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  • Writer's pictureMark Jespersen


Updated: Feb 1, 2023


Susan Hill: Champion of Women's Rights

I left advertising in 1992 to become a writer in the field of medical education. My first big assignment was to bring together the movers and shakers in women’s reproductive health for a symposium I named Trends in Women’s Healthcare.

A physician I knew suggested I speak first with a woman named Susan Hill. When I finally got her on the phone, after several attempts, she asked me, in her soft southern accent, where I came from and what exactly did I know about the main issues that affected women today? I told her that I was brought up in a Republican Mormon home in a conservative neighborhood just north of Chicago.

There was a rather long pause before she replied, “A Boy Scout as well I suppose?” I had to admit that was also true.

“My goodness, we’ve got our work cut out for us here. But if you’re willing,” she added with a gentle laugh, “so am I.”

That was the beginning of what became a long and friendly professional relationship. Over the years, whenever Susan would introduce me to her colleagues, it was always as the Republican Mormon who had seen the light.

The Trends in Women’s Health symposium became an annual event, well attended by leaders and providers in reproductive rights from national organizations and independent family planning centers.

And Susan was always there for me, suggesting topics and speakers for the event, including the activist, documentary filmmaker, and author Michael Moore (who had briefly worked in a Detroit abortion clinic to help pay expenses in college). Susan reminded me that Moore was raised Catholic and was even a Boy Scout. “An Eagle Scout in fact,” she added with a hint of her southern sense of humor.

It was Susan who first introduced me to Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of the Court's opinion in Roe v. Wade.

“Hey Mark,” she said on the phone one day, “how’d you like to be my escort to a little do in Manhattan this weekend?” Her date had a previous engagement and I was likely a second or third choice. “It’s a big deal, a retirement party for Justice Blackmun at the St. Regis.” I said yes, of course!

“Oh, and you’ll need a really good tux.” With that, she was called away to another phone call and I went online to find out where I could rent a tux—a really good one.

The day of the event, I rode down from Boston on Amtrak, checked into a cheap hotel in Murray’s Hill, where I’d once lived for a couple of years. I arrived at the St. Regis a bit early and watched as Susan pulled up in a black limo, driven by her long-term security guard, McCoy Faulkner.

Susan was a national women's rights advocate and the owner of several abortion clinics around the country. She often wore body armor. But not tonight. Up we went to the top floor, where we were guests at an exclusive fundraising dinner, with the crème of liberal film stars, politicians, and the very wealthy. Halfway through the tribute to Justice Blackmun, the business magnate and investor Warren Buffet and his wife sang a duet. It was surreal.

Susan died on January 30, 2010, at a hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. She was 61 and had breast cancer. I went to Raleigh one last time to see her before she passed away.

The media stories following her untimely death recounted story after story of how she focused her life on establishing clinics in rural areas where women had no access to abortion services. She opened more clinics than anyone else in the United States, sometimes drawing a thousand protesters at a time. She sued protesters 34 times for blocking entrances and physically preventing women from entering the facilities.

"Susan was a determined pioneer for women's rights, always elegant and super brilliant," says Lajuan Carpenter, Hill's assistant at the National Women's Health Foundation, which has clinics in Raleigh, as well as Georgia, Indiana, and Mississippi.

"She's probably the toughest person I ever knew," said her brother, Dan Hill. "She's the only person I knew who wore a bulletproof vest to work or was supposed to wear one to work. People really wanted to kill her, and she never flinched."

In 2007, Susan received the Nancy Susan Reynolds award from North Carolina for public advocacy in the face of personal risk.

Susan began her career in 1973 in a Florida abortion clinic she opened outside Miami, one week after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal. A small girl walked through Hill's door that day, hands curled by cerebral palsy, pregnant by an abusive uncle. Hill recalled in 2007 that the girl was too stricken and disabled to speak about her problem, so her mother had driven 250 miles that morning to help bring her daughter to the clinic.

Susan always said it was the women's stories that kept her motivated even though bomb threats, death threats, arsonists, and insults marked her career.

One of Susan's doctors, David Gunn, was killed in 1993 after being shot three times in the back by a protester. His killer, Michael Frederick Griffin, is now serving a life sentence.

