By the time the phone directories arrived in her dorm, Erica (who asked that her last name not be used for this story) had already been through orientation activities and a few weeks of classes. Her copy of the Yellow Pages was several years old and a little worse for wear, but that was no big deal, she thought. She opened it up to the pages labeled "Abortion Services" and wrote down all the names and numbers listed within that section.
Later, when she was alone with a telephone, she pulled out the piece of notepaper and began to dial. Within an hour or so, she had dialed all of the numbers but one -- and she was near tears. Harried receptionists had snapped at her, didn't seem to care about her school schedule, and were unable to answer the most basic questions. None of them accepted her parents' insurance, which ostensibly covered abortions.
The only number left on her list was one for Causeway A Women's Clinic. She took a deep breath and dialed: 8-3-4-5-4-8-3.
A man answered. Right away, he seemed different, says Erica. "He was so comforting. He said, 'This is your choice, but this is what you want to do.' I told him that I wasn't from here, and he told me that all the clinics here hurt women. He said that Causeway [Medical Clinic] had like 50 lawsuits pending against them. That scared me."
The man, Bill Graham, offered an option, and it sounded smart. "He said that he could connect me with private OB/GYN doctors who do the procedure. He asked where I was located, told me which nearby hospital was probably the best for me and said that a doctor there could get me in on an upcoming Saturday at the end of the day."
He assured her that the doctor accepted insurance, she says, then asked about the date of her last period and estimated her due date. She had been told by other clinics that she was about three months along. Graham, she says, estimated that she was a few weeks less than that, but he explained the difference. "He told me that abortion clinics are a business and that they typically overestimate the due date because later procedures cost more; it's a way to get more money."
Erica says she and Graham talked for quite awhile. "He was nice," she says. "He explained that I don't want to go too early, because then they won't get all of the fetal tissue. He sounded like he knew what was going on."
She hung up, thinking that she was in good hands. She would continue to think that way for several weeks. By the time she changed her mind, she would be only a month shy of 24 weeks -- the cut-off date for abortions in Louisiana.
Erica now looks back at that first conversation. She never would have guessed, she says, that the man with the comforting voice was a pro-life activist who, in the weeks to follow, would never arrange an abortion for her.
Yet Graham's work is well-known around New Orleans. Kay Kelly, the administrator for the Causeway Medical Clinic -- which performs abortions -- says that her clinic sees, on average, one woman each week who says she needs to have an expensive late-term procedure because she's been waiting for Graham to arrange an abortion with a private doctor.
A local adoption facilitator who asked not to be named says that several young women have come to her agency saying they'd been strung along by Graham until their pregnancy was too advanced for an abortion.
Former Planned Parenthood CEO Terri Bartlett remembers Graham from as far back as 1989. "It troubles me that he is still doing now what he was doing then," she says. "You're dealing with a story about one young woman, but there are bound to be thousands of other women who haven't ever spoken up."
Bill Graham returns a phone call for an interview a few hours after it was placed. His voice is affable and soothing, as Erica had described.
Graham says that he's been working with pregnant women since 1989. (Before that, he was in the insurance business.) Old copies of the Greater New Orleans Yellow Pages show that Causeway A Women's Center was listed for several years under the "Abortion Services" heading. The listing was shifted to "Abortion Alternatives" in the mid-1990s, after the contradiction was noted in a Times-Picayune article. Today, the center is no longer listed in any section of the Yellow Pages directory, although it remains in the Yellow Pages alphabetical business listings -- as well as in the White Pages, where it appears seven lines above the Causeway Medical Clinic.
Graham is obviously accustomed to long hours on the telephone. It's a weekday evening, and he will talk about his work for the better part of three hours, occasionally excusing himself to answer other phones, which constantly trill in the background.
He apologetically explains that face-to-face meetings are impossible -- they compromise his callers' privacy, he says. "We've made it a point," he explains, "not to have folks come to meet us. To do otherwise, that's a breach of confidentiality." As a result, Graham does all his work by phone.
Graham says that he has no health or counseling degree but that he sort of gravitated to the work he's doing. "Sometimes you just learn things without getting a degree. I once met a fellow who knew quite a lot of engineering but he never quite took the time to be an engineer."
What he does, he says, is called disclosure. This includes warnings about the abortion procedure itself and about local clinics, including a list of malpractice lawsuits that he says the clinics have lost.
Erica says that it was these "disclosures" that convinced her to wait for Graham to arrange an abortion with a private doctor. She now charges that he endangered her health by putting her off for more than a month. During that time, she notes, she had no medical care and her pregnancy was advancing beyond the first trimester, which is when abortion is the safest.
Graham calls Erica's allegations "a bit of a stretch." He explains: "I don't have that power. I cannot put her off. How did I control her? Because she says I have a trusting voice? Did I tell her don't go to a doctor? No -- all I did was tell her, 'We're not going to send you to a place where we know they have a history of injuring women.'"
