by Amy Coenen
Dr. George Buchanan was finishing his OB/GYN residency in the mid 1980s when he answered an ad for medical director of the Gainesville Women’s Health Center (GWHC). Founded in 1972 by 4 women activists shortly after the Roe v Wade decision, the clinic provided well-woman care, including abortions, to North Central Florida and beyond. In the words of Joan McTigue, who worked at the clinic in the 80s, “we quickly embraced him as quickly as he embraced us…not only did he understand the politics of women’s health care, he lived it.”
I first met Dr. Buchanan in the ‘90s when I was hired as a lab tech at GWHC. I was 23 years old, with no experience in health care, but I was a feminist organizer who was passionate about abortion rights. I wanted to be a part of this feminist, activist clinic that provided abortions up to the then-legal limit of 24 weeks.
George was the reason we were able to provide that care. A doctor willing to perform abortions is rare, one who is willing to provide them throughout the second trimester is one in a million.
Today, with draconian abortion bans passing across the nation, his willingness to perform abortions up to the legal limit, literally risking his life to do so, seems even more precious. The skillset needed to perform a surgical abortion later in pregnancy with minimal risk is rare and rapidly disappearing, I fear. And his skill was second to none.
In addition to performing abortions at GWHC, he had a private practice providing the full gamut of OB/GYN care, including high- risk pregnancies and deliveries. Even in private practice, he shared GWHC’s philosophy of “Health Care for People, Not for Profit”. He was one of the few — if not the only — private obstetrician in town who accepted Medicaid and provided care regardless of ability to pay.
When GWHC founders went on to start a birth center, George was the medical director there, too — providing back up to the midwives who delivered women’s babies at home or at the center. He fully supported women’s choices around their reproductive lives.
Once, during clinic, a co-worker asked him: “George, how is it that you can fight to save an extremely premature baby at 24 weeks, then come in the next day and perform an abortion at 24 weeks?” He replied, “The woman is my patient and I do what she wants.”
Many of us at the clinic would have gladly taken a bullet for him. And that was a real possibility in the ‘90s in North Central Florida, as abortion clinic doctors were murdered and clinics burned to the ground throughout the state.
George openly acknowledged that he might get shot and killed as a result of his decision to provide abortions — and he kept doing it anyway. The risk became so great that at one point, employees routinely picked him up at a pre-determined location and drove him to the clinic while he hid in the back seat under blankets.
Lynne Salzberg, a midwife who worked with George, recalls how he would meet midwives when they needed to transfer a patient to the hospital: “He could show up in a tuxedo. Or in work boots and a tool belt. But he always showed up.” That was my experience with George, too.
I lost touch with George after the clinic closed in the late ‘90s. He continued in his practice, and I have no doubt he continued doing abortions, too. He also married and had two children. While he had a successful career as a surgeon and as an OB, and was a beloved husband, father, and friend, many of us in the feminist community will remember and honor him for his work providing compassionate, safe, and skilled abortion care.
Rest in power, George Buchanan. Thank you for your bravery and your service.
Amy Coenen is a feminist organizer and a nurse practitioner in Gainesville.