Susan appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC after Dr. George Tiller was shot dead in his church, where he was serving as an usher. "We're still here, and we're going to be here," Susan told Maddow. George was one of the nation's few providers of late-term abortions and yet another of the dedicated physicians I was fortunate to know. 

"In spite of threats, she wouldn't wear her bulletproof vest," said her longtime friend Ann Rose. "She was not going to let them control her life. She wasn't going to be intimidated." As for her clinics, says Ann, "They will go on as always."

Ann and I had gone to see Susan that last time at the hospital in Raleigh. McCoy Faulkner came along as well. As we sat around her bed, Susan retold the story of how she’d found a receptionist for the clinic in Jackson, Mississippi. A week before the Jackson clinic was to open, a gunman opened fire at a Brookline, Massachusetts, Planned Parenthood clinic, killing two receptionists. The next week, as the Jackson clinic opened its doors, antichoice protesters were there en masse. A local woman, conservative to the core, had seen the protests on television and heard about the killings in Boston. “She walked defiantly up our front walk, the crowd parting to let her through, and into the front lobby where I encountered her,” said Susan. “She said she had come to volunteer to be our new receptionist, in spite of what anybody thought about it!”

It was one of Susan’s favorite stories. And mine.

Nancy Susan Reynolds Award 2007

The author with Justice Blackmun.

Justice Blackmun: "Old Number Three"

It was Harry A. Blackmun who fully opened the door to the reproductive rights of women across the country. I met him shortly after his retirement from the United States Supreme Court, on two occasions.

Justice Blackmun referred to himself as "Old Number Three" because he was President Richard Nixon's third choice for a Supreme Court vacancy. As he met his fellow judges for their first official photo session, he remembered thinking, “What am I doing here?”

For years Justice Blackmun drove a little Volkswagen Beetle to work—and even to social affairs at the White House. On weekdays he had breakfast with his law clerks in the Court's public cafeteria. When I first met him in his chambers in Washington, DC, he was wearing an old beige cardigan. A baseball bat hung on the wall behind his desk. He put on a jacket for our photo, but right after the photo was taken he hung up the jacket and replaced it with his old sweater.

He had a strong midwestern work ethic, and he told us he had "worked long hours because I was dumber than the rest of the guys and took maybe longer to come to a conclusion."

After all his years of work on behalf of women’s rights, Justice Blackmun still could not figure out why so many were against them. I asked him why he felt so passionate about the issue and he laughed quietly, saying it was probably because he had a wife and three daughters. “Even the dog was female,” he smiled.

Merle Hoffman: Choices

My first impression of Merle Hoffman was that Joan Rivers had become an advocate for women’s rights—they had a lot in common. The times when I had the chance to work with Merle, or interview her, she was so outspoken that I could only nod my head from time to time, and take copious notes.

Her life took her from classical piano prodigy at Carnegie Hall to the forefront (and front lines) of women’s rights, here and abroad.

“My early years and adolescence were spent preparing to become a concert pianist. When I finally decided to go to college at the age of 22, I needed three part time jobs to pay for tuition—and one was with an internist, Dr. Martin Gold, for whom I worked as a medical assistant.” (Intimate Wars)

The year was 1970, and abortion had recently been decriminalized in the state of New York. Roe v. Wade was still 3 years away.

Merle told me that on one of her first days at the clinic, Dr. Gold told her to help a new patient who had come in for an abortion. Merle came from a very private life, filled mostly with piano lessons and performances. What could she possibly do that would be of any use? Here’s how Merle remembers that day:

“She came from New Jersey because abortion was still illegal in that state. She was white and married with a 7 year old. She was terrified, but she knew she just could not afford another child. I had to ‘counsel’ her (at that time there was absolutely no concept of this—everything was being done for the first time). I stayed with her and held her hand throughout her abortion—I don’t remember her name or her face but I remember her hand, and the thousands who have come after, forming an alliance of absolute faith and trust.”

You can read more about Merle in this review of her outstanding book, Intimate Wars.

Remembering Trudy

With any new year, we like to take a moment to reflect back on those who have left us. This year, however, I want to reflect back a little longer, over the past 20 years of my work in medical education, to tell you about some of the people who I was fortunate enough to know.

