A Park Avenue gynecologist's secret research may disarm the abortion conflict in America -even as it puts the doctor himself in the line of fire.
by Steve Fishman
Richard Hausknecht, M.D., tested the new abortion drug.
At 1075 Park Avenue in Manhattan, the doormen look like Nutcracker soldiers. They wear black uniforms with epaulets and hurry theatrically to arriving cabs. When someone asks for Dr. Richard Hausknecht, one of them aims a gloved hand toward a narrow entrance. Through that door and down a short corridor is a warm and secure waiting room. Children's photos stand on one shelf. Diplomas from Tufts and Yale hang on a burlap‑covered wall. Classical music is piped in scratchily. In the background is the muffled sound of afternoon sirens.
Hausknecht, 66, looks like a rook on a chessboard, broad‑shouldered, squat, and crowned with thick hair the color of waxed paper. "This has been a relatively quiet ob‑gyn practice," he begins from his tall leather chair. As a young doctor, he'd thrown himself into complicated endocrinologic studies. But research turned out to be financially unrewarding, and he turned away from it. He bought his own offices and built a practice. In his free time, he collected fine wines and went deep‑sea fishing. "I've lived a luxurious life in part," he says.
Then, two years ago, this respectable Upper East Side gynecologist plunged into a feverish, unauthorized, and, at least one colleague would later say, "unethical" research program. What's more, as if he were on some secret mission, the newly inspired Hausknecht kept it all to himself. He didn't write a grant proposal, didn't ask permission of his hospital. When hospital administrators questioned him, he maintained that no research was going on. "I took a gamble that could have harmed me in an irrevocable fashion," he says.
A year and a half later, in August 1995, Hausknecht published the world's first large‑scale evidence that two commonly available drugs ‑including one that had been around for more than four decades‑ could induce abortions in women less than nine weeks pregnant. Perhaps half of the 1.5 million women who currently receive abortions in this country each year might qualify. S.B. Gusberg, M.D., former ob‑gyn chair at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, called it "landmark research."
So, late in his career, Hausknecht helped reshape the abortion conflict in America. What his research suggested was that any family practitioner could, with an injection and a suppository, induce a miscarriage. Since the medications cost only about $6, the procedure could be cheap. More important, it might drag abortion out of the public eye. Right‑to‑life radicals could picket a few centralized clinics, but targeting every family doc's office would be impossible.
Of course, in writing the article Hausknecht made himself a clear target. After The New England Journal of Medicine published it, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry faxed the editor: "This is nothing more than chemical warfare against children… Let Richard Hausknecht be forewarned: When abortion is made illegal again, you will be hunted down and tried for genocide." It was an ominous message, especially given the context. Only eight months earlier, two staffers at reproductive centers near Boston had been murdered ‑two of five people killed in the past three years because of their work with abortion. The Journal editor in chief contacted Hausknecht immediately.
"I got a little nervous," says Hausknecht.
A few days later, Operation Rescue picketers showed up at Hausknecht's office, the first protest there since the uniformed doormen struck for higher wages four years earlier. A dozen picketers walked in a slow line‑they'd walked lines before; they wore sensible shoes. They didn't often get to protest on Park Avenue. Randall Terry had driven in from upstate New York. When TV crews showed up, the protesters shoved their placards in front of the cameras. "Remember the Holocaust," said one. Police steered pedestrians away from the protesters.
Afterward, Hausknecht had bulletproof glass installed in his office. His daughter bought him a bulletproof vest. And for the next month, either a New York City police detective or a burly retired military policeman sat under the signed Chagall print in the waiting room of Hausknecht's quiet ob‑gyn practice.
Molly Maslow called the 800 number of an abortion hot line from her home in upstate New York. It was for her daughter Beth (not their real names), who was only seventeen. When she'd gotten her positive blood pregnancy test, she had gasped, like she'd just surfaced after being held underwater too long. She'd always had college in mind, a degree in education.
Molly told the hot‑line operator she needed advice since her own gynecologist didn't perform abortions.