have publicly decried the attack as a hate crime.

click to enlarge Missoula’s Blue Mountain Clinic is one of only three clinics in the state that still offer abortions. Protesters regularly picket outside the facility. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder
  • Missoula’s Blue Mountain Clinic is one of only three clinics in the state that still offer abortions. Protesters regularly picket outside the facility.

"I find it so interesting that it has turned into this whole political thing," Twyla Klundt says.

On March 27, Zachary Klundt pleaded not guilty in Flathead District Court to burglary, criminal mischief and theft, charges directly related to the vandalism of Cahill's clinic. Prosecutors also charged him with attempted burglary for allegedly breaking into a nearby bail bonds office. He faces 60 years in prison.

Twyla Klundt says her son has been unjustly characterized and there's more to the story than what's been reported. Her attorney advised her not to speak with the press, but she wants to set the record straight.

Klundt says her son is struggling with chemical dependency and, on March 4, he "wasn't in a good place. ...We're hoping to get him the help that he needs, and get him healthy."

Zachary wasn't raised in an environment of intolerance or hate, she says. And she certainly doesn't condone the destruction of Cahill's office. "I feel terribly," Klundt says. "I want Susan to be well."

In 2013, Samantha Campbell was earning a bachelor's degree in biochemistry at the University of Montana and contemplating medical school. When she met Cahill, she envisioned for herself a career as a physician's assistant.

The 27-year-old Campbell shadowed Cahill for four months, studying the PA's bedside manner and the thoroughness with which she went about her work. She respected Cahill's expertise and sense of community responsibility. Despite enjoying the job itself, Campbell had a tough time going to work some days. The judgmental stares of pro-life picketers in front of Cahill's office left Campbell feeling uncomfortable.

Cahill had been searching for someone to take over her practice after she eventually retired. In Campbell, she saw someone she could groom, someone who would continue to care for patients and provide safe access to reproductive care. But even before the latest attack, Campbell worried she couldn't take the pressure.

"I didn't think I was up for the challenge, because (Cahill) gets so much abuse from people in the community," Campbell says. "It takes a very special person to want to do that, especially here in Kalispell."

Cahill's not the only one facing the challenge of finding a willing successor. As an older generation of doctors and physician assistants reach retirement—those who remember the pre-Roe years—young health care providers aren't filling the void.

"They're not stepping up to the plate," Cahill says, "and I understand that."

Medical schools once taught abortion as part of their integrated curriculum, but that's changed. According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, only one-third of American medical schools in 2005 provided a formal lecture on abortion. Although 45 percent of schools offer clinical training in abortion care, students frequently opt out. Reproductive rights advocates predict if the trend continues, and abortion becomes even less accessible, women will revert to tactics used in the years before Roe v. Wade.

Zachary Klundt is being charged with burglary, criminal mischief and theft for allegedly destroying Cahill’s All Families Healthcare office. He faces 60 years in prison. - PHOTO COURTESY OF YOU TUBE
  • photo courtesy of You Tube
  • Zachary Klundt is being charged with burglary, criminal mischief and theft for allegedly destroying Cahill’s All Families Healthcare office. He faces 60 years in prison.

"It's a huge fear of ours," says Moran of NARAL Pro-Choice Montana. "We know that this is what's going to happen, because history has already told us that when you limit access to abortion, women are going to take it into their own hands."

If more providers offered the procedure, Campbell believes it would be tougher for pro-life activists to target just one. And while she's worried about future abortion access, she's not willing to carry the torch alone.

"I wish I could be the one to say, 'Well, I'm going to make a change,'" Campbell says. "But I don't know that I want that to be my life."

In the wake of the attack, Cahill says she's received significant support from reproductive rights advocates. The Montana Human Rights Network and its affiliate Love Lives Here held an online fundraiser that raised more than $75,000 to cover Cahill's financial losses.

The reaction from local health care professionals has been less encouraging. Cahill says she's troubled by the fact that none took a public stand against the break-in. Back in 1994, after Cahill and Armstrong's office was firebombed, local community members, including members of the health care community, took out a full-page ad in the Daily Inter Lake condemning the arson. This time, Cahill says, her professional peers remained largely silent.

"People need to be up in arms," she says. "This cannot happen to a colleague of ours in the community. It's wrong. And they're too chicken shit, frankly."

Cahill's voice cracks when she says, again, that she can't continue fighting the extremists and rhetoric alone. If she decides to retire now it would constitute a devastating end to her long career. But her family is worried. They don't want her to be hurt any more than she already has.

"I have to honor that," Cahill says. "I told my son that I will not be a martyr."

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