Dr. Trudy L. Bush wrote this bit of sage advise:

“Every time we do a study or write a new guideline, it needs to be evaluated in the context of all the studies that came before. New findings and guidelines bring us closer to the truth but we may never reach it entirely.”

We were managing a series of continuing medical education events across the country on the topic of heart disease in women. The foremost specialists in the field were invited to participate. But in spite of all our efforts, there was one holdout, Dr. Bush.  

I had heard Dr. Bush speak about her work in the leading clinical trials on heart disease. As one reviewer wrote, Dr. Bush could communicate the most complex scientific findings “in a clear manner without using scientific jargon and without talking down to her audiences.”

She would be perfect for our series, and I was determined to get Dr. Bush to participate. When I asked one of our confirmed speakers, Dr. Elizabeth Barrett-Connor (another world-class specialist in the field), for advice, she replied: “Tell Trudy she can bring her dog.”

That did it. Dr. Bush agreed not only to participate but also to chair the conference.

The day of the event, 10 minutes before we were scheduled to begin, Trudy had not yet arrived. In a mild panic, I went down to the front entrance of the hospital to see if I could find her. Just then, an old MGB, top down, with a rather large dog in the passenger seat, came roaring up the circular drive.

The woman behind the wheel stopped and called out to me: “Hey, you must be Mark? Here’s my slides. Let’s go!” Dr. Bush handed me her tray of slides (yes, this was several years ago), grabbed her dog’s leash, and off we went, the three of us, into the building.

As we entered the conference room, filled with hundreds of physicians, Dr. Bush handed the dog’s leash over to me and went up to the podium. She welcomed everyone, showing no sign of having just arrived in the nick of time. Everyone stood up, applauding. Dr. Bush acknowledged the praise, and gesturing with both hands told everyone to sit. The minute her dog heard the word “sit,” down he went next to me, and he stayed that way until Dr. Bush came to collect him after the event. 

I’ll never forget Trudy. Or her dog. 

You can read more about Dr. Bush here:

Tell Me a Story Photo: Mark Jespersen

What makes a good story? Two things come to mind: a topic that interests me and writing that's so good, I can’t help but read, listen, or watch all the way to the end, no matter how long it takes.

In advertising, you can write and say just about anything you want. People understand what you are hinting at, or trying to sell. And for years I enjoyed that freedom, winning awards for clever headlines that made people think, laugh, and buy all kinds of stuff.

I wasn’t completely commercial, though. And several of my pro-bono campaigns helped plant over one million trees, raised awareness of the problem of homeless and abandoned kids in Boston, and brought bucket loads of money into a large non-profit organization in Massachusetts that protects animals.

What I am trying to say is not all advertising is bad, especially when it is well written and of value to the audience. You can read what others think about this concept on Reddit, one of my favorite sites.

Twenty years ago, I decided to leave the field of consumer advertising to create a medical communications agency. Medical writing, it seemed to me (and to my first client), could benefit from writing that could take extremely complex issues and make them understandable and compelling.

It wasn’t easy at first. Following the AMA Manual of Style, I had to write content that was not only scholarly but also fairly balanced and not influenced by the amount of money spent to promote or puff up the benefits of just one drug, medical device, or procedure. I also learned that there is nothing particularly funny or clever to write about things like cancer. Digging into the research, I discovered a world of data that is often difficult to understand, even for scholars or specialists. The writing may have been balanced and presented correctly, but what, if anything, you were supposed to do or think about it all was often unclear.

I struggled with this until one day when I had a long talk with David Fanning, a world-famous investigative journalist who, at the time, happened to live across the street from me in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Fanning’s stories, presented weekly on FRONTLINE, took you down a path, letting you look at all the angles (the fair balance part), and then, at the end, you could come to your own conclusion about the complex issues being presented. The writers and filmmakers on FRONTLINE worked hard to be completely transparent. You believed their documentaries and you learned something of value.

After talking with Fanning, I never looked back. This was how I wanted to present the stories that our clients needed to tell.

You can read more about David Fanning here.

More stories coming soon.

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