In Memory of Dr. Morris Turner, Who Provided Safe Abortions for 40 Years

Morris Turner grew up hearing whispered stories of the women who had died from childbirth and unsafe abortion in his rural Georgia town. At the age of 10, he vowed to become a doctor to prevent such suffering.

Morris Turner
Morris Turner grew up hearing whispers of women who had died from childbirth and unsafe abortion in his rural Georgia town. At the age of 10, he vowed to become a doctor to prevent such suffering. Courtesy Marcy Bloom

On June 30 of this year, Morris E. Turner, M.D., unexpectedly died at the age of 65 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One month later, the city council proclaimed that July 30, 2014 was to be an official day in his honor. Turner, members of the council explained, was “a champion of obstetrics and gynecology in the region by advocating for women in underserved communities and a woman’s right to choose.” Such was Turner’s enormous impact on the Pittsburgh community—and it is why his family, patients, and colleagues in the area are still reeling from this untimely loss.

Turner’s wife, Verena Pierce Turner, often said of her husband that he “didn’t evolve” into the caring person he was as an adult; rather, she and his siblings agreed, he had prioritized others’ needs above his own since childhood. Born 66 years ago today to two impoverished African-American sharecroppers in rural Barney, Georgia, Turner grew up hearing whispered stories about local women and girls who bled to death from childbirth and abortion. When he was 10 years old, Turner announced that he would become a doctor to prevent this kind of suffering.

Such a goal required surmounting many obstacles, including Turner’s family’s poverty and the racial tensions rampant in the highly segregated farm country of his youth, where he also picked cotton and tobacco for 50 cents a day. Turner’s Washington Street High School was in Quitman, Georgia, more than 30 miles away; as an adult, he frequently described his memories of white children’s buses arriving first, another reminder of the subjugation African-American students faced. (Ironically, Turner later received an award in the formerly whites-only school he had once been forbidden from attending.) Still, he graduated from Washington Street as the valedictorian in 1965. With the support of his African-American teachers, who vigorously instilled a sense of pride in their students, he left the Barney region for the first time to study under a full scholarship at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

Turner, who had owned no shoes until starting elementary school, arrived in Atlanta with two outfits—one to wear and one to wash. But he excelled at Morehouse, where he earned degrees in biology and chemistry before ultimately winning a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh Medical School in 1969.

From the beginning of his illustrious medical career, Turner continued to pursue the vow he’d made as a child to help women in need. When he spoke later of his OB-GYN residency, which began at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School’s Magee-Womens Hospital in 1973, he often recounted how astonished he was to find nearly half of the beds in the emergency room occupied by desperate women who had attempted illegal, unsafe abortions. Although the procedure was banned at the time in Pennsylvania, Turner frequently used the broadly defined exception of “women’s health” to begin performing safe abortions whenever he was permitted by the hospital board to do so. After the Roe v. Wade decision, he also learned how to perform second-trimester abortions, which even today are more difficult for women to obtain.

In the early 2000s, in the face of proposed ambulatory service center regulations for abortion clinics, Turner passionately testified before the state legislature that such rules only endangered the lives of young women, women of color, rural women, and poor women. Regrettably, these statutes still passed; Turner continued to push against them and further access to care wherever he could, especially at his own place of employment.

Despite the constant presence of anti-choice protesters at his home and private office, which included picketing, sit-ins, harassment, and death threats, Turner always maintained that abortions were a necessary part of reproductive health care. The abuse grew so severe that Turner employed a security guard for many years. However, he never once considered stopping his practice.

Turner certainly wasn’t cowed by anti-abortion advocates chaining themselves to his office or calling him a “baby-killer”; nor, for that matter, was he overcome by severe weather conditions. During a blizzard in January 1994, Turner woke up to learn that his car was snowed in, that schools were closed, and that the city had warned its residents to stay off the streets. But Turner knew that a woman at Magee needed him to deliver her baby—one of the many thousands of births he oversaw. So, tenacious as always, he bundled up and walked more than an hour to the hospital instead.

Throughout his life, Turner maintained this level of resolve in the region’s most underserved areas, too. He kept a rigorous schedule that took him out into the community weekly, often traveling to underfunded clinics in small Rust Belt towns filled with people desperately in need of services. There, Turner set out to establish proper protocols, train the staff in their implementation, order supplies, set schedules, and raise the overall standard of care in these areas. Up until his final days, he was still taking calls, delivering babies, doing gynecological surgery in rotation, and providing safe abortions.

Teaching was another one of his great loves. In 2002, he joined the full-time faculty of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He loved being with medical students—he allowed them to observe alongside him, a rarity—as well as residents, and was an excellent mentor who thoroughly explained and demonstrated the nuances of practices, techniques, and theory in order to reproduce the best possible care for current and future patients. His devotion to teaching led to an award in 2010 for Excellence in Clinical Instruction at the medical school.

Even in the face of countless other awards from his colleagues, medical societies, and community groups, Turner remained humble and dignified. For several years in the 1990s, his peers named him as a “Top Doctor” in Pittsburgh Magazine’s annual list. More recently, in 2010, Gateway Medical Society also formally recognized his skills and the depth of his work; the New Pittsburgh Courier listed him as one of its 50 Men of Excellence in 2012. He also served on the admissions committee for the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh for 16 years, an unusually long span of time for such a responsibility. In addition, he acted as president of the Medical Staff at Magee-Womens Hospital for two terms before joining the Magee Board of Directors, as well as that of the Allegheny County Medical Society.

On September 11, Magee held a rare private memorial for Turner, only the second of its kind in many decades. A standing-room-only crowd gathered to revere this dedicated doctor, who overcame the worst of racial bigotry to become a model of unflagging commitment to quality medical care.

Morris E. Turner’s daily mantra was being “the best that we could be” every day. Providing complete reproductive care to his patients with skill and compassion was a core part of that service to humanity. As a surgeon, medical director, president, teacher, mentor, award recipient, son, husband, father, and grandfather, he changed the lives of many and left the world in a far better place than he found it. He will be deeply missed.