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Published August 06, 2011, 10:55 AM

GF doctor who pioneered abortion services dies

Grand Forks, ND. - Dr. Richard Leigh was focal point for protests following Roe v. Wade. Dr. Richard Leigh, the longtime Grand Forks physician who was both praised and vilified as one of North Dakota’s only doctors performing abortions through the 1970s and 1980s, died Thursday at a hospice near his home in the Phoenix, Ariz., area.

By: Chuck Haga, grandforksherald.com

Dr. Richard Leigh, the longtime Grand Forks physician who was both praised and vilified as one of North Dakota’s only doctors performing abortions through the 1970s and 1980s, died Thursday at a hospice near his home in the Phoenix, Ariz., area.

He was 86 and had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for six years, his wife said.

“People who knew him trusted him and liked him,” Kathy Leigh said. “And that’s how I will remember him.”

His name, however, will forever be linked to the long-running and often volatile public debate over abortion.

“He was a pioneer,” said Jane Bovard, who started the state’s first abortion counseling and referral hotline in 1974 and a state chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League in 1975.

“I was much more politically involved than Dr. Leigh was,” she said. “It was not his style to go to the Legislature or do political lobbying. But I know he felt he was providing quality care that was very much needed.”

Leigh, whose father was a doctor who started a practice in Grand Forks in the 1920s, had worked as an obstetrician and gynecologist in his hometown since 1956. Four months after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark Roe v. Wade decision in January 1973, legalizing abortion, he began offering the procedure from his office on University Avenue.

“Before Roe v. Wade, there were people providing illegal abortions in North Dakota, back-alley abortionists,” Bovard said. “He pretty much put an end to that once abortions became legal.”

In 1988 and 1990 interviews, Leigh said he had performed 11,876 abortions, though it is unclear from those reports whether the number represented all abortions done since 1973 or those performed between 1981, when the state mandated reporting, and August 1988, when he stopped doing them.

For years, Leigh and the late Dr. Robert Lucy in Jamestown, N.D., were the only physicians who provided legal abortion services in the state, said Bovard, who in 1981 opened the first abortion clinic in the state, Fargo Women’s Health Organization. Today, she is an owner of the Red River Women’s Clinic in downtown Fargo, the only clinic in the state now offering abortion services.

“He felt it was a service that needed to be provided and needed to be legal, and he knew he had the skills to provide the service,” Bovard said. “It was rare to ever hear of anyone who had a complication. He was a good physician.”

Confronting protesters

Leigh’s office had become a marshaling point for demonstrations by people opposed to abortion, and Leigh complained that anti-abortion activists had picketed his home, dug through his trash, tried to break into his office to steal records and generally “made it unpleasant to come to work.”

He also expressed concern that the ongoing controversy over his practice might damage that of his brother, Dr. James Leigh, a Grand Forks family practitioner who recently retired.

“He was subjected to a lot of harassment and picketing,” Bovard said of Richard Leigh. “He was a feisty person, but he never let that get to him. For the most part, he just let it roll off his back.”

In June 1988, Leigh asked local and state prosecutors to charge picketers whom he said violated injunctions restricting their access to his offices, including two men who staged a sit-in and a man who, Leigh said, brought a child inside and asked his nurse to show the child “how they rip out the babies.” He also threatened to sue for defamation a protester who called him a “child killer.”

Leigh said he did not quit performing abortions because of the protests, however, but more because Canada — which provided about half of his patient traffic — had struck down restrictive abortion laws there in the late 1980s.

Nonetheless, abortion foes hailed the decision as a victory.

“This is wonderful,” the late Al Hackenberg, then vice president of the Greater Grand Forks Right to Life Association, said at the time. “It’s been a long, hard battle. We are still going to be vigilant so no one else steps in to start up a practice.”

A woman in Crookston, a member of the Minneapolis-based Feminists for Life of America, also cheered Leigh’s withdrawal. “It’s one less location for women to be exploited and children to be butchered,” she said.

In January 2003, on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Leigh said in an interview with the Herald that he had no regrets about his medical career choices.

“Abortion is not a good solution,” he said then. “It would be better if we didn’t have it. But it would be even better if we didn’t need it.”

He had said much the same thing five years earlier.

“We should educate all children from the first grade on to be responsible,” he said in the 1988 interview. “If we did that, there wouldn’t be (unwanted) pregnancies. Never, never has anybody heard me say abortion is a good answer. The best answer is education.”

Leigh continued working as a physician in Grand Forks, branching into alternative therapies and treating allergies, until federal authorities raised questions in 2006 about his Medicare billings. He surrendered his medical license and retired.

‘A caring person’

Although Leigh came to be identified as “the abortion doctor,” he was more than that to people who knew him. Mike Stromberg, a former UND swim team coach now living in Colorado, remembers Leigh as a friend, a loyal team supporter and occasional mentor.

“He was a swimmer himself and often came out to swim in our pool, before or after practices,” Stromberg said. “He was like a father away from home for a lot of our kids, a caring person who always had a kind word.”

Kathy Leigh said that funeral arrangements in Arizona are incomplete. She said a memorial service may be held later in Grand Forks.

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