When abortion practitioner, Dr. George Tiller, was gunned down in his Wichita, Kansas, church earlier this spring, national attention momentarily turned to the constant physical threats Dr. Tiller faced throughout his career. And last Sunday, the New York Times chronicled the 30-year barrage of physical harassment and threats against Dr. Tiller. But what many don’t realize is that doctors and clinic staff across the country who perform abortions operate under siege, physical as well as legal, every single day. Not only was Dr. Tiller the target of harassment through the judicial system, his practice was also plagued by pointless state laws solely intended to badger and intimidate providers, then ultimately, force them to shut down. This constant legislative assault doesn’t just hurt and marginalize providers, it denies the rights of the one in three American women who will seek an abortion in their lifetimes.
The Center for Reproductive Rights documents the harms perpetrated on providers and patients by these legal restrictions (that have no relationship to protecting women’s health) in its new report, Defending Human Rights: Abortion Providers Facing Threats, Restrictions, and Harassment. The legal barriers create deeply personal, real-life consequences. The familiar “waiting period” laws currently in twenty-four states, for instance, forces some women to wait so long, travel so far and jump through so many hoops that they effectively can’t get an abortion. The laws require a woman to delay getting an abortion, usually for 24 hours, until after she’s received state-mandated, and frequently biased, information. Mississippi’s law, for example, requires a woman to make two separate visits to the sole clinic in the state to receive the information. This means she has to take two days off of work and arrange for child care, transportation and fashion some sort of excuse for being away. Once she arrives at the clinic, both times, she must pass through the clinic’s gauntlet of protestors, to obtain a health service that she has already duly considered and decided upon.
Other restrictive laws make it impossible for providers to offer abortions, after a certain stage of pregnancy, or at all. Ambulatory surgical center laws, for example, mandate abortion providers to meet a host of oppressive and extremely costly administrative, personnel and facilities requirements that other medical practices don’t face. These requirements run the gamut from raising the height of a clinic’s ceilings to widening their hallways to ensuring their lawns are bug-free. The consequences are both telling and severe. Missouri’s ASC law will force at least one, if not two, of that state’s three providers to stop offering abortions altogether if a challenge against the law in state court is unsuccessful. Women who come from hours away and several surrounding states will be left to struggle for access to an essential component of reproductive health care.
We have passively relied, all too long, on a few brave individuals like Dr. Tiller to safeguard women’s reproductive rights. It’s time we speak up and pressure legislators to stop enacting discriminatory laws against abortion providers and, instead, defend the defenders of women’s rights.