Late northern Indiana abortion doctor vilified in life and death
CHICAGO (AP) — Dr. Ulrich Klopfer competed so avidly in the 1970s to perform the most abortions each day at a Chicago clinic that it was said he would set his coffee aside, jump to his feet in the break room and rush to the operating table whenever his chief rival in the macabre derby walked by.
That early emphasis on speed helped him go on to perform at least 50,000 abortions over the next 40 years, making him one of the Midwest’s most prolific abortion doctors and a target of weekly protests at his primary clinics in Gary, South Bend and Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The rancor he generated in life only deepened after his death at 79 last month, when 2,246 sets of preserved fetal remains were discovered stacked floor to ceiling in a garage at his suburban Chicago home.
Weeks later, 165 more sets were found in the trunk of a Mercedes-Benz at a business where Klopfer kept several cars.
One Indiana lawmaker pronounced Klopfer a “monster.” Anti-abortion legislators in Congress promptly introduced the Dignity for Aborted Children Act , which would require burial of aborted fetuses nationwide. The White House called for a thorough investigation.
There is no indication Klopfer told others about his grim collection, including his wife. Investigators and others have been scrutinizing his past for clues and have been left to speculate.
Was it a hoarding disorder? Was he was trying to save disposal costs as he racked up legal bills suing and being sued by abortion opponents? Was he hoping to torment his enemies from beyond the grave?
Some who knew him recall the German-born Klopfer as a lonely, enigmatic figure. Unprompted, he would often tell how he took shelter as a 4-year-old when Allied planes bombed his hometown of Dresden during World War II. He would describe emerging three days later with buildings smoldering around him, bodies in the rubble.
When anti-abortion physician Geoffrey Cly met Klopfer in 2008 to discuss concerns that Klopfer’s procedures were endangering patients’ health, Klopfer immediately brought up the 1945 raids on Dresden, in which some 25,000 people died.
“How is the suffering from the bombing by the Americans in Dresden any different than the suffering of women by unwanted babies?” Cly recalled Klopfer saying.
Cly added: “I thought his abortions, how he kept the fetuses, might be unconscious revenge for the bombings.”
News reports about Klopfer going back decades portray him as a combative figure, quick to give the finger to protesters. He spoke emphatically about ensuring women had access to abortion in Indiana, which has some of the nation’s toughest restrictions on the procedure.
He once told a reporter about the abortion debate: “If men got pregnant and women didn’t, this wouldn’t be a discussion.”
For long stretches, Klopfer was the only abortion doctor in the Indiana cities where he had clinics.
Klopfer began performing abortions months after the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion. He was doing 3,500 annually by 1993, he told the Chicago Tribune that year.
Other abortion doctors kept low profiles. Not Klopfer.
During protests at his clinics in 1993, police admonished him for shoving protesters. News reports at the time said officers rejected his suggestion they pour acid in protesters’ eyes.
He was constantly embattled.
Allen County Right to Life went so far as to move its headquarters next door to Klopfer’s clinic in Fort Wayne to turn up the pressure on him.
Protesters once hacked holes in the roof of the South Bend clinic and poked a water hose through a mail slot, flooding an entry room. They sometimes convened outside Klopfer’s home in Crete, a mile from the Indiana line.
One night in 1995, someone shot at his car in Indiana as he drove home, he told the police. An armed guard started accompanying him to and from his clinics.
“Am I concerned? Yes. Am I going to change? No,” Klopfer told The Associated Press.
He was in continuous legal disputes, sometimes with the backing of abortion rights advocates, including the ACLU. He joined a 1999 lawsuit that argued Indiana’s ban on Medicaid funding for abortions discriminated against the poor. It also hurt Klopfer’s business.
It was a 1978 Chicago Sun-Times story that first raised questions publicly about Klopfer, recounting the competition between him and another doctor. A nurse told the newspaper that the other doctor tallied each abortion in pencil on his pant leg. If Klopfer saw lots of marks, he would go “like wildfire to catch up,” she said.
Klopfer’s career started unraveling in the 2000s with a flurry of complaints, including that he performed an abortion on a 10-year-old raped by her uncle and did not notify law enforcement.
Cly testified in front of Indiana lawmakers that he treated a patient who had a life-threatening uterine infection after Klopfer left parts of a fetus in her womb.
Klopfer complained that conservative state officials were in cahoots with anti-abortion groups to close him down. But citing shoddy record-keeping and substandard patient monitoring, Indiana regulators took away his license in 2016.
After his Fort Wayne clinic was closed in 2013 as regulators’ scrutiny intensified, Klopfer kept making the three-hour drive from Illinois each week until shortly before his death, sleeping overnight in its empty, disheveled offices, said Mark Archer, an anti-abortion filmmaker who met Klopfer at the shuttered clinic last year.
“He believed he would one day resume his practice,” Archer said.
Klopfer had been displaying signs of being a hoarder for years by then.
Kevin Bolger, his widow’s lawyer, went to the Klopfer home after the discovery of the fetuses and said it was impossible to enter some rooms because Klopfer had packed them wall to wall with newspapers, old TVs and other appliances. But Bolger wasn’t convinced hoarding accounted for the collection of fetal remains.
“What kind of a hoarder collects body parts?” he said.
Most of the remains were from abortions Klopfer did in the early 2000s. They were in airtight plastic bags, inside scores of cardboard boxes. Each bag was labeled with some information, such as the year of the abortion, but Illinois officials would not say whether another detail was included, such as the name of the woman who underwent the procedure.
At the time Klopfer was practicing, in Indiana, as in most states still, clinics routinely sent fetal remains to processors that incinerated them along with medical waste. Cly said disposing of a fetus in the early 2000s would have cost around $10.
Whether Klopfer committed a crime in keeping the fetuses is unclear.
A 2016 Indiana law requires that fetuses be treated as human remains and buried or cremated. It also prohibits the transfer of fetuses across state lines. But the law wasn’t in effect yet when Klopfer practiced.
Some anti-abortion groups in recent weeks likened Klopfer to Kermit Gosnell, an abortion doctor who stored fetal remains in bags, milk jugs and orange juice cartons that a Philadelphia clinic prosecutor called “a house of horrors.”
Klopfer seemed more meticulous in how he stored remains. And he was never accused of performing the illegal late-term abortions Gosnell sought to conceal. Gosnell was convicted of murder and sent to prison in 2013 for the deaths of three babies who had been born alive. Some had their spines cut with scissors.
In 1982, employees at a storage center in Los Angeles found over 15,000 fetal remains in a container linked to a pathologist. Authorities concluded he kept them to avoid having to pay a medical waste company to dispose of them.
Investigators haven’t said if Klopfer may have had a financial motive.
Klopfer’s wife is as dumbfounded as anyone about why her husband did what he did and is still getting over the shock, said Bolger, her lawyer. He said he doubts there will ever be a definitive answer: “He took the answer to his grave.”
Cly speculated that keeping the fetal remains and knowing they would be discovered after his death might have been Klopfer’s way of irritating his critics one last time.
His foes may get the last word. The fetuses from the garage have been returned to Indiana, where state officials promised they will receive what anti-abortion groups said they deserved all along: a proper burial. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend said it will make its cemeteries available.
AP news researcher Jennifer Farrar contributed to this report.