The extremist rhetoric and subculture of violence within the anti-abortion movement is largely ignored, leading to political as well as real-world consequences. We cannot afford to disregard the danger to providers and loss of access to reproductive health care for millions of Americans.
Dr. George Tiller: May 31, 2009
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Dr. Barnett Slepian: October 23, 1998
Security Guard Robert Sanderson: January 29, 1998
Receptionist Shannon Lowney: December 30, 1994
Receptionist Lee Ann Nichols: December 30, 1994
Dr. John Britton: July 29, 1994
Clinic Escort James Barrett: July 29, 1994
Dr. David Gunn: March 10, 1993
Five short years since the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, we await the Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of creating clinic-shielding buffer zones – local or statewide ordinances that require protesters be a certain distance from entrances and patients. In the months that have passed between the McCullen v. Coakley hearing this winter, numerous instances of vandalism, threats and violence have been reported around the country. Clinics were burned; doctors were threatened; pro-choice journalists and activists were targeted (including myself) and yet, somehow, most Americans remain unaware of the extremist rhetoric and subculture of violence in the anti-abortion movement. This societal amnesia on domestic terrorism is pervasive enough to have reached our elected officials – and even our judges.
In May, the Senate Judiciary Committee held confirmation hearings on the appointment of Michael Boggs to the federal district court in Georgia where, as a state senator, he voted to publish the names of abortion providers. When questioned by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota), Boggs said he regretted that particular vote “in light of what I subsequently learned.”
Senator Franken expressed disbelief at this response: “You were a state legislator at the time and you weren’t aware of any of the public safety issues that were involved around this whole issue? Doctors were murdered for this, and yet you were not aware of that at all?”
Boggs replied that he wasn’t aware, despite the 1997 Atlanta clinic bombing. To that, Senator Franken said, “Thirty-seven years old. A state legislator. Were not aware of anything. OK.”
The Boggs nomination is being opposed on a number of grounds – LGBTQ rights, support for the Confederate insignia on the state flag, and an uneasiness with the deal President Obama made that put him up for the vacancy. But even with the head of the country’s most visible pro-choice organization relentlessly highlighting his record on reproductive rights, far too few know of his vote to publicize provider information. Many seem to shrug off the danger, as though anti-choice violence is part of a bygone era.
I was heartened to hear the senators in the Judiciary Committee recognize the grave danger posed to doctors by Michael Boggs’ vote to publish the names of abortion providers when he was in the state legislature in Georgia. It was not yet five years ago that Dr. Tiller was shot dead in the pews of his church by an anti-choice extremist. Our country lost a great doctor that day and a family lost a devoted father and husband.
When we gloss over the memory of these great men and women who have had their lives taken or threatened by radicals who promote violence against those who provide women with vital and constitutionally protected services, we do a disservice to their memory, their work and the freedom our country was built upon . . . [W]e can only hope that the Supreme Court justices will hold the memories of these doctors close at hand when deciding whether or not to uphold the critical protective zones around clinics that prevent some of these tragedies from occurring.
Bulletproof Glass vs. Patient-Centered Care
Reproductive rights law experts are not optimistic about the SCOTUS decision on buffer-zone constitutionality. According to David Cohen, professor at Drexel Law School and co-author of a forthcoming book with Krysten Connon about targeted harassment of abortion providers, the SCOTUS ruling might be narrow enough to leave some buffer zones unscathed. A broad ruling, however, would put every ordinance and law in the country in jeopardy – and it’s certainly possible.
In Hill v. Colorado, the Supreme Court case that ultimately upheld Colorado’s statewide buffer zone, Justice Anthony Kennedy added to Justice Antonin Scalia’s harsh dissent of the 6-3 decision. Kennedy said the Colorado statute discriminated against a specific type of speech – anti-abortion speech. Upholding it, he said, “contradicts more than a half century of well-established First Amendment principles.”
“If Kennedy is the swing vote, he’s made his position on buffer zones and the First Amendment clear,” said Cohen. “I cannot see a good outcome. I hope I’m wrong.”
The loss of what protection buffer zones afford reproductive health care workers could put already under siege providers in further jeopardy. Cohen spoke with 87 providers for his book and every one of them already considers protective measures for their safety as well as that of their staff and patients.
“That was a common story,” Cohen said. “It’s almost universal that people think about [bullet proof vests]. How much they own and wear one is a very individual choice, with some people wearing all the time, with some saying, ‘What good is it going to do, they’re going to shoot me in the head.'”
While Cohen cites the gradual extrication of abortion care from hospitals to stand-alone clinics as one of the factors that led to an expectation of working under threat of harm, tracing the broader roadmap that led to our cultural disregard of these conditions is a harder task.
“People are forgetful – like with Dr. Tiller just being murdered five years ago and the Montana clinic [that was vandalized]. Or people think they’re isolated incidents,” said Cohen. “A lot of abortion providers don’t talk about this openly . . . . They don’t even think of it as something to remark about. Something has to be as extreme as vandalizing a clinic in its entirety or murdering someone for the broader media to pay attention to it.”
For the providers Cohen spoke with, the concern that weighs most often on their minds is balancing “provider safety” and the “patient-centered experience.” Anytime bulletproof glass is built into a reception area, a barrier exists between the patient and the caregiver, often creating an airport security experience.”It’s not that Planned Parenthood wants that,” said Cohen. “But they feel that they need to have it. You need to guarantee providers’ safety; it becomes a regular part of the world of working in and going to a clinic – and it shouldn’t be.”
“I don’t wear a bulletproof vest, but I never go outside in my scrubs – not ever. I feel like that’s just smart,” said Leah Torres, MD, OBGYN and reproductive health specialist. “Every time I walk into a Planned Parenthood clinic, I have to be wary of the reality. I can’t pretend that I’m in Salt Lake City and everything is hunky dory. There are crazy people everywhere.”