But if someone asks him to set up an abortion, is it his intent to help them terminate that pregnancy? "Our intent," answers Graham, "is to see that her health and welfare are maintained."
When asked again if he ever helps women obtain abortions, he elaborates: "She's wanting to terminate a pregnancy. She can go anywhere she wants to have that done. And we can send her to doctors who are very capable and proficient at it. Now we're not going to go to a doctor unless they can assure us that her health and welfare can be maintained."
But does he definitely set up terminations of pregnancy? "We set up appointments with doctors who can terminate a pregnancy."
And do they terminate pregnancies? "That's entirely up to them. ... There are a lot of things that, if I don't need to know, I'd rather they didn't tell me." Graham asserts that he's not the kind of "voyeur" who needs to hear about abortions or see them in person. He explains that because of abortion's controversial nature, he is unable to release the names of any doctors who work with him or of any women who have received abortions after receiving referrals from him.
Graham dismisses Erica's other claims as well. He says he didn't underestimate her pregnancy so that she would go past the 24-week date. He says he isn't impersonating an abortion provider. He also doesn't buy the idea that Erica, as a young woman, might be easily duped. "If we're going to use the excuse that she was duped, she's never going to be held accountable for her own actions," he says, adding that if Erica wants his advice, it would be to look forward.
"Let's not dwell in the past; the past is now exactly what it is," he says. "In the future, she should not engage in this intimate activity unless she has a commitment from one guy to provide and protect and forsake all others."
Would he describe himself as anti-abortion or pro-choice? "I would suggest," he replies, "that we're very much pro-women. If you are what you think about, a guy said this once, then I would have been a woman. Frankly, he's right. As a guy, I think about them a lot. I think women are pretty nice."
Erica found out that she was pregnant a week before she left for school. An honors graduate from Texas, she had received a partial scholarship to study biology and is hoping to become a pediatrician. The father of her baby was her high school boyfriend; he had earned a full scholarship to study computer science.
She told her boyfriend, but nobody else --not even her parents. Because of time constraints, the couple decided that she would arrange for an abortion in New Orleans. First, however, she had to get through freshman orientation and the start of classes and labs, many of which had mandatory attendance policies. Because she had no car, she traveled everywhere by public transit -- a big hurdle because most abortion clinics were three or four bus transfers away.
All Louisiana clinics require two visits for any abortion: the first for urine and Rh-factor testing, an ultrasound, and state-mandated counseling; and the second for the procedure itself. To Erica, getting two full days off from her schedule -- not to mention some recovery time -- had seemed nearly impossible. Which is why she was incredibly relieved, she says, to discover from Bill Graham that she could go to a nearby hospital on a Saturday.
"I feel really crazy about that now," she says, sitting in her dorm. She's saying all this to explain how she could have believed Graham for several weeks. "He kept saying, 'We're trying to get you in -- the doctor will call you this week after his regular appointments. Of course, the doctor never called."
At first, it didn't even occur to her that the delays could be deliberate, she says, especially because Graham would be so apologetic on Mondays, which is when they usually spoke. "He would say, 'I'm so sorry, it never should've taken this long. One of our doctors got sick and the other doctor had to cover for him. I feel terrible about this.'"
At some point, worried about the postponements, she started to cry while she was on the telephone with Graham. "He turned mean," she says. "He said, 'What are you crying for? You know how you got yourself into this. This is a decision you've made -- there's no need to cry now.' He said, 'I can't send you to a doctor now; they'll see you like this.' Then he started asking about my religion; he said that I'd already given up on my faith. I thought, 'This man's crazy.'"
With that, Erica says, she hung up the phone and gave up on Bill Graham. The delay had been costly. The Causeway Medical Clinic told her that an abortion at this stage would cost $900 and that later procedures would be even more expensive. "I freaked out," she says, "because I didn't have the money." She tried hocking her jewelry, but the pawn shop offered her almost nothing, and so she walked away and began making phone calls. After getting a loan from Planned Parenthood and funding from national and Texas-based pro-choice groups, she made an appointment with Causeway Medical Clinic.
She completed her day of tests and counseling. Now only the procedure remained. Nationwide, 1 percent of abortions are performed after 21 weeks; Erica's would now be counted within that number.
Abortions done at this point become two-day procedures -- and at Causeway, the doctor who performs two-day abortions is scheduled every two weeks. Which meant that this was Erica's last chance to get an abortion before her pregnancy passed the 24-week mark.
On Friday, the first day of her procedure, she laid out her savings and funding and was told that she now needed $1,500 -- $200 more than she had. "I was so desperate and upset," she says, "and so I walked across the Causeway to a pay phone and I called my mom bawling."
