If there are any lingering doubts about the danger anti-choice activists’ recent in-your-face tactics (from slashing funding for federal family planning programs to legalizing the killing of abortion providers) really pose to women’s access to reproductive health services, those doubts should evaporate after a close look at the latest developments in Wichita, Kansas. Recently, Dr. Mila Means, a Wichita family practitioner agreed not to offer abortion services at the office building she leases after her landlord filed a lawsuit against her to block her from providing abortion. The agreement delays any further proceedings on the lawsuit, but will resume should she change her mind. When the suit was filed the landlord argued that anti-choice protest activities would create “a clear nuisance” and disturb the “peaceful possession” of other tenants. A judge subsequently blocked Dr. Means from providing abortion or making any changes to the facility that would allow her to do so. Given the extreme and sometimes violent nature of anti-abortion activism, it’s hard to argue that the landlord shouldn’t have been concerned, but deferring to the folks employing threatening and intimidating tactics is a lot like telling a child he can’t go to school because a bully might beat him up.
And in this instance, the bullies are winning. Dr. Means originally planned to provide abortion services in Wichita to fill the void left after the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller. Dr. Tiller was gunned down by a self-proclaimed anti-choice activist who sought to stop him from providing abortion services. Scott Roeder is now serving a life sentence in prison for that crime, and for the time being, he and abortion opponents have achieved their goal of preventing women from obtaining abortions in Wichita.
Unfortunately the situation in Wichita is not novel. The Center for Reproductive Rights’ conducted research that found that abortion providers operate under siege on a daily basis. Persistent harassment including violence, threats, and intimidation of abortion providers and women seeking services, deter new doctors from entering the field and force skilled physicians out. Not only are women harassed when they seek services, they potentially face loss of their constitutionally protected right to abortion services when doctors are intimidated or forced to stop providing services. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortion providers nationwide has declined by 25% since the 1990s. Currently, more than a third of women of reproductive age live in counties without an abortion provider. Kansas—headquarters to the virulently anti-choice organization Operation Rescue—has lost four abortion providers, including Dr. Tiller, in the past six years.
Prior to the lawsuit against Dr. Means, anti-abortion activists held “vigils” outside the building where her office is located, even though she had not started to offer abortion services. According to papers filed with the court, the police department was asked to inspect a “suspicious package,” and three other businesses indicated that they intend to vacate the office building because of concerns about safety issues and the nuisance of daily protests. Operation Rescue promised to target Dr. Means’ office, and the Kansas Coalition for Life vowed, “It will be a circus out there.” Unsurprisingly, Dr. Means hired a full time security guard.
The landlord and other tenants have every right to be upset when anti-abortion groups threaten to terrorize Dr. Means’ patients and their customers, but the proper response is to stop the extremist behavior creating the terror, and not try to shut down a doctor seeking to provide legal medical care. After all, there are legal restrictions on anti-abortion activities to help protect clinics and providers. In addition to the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, there are also state and local laws, including permit and noise restrictions and buffer zones that can decrease the level, aggression and disruption caused by anti-choice protests. The landlord and neighboring businesses should encourage and support full enforcement of these laws by the local authorities. If enforcement of existing legal protections proves to be inadequate, communities and police departments can work together to pass additional restrictions on extreme protest activities and to protect health providers and patients from harassment and threats. Anti- abortion activists will continue employing extreme, threatening tactics as long as they are successful. It’s time for communities to stop cowering in the face of their threats and to stand up to them.