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“Living in the Crosshairs” Details History of Harassment and Targeting of Abortion Providers

(Image: Oxford University Press)

Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, David S. Cohen and Krysten Connon, Oxford University Press, May 2015

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In the 42 years since the US Supreme Court issued the Roe v. Wade decision, eight abortion clinic employees have been murdered. Four were doctors. The others were receptionists Shannon Lowney and Leanne Nichols, clinic escort James Barrett and security guard Robert Sanderson. All were intentional hits, selected for death because of where they worked. But as horrific as are these murders, most abortion clinicians, whether medical or back office, are routinely subjected to harassment and browbeating.

Law professor David S. Cohen and attorney Krysten Connon’s Living in the Crosshairs chronicles the day-in and day-out torment that takes place throughout the United States, from picketing in front of a clinic staffer’s home to being followed in the grocery store and taunted as a “baby killer.” It’s a gripping, well-researched and maddening book, and while it is not the first or only text to highlight the abuse foisted on providers, it offers a clear list of common-sense recommendations for improving staff and patient safety.

As Cohen and Connon see it, the intentional targeting of abortion providers constitutes domestic terrorism. They start with a definition: “Terrorism is the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.” It is particularly insidious, they write, because it has “far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target.”

For abortion providers, this can mean any number of things, including increased watchfulness and an inability to completely relax. For example, since the first murder in 1993, some providers have obtained concealed weapons permits, believing this is the best way to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. Others wear bulletproof vests, at a cost of $700 each, and still others try to protect their identity by varying the routes they drive and wearing disguises while traveling.

Still, for anyone in the abortion industry, the possibility of danger is a constant. And it takes its toll.

After the May 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller, a well-known and well-loved Kansas provider, a small number of clinicians left the field. Surprisingly, however, most did not and Cohen and Connon document the incredible commitment of hundreds of providers who refuse to be bullied. Their stories form the crux of Living in the Crosshairs.

The intentional targeting of abortion providers constitutes domestic terrorism.

Kristina Romero is one of more than 80 people interviewed by the authors. As the regional director of multiple clinics in a southwest central state – Cohen and Connon chose not to reveal clinic names or locations as a safety precaution – she is regularly greeted by protesters. “They know your name and your kids’ names. They know your mom and dad’s names. They know where you go to church,” Romero said. She further describes receiving letters at her home address letting her know that she has been followed, and that anti-abortion activists know where she shops, gets her hair cut and eats.

As you’d expect, this targeted harassment has scared Romero, and Cohen and Connon note that she has paid to have a security system installed in her home. While this has helped, it has not made her feel fully secure. “You get sick more,” she told them. “It gets into your head; it gets into your heart.” Romero’s fear also extends to her children and she has taken them out of public school and enrolled them in a private academy where administrators and faculty know not to release them to anyone but Romero or someone she designates.

Unfortunately, Romero’s experience is far from exceptional.

Provider Rodney Smith, a Midwestern doctor, explains that when anti-abortion activists learned of his son’s upcoming wedding, they announced that they were going to picket the festivities. “The priest threatened to call the police if the protesters interrupted the services and told them, ‘If a priest has you arrested, it’s not going to do your cause any good,'” Smith recalled. Nonetheless, the anti-abortion activists were allowed to stand in an anteroom and watch the service.

This was not the only time that Smith was targeted. In fact, several years back, he lost his home and a barn with 17 horses to arson. A letter, postmarked the morning of the blaze, justified the animal killing, claiming it was payback because Smith “murdered little children.” Although the police investigated, the letter was deemed untraceable and no one was ever apprehended for the crime.

More recently, the day after George Tiller was shot, Smith’s daughter got a phone call in the middle of the night informing her that both of her parents had been killed. “For some reason,” Cohen and Connon write, “Rodney and his wife’s phones were not working that night, so their daughter could not get through to them. She finally tracked them down through one of the women who worked at their clinic, but for a period of time she panicked because she thought her parents had been murdered.”

Living in the Crosshairs underscores the ubiquity of these incidents and calls on law enforcement to do something to make them stop. It also underscores the unevenness of protection, noting that law enforcement has been good in some places, and terrible in others. “Providers often turn to law to solve their problems with targeted harassment,” Cohen and Connon write. “Sometimes law responds as the provider hopes and is helpful in addressing the situation. Other times providers experience roadblocks, such as an unsympathetic local police force or a law that does not cover the particular harassment they face. At other times, providers experience law itself as a form of harassment and protest.”

So what to do? Cohen and Connon note that in many places, relations with law enforcement improve when clinic staff meet with officers and agents proactively, introducing themselves before incidents take place and then keeping in touch at regular intervals. They also encourage police departments to create specialized task forces on abortion clinic safety. Likewise, they write that “law enforcement should not tolerate even minor violations of the law,” whether trespassing or getting too close to patients or workers, in order to send a message that incursions will not be permitted. Although it sounds a bit like “broken windows” policing, the fact that eight people have been murdered and countless more have been threatened and harassed, makes this something to consider. In addition, the authors recommend strengthening existing laws against stalking to protect both staff and patients.

Other suggested protections include allowing clinic staff to use a substitute address rather than their actual home address on all public records, thereby protecting their privacy and identity. Cohen and Connon also argue that whenever litigation takes place, “courts can reject requests for information, stop lawyers from asking particular questions in depositions or at trial, seal certain information from the public, or even allow providers to use pseudonyms when necessary … When providers must testify, they can do so in disguise if that is part of how they protect themselves. After a provider has testified, courts can be vigilant in warning against intimidating or retaliating against a witness and then be receptive to those charges once brought before them.”

The wonder, after reading Living in the Crosshairs, is that there are any providers left. We owe them our gratitude.

What’s more, protecting those who have stubbornly refused to fold their tents in the face of anti-abortion terrorism is now more essential than ever. As the number of clinics continues to dwindle thanks to legislative restrictions on access, Cohen and Connon contend that the safety of the women and men who provide reproductive health care must be taken seriously. After all, if providers are driven off by anti-abortion activists’ hateful behavior, Roe v. Wade will be meaningless. Choice requires providers; without them fertility control will once again become a crapshoot, available only to the lucky or the well-financed.

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