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Picking Up the Pieces

by C.J. Mittica
After his daughter took her own life following a painful secret abortion, Cherry Hill’s George Zallie spun his grief into a foundation, extending hope to other women in need.

The most contentious moral debate of our lifetime has been cast as a war of two sides: pro choice or pro life. Battle lines have been drawn, and if you’re not with a given side, you’re against them.

George Zallie isn’t buying any of that. The Cherry Hill resident has made that clear through the billboards he’s placed around this region, with the slogan, “Not Pro Life. Not Pro Choice. The Stacy Zallie Foundation.” After the tragedy that struck his family, Zallie doesn’t have interest in taking sides. All he cares about is saving other families from the pain he’s experienced.

The first inkling of that tragedy was in September 2001, when Zallie’s daughter, Stacy, asked her parents for psychiatric help. She stopped therapy after just three months. A year later, she committed suicide. It was only afterward that Zallie learned about Stacy’s abortion, the incident behind her cry for help. She was 20 years old, and she didn’t know how to cope. “She did something that she didn’t agree with,” he sighs, arranging the silverware on a restaurant table as if it’s the only thing holding him together. “She broke her own moral code. I don’t think she wanted to do it, but she did it.”

Stacy was a caring teenager who was hardwired with maternal instincts. “Her ambition in life was to become a mother and have a family,” adds Zallie, whose family owns 10 ShopRites in the area. Wracked with grief, Zallie sought answers, and found a lifeline in the form of support groups filled with women like Stacy. “If Stacy had known there were willing people out there, groups out there, I believe she would still be here,” he says. And so, in 2004, he created The Stacy Zallie Foundation.

Zallie threw himself into the cause, putting up two-dozen billboards in the region, with Stacy’s face on each one of them.

The tagline, disavowing each side of the debate, reflects the noble but difficult task that Zallie faces: to help women cope with abortions while refusing to get mired in an ideological battle. “I’m not saying that every woman who has an abortion has mental problems, or can’t get through it on an emotional level,” he says. “I’m saying there’s a percentage of them that do. I don’t care if it’s 1 percent.”

Zallie’s goals are simple but far-reaching. The Stacy Zallie Foundation works to link women in need with local counselors and support groups, to remind women that such services are available. He hopes to earn recognition for post-abortion depression as a serious issue. And, he wants licensed therapists to administer screenings of women before they get abortions, to be sure they can handle the emotional stress.

He also works to promote a national standard for abortion physician licensing. Zallie began that quest after learning that his daughter’s abortion was performed by the highly controversial Dr. Steven Chase Brigham, at the American Women’s Services clinic in Voorhees (see sidebar). Zallie, who calls the clinic an “abortion mill,” has taken Brigham to court, but he says such lawsuits come too late. “If there were more oversight of the abortion industry,” says Zallie, “people like this wouldn’t be allowed to operate.”

Still, Zallie has run up against plenty of resistance in his quest to serve a need that most people never even knew to exist. And some of his stances aren’t conventional. He wants post-abortion depression to be recognized as a form of postpartum depression, a notion that’s been dismissed by Planned Parenthood and not officially recognized by either the American Psychological Association or the American Psychiatric Association. (He accuses those two organizations of bowing to political pressure).

“Abortion is something people don’t know a whole lot about in terms of what to expect afterward or what the consequences are physically or emotionally,” says Joanne Thomas, director of Options for Women, a testing and counseling center in Cherry Hill. And so, when depression and self-doubt set in, women are often ill-equipped to handle them.

Even though abortion clinics routinely offer post-abortion counseling, the offer usually falls on deaf ears. For example, the Cherry Hill Women’s Center offers such resources, but few women take them up on it. “At this facility, it’s not something we see [utilized] very often,” says Jennifer Moore Conrow, the center’s director of community outreach and education.

Until that changes, George Zallie won’t be able to rest. He feels he owes Stacy that much.

“I’m doing what I can in her name,” he says, “so what happened to her doesn’t happen to another young lady.”

“Abortion Mill”

A year before she took her own life, Stacy Zallie went to Dr. Steven Chase Brigham for an abortion. This fall, the New Jersey Board of Medical examiners suspended Brigham’s license, effectively halting operations at his American Women's Services abortion clinic based in Voorhees. That action is the culmination of nearly two decades of investigations and legal battles surrounding the doctor, who has been accused of offering late-term abortions, employing unlicensed practitioners, evading taxes and other shady dealings.

The state of New York took away Brigham’s medical license in 1993. Florida followed soon after. California put him on probation and ordered extra training, and his license subsequently lapsed, as it did in Georgia. Pennsylvania forced him to give up his license in 1992; his clinics stayed open there until this past August, when the state gave the order to shut them down for employing unlicensed caregivers. But somehow, Brigham continued operating in South Jersey for more than two decades.

Now, an administrative law judge will consider whether to revoke Brigham’s license in the state. Prosecutors are pushing hard, arguing that he performed abortions as late as 33 weeks. Brigham’s detractors say he’s finally being brought to justice. The question is obvious: What took so long?

“We’ve been calling for this for years,” says Marie Tasy, spokesperson for New Jersey Right for Life. “This is outrageous, and New Jersey needs to follow the lead of other states and permanently revoke his license.”

This isn’t the first time that Brigham has been accused in New Jersey. In 1993, the New Jersey Board of Medical Examiners suspended his license for various violations, but ultimately reinstated it with the proviso that he cease using words like “safe” and “painless” in his advertising.

Safe and painless isn’t how women would describe their visits to Brigham’s clinics, according to Andrea Harman, who still regrets the day she stepped inside American Women’s Services. When she became pregnant at 16, her boyfriend called abortion clinics until one would take her in. American Women’s Services directed the then-Pennsylvania resident to its Voorhees office (since parental consent isn’t required in New Jersey) and instructed her to give a fake name and address. At the clinic, they gave her a Methotrexate-Misoprostol combination, the common drugs used in a non-surgical abortion. “They said I could expect moderate to heavy cramping,” says Harman, now 26. “The night I took the pill, I thought I was dying. I couldn’t even stand up. I ended up crawling to the bathroom and lying there, waiting for hours for it to stop.” Now, Harman has endometriosis and, after two surgeries and multiple chemical treatments, may be infertile. “Brigham was not involved in making women’s lives better,” she states flatly.

The physician, who did not respond to inquiries from South Jersey Magazine, was most recently suspended for starting an abortion in Voorhees on an 18-year-old girl (and four others) and then forcing her to drive to Maryland (where Brigham is not licensed) to finish it. Why? The girl was 21 weeks pregnant; but he was allowed to administer abortions in New Jersey only up to 14 weeks. According to the complaint filed by New Jersey, the girl “suffered a uterine perforation and small bowel injury and was ultimately airlifted to Johns Hopkins Health Center for treatment.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 7, Issue 8 (November, 2010).
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