Torres said her concerns about her personal safety are more about her commitment to abortion access than fear for herself. “Planned Parenthood has turned into a target,” she said. “I have to be vigilant. If I get hurt, I’m not the only one affected – I’ve done my family and my patients a disservice . . . I think about the greater scope.”
Operation Rescue, the well-organized and well-funded anti-abortion group that inspired Dr. Tiller’s murderer Scott Roeder, has exported its tactics of harassment and picketing to other states with increased fervor in recent years. Torres said her community feels the effects.
These are the people behind Dr. Tiller’s murder; these are the people behind brainwashing people into harassment. I don’t care what side of the argument you’re on, that’s how violence is born. People die . . . It’s not OK to sit by and watch the brewing of this violent rhetoric. They are extremists; if you’re going to shoot people – not once, but twice because you missed the first time, you need to be investigated. Somebody needs to have a very close eye on you.
Instead of watching groups like Operation Rescue and their collaborators, the Pro-Life Action League, however, law enforcement, the media and most Americans focus their attention on foreign terrorism. Domestic terrorism committed by groups preaching misinterpreted Biblical ideology is brushed off, creating a climate of misdirected fear.
It’s also troubling to see the double standard employed by our media when they cover terrorists or extremists who are Muslim when compared to those of other faiths. For example, in the past we have seen literally hundreds of violent attacks against abortion clinics, from fire bombings to doctors being murdered. These militants are no doubt inspired by their religious views, but we don’t hear the media refer to them as “Christian terrorists.”
“What I would like to see is more of the mainstream Christian groups denouncing the extremist rhetoric,” Obeidallah said in an interview with Truthout. “I would like to see politicians say they won’t go on shows and networks like Bryan Fischer’s. These guys are extremists and there’s no place for that in our political discourse.”
The Marginalization of Access
The allowance, dismissal and even widespread acceptance of the extremist rhetoric do more than just threaten the safety of providers. Those attitudes have fostered a climate of resignation surrounding the closure of our nation’s reproductive health care clinics. The loss of more than 50 clinics in just the past four years has disproportionately affected already disadvantaged communities such as the residents of rural Mississippi and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
Michelle Colon describes herself as a “veteran Pink House defender” who is committed to standing guard outside Mississippi’s last abortion clinic. As they await a court ruling on a law intended to shut the Pink House doors for good, she reflected on the effect of anti-abortion extremism in her community.
Ya know, it’s been five years. I’ll never forget when I heard the news [about Dr. Tiller]. Is that the only time our side can galvanize – when someone gets murdered?
The folks who had been aware of the violence when it started in the ’80s – we knew it never stopped . . . As far as [on the] whole? No. “Oh, that’s what the crazy people do in NYC or wherever; that’ll never happen here,” people think. Meanwhile, we were still getting bomb threats. People think the “antis” are harmless. The other day [outside the clinic], I heard: “They’re just so passionate about the babies being killed; that’s why they act that way . . . “
To say there’s no threat here is wrong, though. Anytime you have to have security cameras and security 24-hours a day and bulletproof glass and Tasers, when the police have to constantly roll by and sit out in front of your clinic, there’s a threat.
And if the 5th Circuit Court upholds the admitting privileges law, Mississippi residents could lose their only abortion provider.The loss of access to the full slate of reproductive health care services would mean women lose the fundamental ability to control their biology and, therefore, their lives. “You have to teach educated men and women that once you take away abortion – and choice – nothing is left,” said Colon.
Being left without choices is something those living in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley are already dealing with. The region watched its last clinic close in March, leaving the estimated 275,000 women of reproductive age living in the RGV more than a five-hour drive from the nearest abortion provider.
Reproductive justice activist Nancy Cardenas Pena is pained by the situation faced by women in the region where she was raised.
In communities like the Rio Grande Valley that are actually the poorest in the United States, there are a wider set of responsibilities and issues to deal with. In colonias where there is barely electricity, running water and little to no public transportation, RGV residents sometimes do not have the distinct privilege of being able to stand on the sidelines and protest anti-reproductive health care legislation.
Here, women who seek cervical cancer exams – or any other kinds of cancer screenings – have to put it off to a time where they can afford it or simply get a ride there . . . [P]eople who are undocumented are left to find inhumane ways to fund and receive their abortion . . . The problem grows and there is a dramatic increase in costs.
Though they may not be seeing an increase in visible violence in their communities, the political climate around the country affects the RGV. As extremist rhetoric around abortion becomes the norm in our cultural and public discourse, bringing the number of clinics in a state the size of Texas down to single digits looks less unreasonable to an apathetic public.
The Time to Engage Is Now
While some providers have been stepping out and risking their lives and livelihoods to wake people up – most notably Dr. Willie Parker of Pink House,the vocal provider fighting publicly to keep Mississippi’s Pink House open – immense work in cultivating basic awareness must be done. It’s going to take every citizen who cares about bodily autonomy and basic health care speaking out to combat the four-decades long campaign to end abortion access in this country. Understanding that the targeting of providers by groups like Operation Rescue and the Pro-Life Action League is tied to the well-funded legislative agenda-pushing groups like Americans United for Life is key. Standing up to their money, organizing, and fueling of fringe and unhinged activists will take everyone.
Luckily there is good news: it can – and is – being done.
As more people awaken to the erosion of their rights, grassroots and national groups are banding together to oppose harmful legislation, expose acts of domestic terrorism and push positive legislation.
“There is optimism in the affirmative things that some states are doing,” Cohen said. “There’s optimism in the filibuster that happened in Missouri. People are motivated and active around these issues and hopefully the tide will turn. We have to believe that.”