She reached her mom at work and broke the news that Erica, her only child, was pregnant. "I have a bad habit of trying to take care of things myself," says Erica, who now regrets that she didn't tell her parents earlier. Her mother told Erica that she could charge the remaining amount on her credit card. So Erica returned to the clinic, only to be told that they didn't accept credit cards over the phone. The only option remaining was to take a series of three buses back to her school, hoping that a friend could spot her the money. Her friend agreed, and the two girls borrowed a car and attempted to speed back to the clinic. But while they were sitting in a traffic jam on Causeway, the doctor at the clinic gave up on them and left.
The doctor had walked out the door 20 minutes before Erica had showed up, says Kay Kelly, the administrator at Causeway Medical Clinic. "He would have waited, but there are times when patients say that they're coming, but they don't. That's what he figured had happened this time. It was a real sad situation because by the time he was able to return to do her procedure -- he's here twice a month -- she would have been too far for him to do."
Kelly says that her heart goes out to Erica but that she couldn't extend credit: "I have a drawer full of procedures, procedures that we've done for people who have promised to pay at a later date and they never did." She explains the only way they take credit cards is if the card-holder is present with a picture ID. "That's because there are a lot of kids who would take their parents' credit cards and come in here and pay for their procedure without the parents' knowledge. That policy has been in effect since I arrived at the clinic in 1982."
Kelly has seen a lot at the clinic in the past two decades, and she's known of Graham for the past dozen years. She says that his allegations of widespread malpractice are false. She can only recall "one lawsuit that was probably legitimate. Only that one went to trial." (The case, Tanya Mayeux vs. Causeway Medical Suite, was filed in 1992 and resulted in a judgment for $350,000.) She emphasizes that a list of pending lawsuits doesn't mean anything in this business because "we get bogus suits all the time."
There are plenty of bogus lawsuits in this business, confirms attorney William Rittenberg, of the local firm Rittenberg and Samuel, who says that he's "defended every constitutional challenge to Louisiana women's right-to-choose since Roe v. Wade [in 1973]." He's never represented Causeway in a malpractice suit but he has defended numerous other malpractice cases filed against other abortion clinics. A handful of right-to-life lawyers routinely file lawsuits, he says, but all of the malpractice cases he has defended were frivolous and have been dismissed.
Overall, the climate in Louisiana is not friendly to legal abortion. The state recently earned a dead-last ranking of 51st in a list that includes all 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to a 2001 report by the National Abortion Rights Action League. And Louisiana lawmakers -- a pro-life House, Senate and governor -- keep Rittenberg busy, with two or three statutes each year that try to completely outlaw abortion.
Within a different climate, someone like Bill Graham might be shut down more readily, say some observers. Peg Kenny, the executive director of the Louisiana Pro-Life Council, is familiar with Bill Graham and his wife, Bonnie, and says she's had her disagreements with them. But, she says, "It is not within my personal or business agenda to talk about other pro-life people."
Past Planned Parenthood CEO Terri Bartlett is more forthcoming with her feelings about Graham. His deception is repugnant, she says, not only to people who are pro-choice but also to people who are pro-life, because he's misrepresenting their cause.
"It would be one thing," says Bartlett, "if Graham wanted to set up a clinic that opposed abortion and offered counseling and alternatives. But to do it unethically and to confuse women at a time when they're vulnerable, that's the part that's really bothersome."
It's the first weekend in December -- the week before final exams -- and Erica is sitting in the front lobby of the freshman girls' dorm, where she lives. She has a constant sniffle because she can no longer take her allergy medication now that she'll be carrying her pregnancy to term.
Erica waves at some of the girls that walk by. She hasn't told most of them that she won't be returning after the upcoming break, or that she will likely never come back to New Orleans. Next weekend, her parents will arrive, ready to take her home to Texas, where she'll remain for the rest of her pregnancy. She plans to give the baby up for adoption, although her mom warns her that that will not be easy.
It's something she's been thinking about a lot. She remembers when she was small and her mom opened a day care center so they could spend more time together. "And my parents were able to take the time to sit down and read to me. If I kept the baby, I know that I would have to work-work-work and I wouldn't have time for things like that."
She walks out the door to the parking lot and gets into a friend's car to go have lunch at Cucos on Carrollton Avenue. On the way there, she gestures toward the live oaks and the passing streetcar. "This is what I saw when I first came to visit New Orleans," she says. Now it feels like she spent most of her first semester "trying to figure out when I could catch a nap."
She admits that she sometimes wonders about Bill Graham and his role in her life. "He acted like he's a better person than I am," she says. "How can he feel that he's better than me while he lies and he cheats?" She shakes her head. At times, she suspects that it might not bother him at all. "He's probably sleeping better at night than I've been," she says.