Anti-Abortion Harassment and Violence Still Stifle Access


Originally written by Eleanor J. Bader for On The Issues Magazine.

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When retired clinic owner Patricia Baird-Windle contacted me in 1998 and invited me to collaborate with her on a book about anti-abortion violence in the U.S. and Canada, the challenge was daunting and the task enormous. Six people had already been murdered: James Barrett, Dr. John Bayard Britton, Dr. David Gunn, Shannon Lowney, Leanne Nichols, and Dr. Barnett Slepian — and arson, bombing, butyric acid attacks, stalking and vandalism were regular occurrences at clinics throughout the country.

In the 18 months it took to conduct our research, we met countless providers whose homes had been surrounded by anti-abortion zealots — often with billboard-sized pictures of allegedly aborted fetuses — and whose children had been taunted at school. We also heard about glued locks, shrill picketers, hateful graffiti and blocked entryways at health centers across the country. To a one, the accounts were humbling — and inspiring –and form the crux of Targets of Hatred: Anti-Abortion Terrorism, published by Palgrave in 2001.

Although the book focuses on the victims of fanatical anti-abortionists, it also includes analysis of the anti-choice movement. The varied strategies they employ — the National Right to Life Committee works to change state and federal laws while more militant activists opt for sabotage and menace — illustrates the tag-team approach that has long been operative.

I’d love to report that these methods are no longer used and that things have improved in the decade since the book’s release, but they haven’t. Instead, clinic buildings and the people who work in them remain targets, and the virulent hatred of a small cohort of Christian fundamentalists remains fierce. Indeed, the anti’s scorn for women who terminate unwanted pregnancies and for those who help them remains ironclad.

Decades of Abuse Reach Middle School Girl

Although the clinic blockades of the 1980s and early 1990s, called “rescues” by anti-abortion activists, are fewer than they used to be thanks to 1994′s Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act [FACE], the ever-present threat of violence remains a fact of life for providers. Hate mail, both snail and electronic, and harassing phone calls, including the blocking of telephone lines, occur with alarming regularity. And, of course, the 2009 assassination of Dr. George Tiller in his church lobby provides a grim reminder of the antis’ willingness to stop abortion by any means.

What’s more, the idea that abortion clinics are dangerous places — a conclusion many reach after hearing about aggressive “sidewalk counseling” and turbulence — has tainted the procedure and has led to a reduction in the number of providers from 2,042 providers in 1996 to 1,793 today. The end result is that U.S. women now have less access to the procedure than at any time since the Roe v. Wade decision was issued 39 years ago.

According to The Guttmacher Institute, virtually every state limits who can have abortions and when they can have them. Nineteen states, for example, include fallacies about the procedure in mandatory pre-operative counseling. Among the messages: there is a link between abortion and breast cancer, and women who have abortions have significant long-term mental health problems post-surgery. That neither of these statements is true is apparently irrelevant. Furthermore, 25 states require the woman to wait at least 24 hours between hearing the pre-surgery lecture and actually having an abortion, and 33 offer no Medicaid coverage for the procedure.

Then there are the Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Provider laws — yes, the acronym is TRAP — that regulate everything from hallway width to garbage disposal. Clinics see these laws as a type of psychological warfare, and note that constantly changing rules apply to no other type of ambulatory health facility and do nothing to improve patient safety.

Small wonder that clinicians are often on edge, not only worried about violence but also stressed by the slow, relentless scrutiny of all things abortion related. They understand that the agenda of the antis — making it harder for providers to offer services and for patients to access them — works hand-in-glove with the sub rosa activities of the most brutish arm of the movement and means they can never let down their guard.

Todd Stave, a businessman who owns Germantown Reproductive Health Services in Maryland, a clinic started by his father, Carl Stave, more than 30 years ago, got a taste of the antis’ present-day wrath last spring after he hired Dr. LeRoy Carhart, a highly-respected, long-time provider from Nebraska — and a former colleague of Dr. George Tiller — to offer first- and second-trimester procedures at the health center. As soon as news of Carhart’s arrival reached the antis, they mobilized, urging Stave to fire Carhart and close the center. They also contacted the condo association where Germantown Reproductive Health Services has been located for 19 years and pushed it to cancel the lease. This action was followed by a week-long protest in August that was orchestrated by Operation Rescue’s Troy Newman. Then, when these tactics failed, they took things further, showing up at the Robert Frost Middle School in Rockville, Maryland — where Stave’s 11–year-old daughter is a sixth grader — on the first day of the 2011-2012 academic year.

“My name was not mentioned on their gory signs, and I only found out about the protest later when the Rockville Patch and other blogs reported it and mentioned me by name,” Stave says. On September 8, the antis showed up for Open School Night with pictures of Stave on their signs. “People saw the picture of me as they were walking in and thought I was running for office,” he laughs. “But this turned out to be the tipping point. The signs got everyone energized to fight back. By that point I’d received about 25 anti-abortion phone calls and 100 emails. The people could not have been nicer when they contacted me. They were the most polite people I’ve ever spoken to and clearly believe they have my best interests in mind. I compiled a list of callers and emailers, created an organization called Voice of Choice, and got volunteers to phone the people who’d reached out to me, making sure to politely let them know that we know their names, their kid’s names, and where they live, just like they did when they contacted me.”

Unsurprisingly, Stave reports that the antis have stopped calling and writing him. Nonetheless, they continue to picket the clinic, harass patients and staff, and denounce Dr. Carhart.

Entangling Providers in False Complaints

According to Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation , Stave’s treatment is more rule than exception and she quickly cites two incidents that occurred in 2011 to underscore the need for constant vigilance. In the first, a fire began after a Molotov cocktail was flung at a Planned Parenthood in McKinney, Texas. In the second, 63-year-old Ralph Lang was apprehended in May, shortly before setting out on an anti-abortion shooting spree. Thankfully, he was discovered in a Madison, Wisconsin hotel room after his gun accidentally dislodged. Subsequent to being collared by police, Lang confessed to being in town “to lay out abortionists because they are killing babies.” His first target would have been staff at a Planned Parenthood office.

“Last summer Operation Rescue also started dumpster diving,” Saporta continues. “They are looking to see if there’s anything they can find to trigger an investigation or make it harder for clinics to operate. In one place they got the name of the clinic’s waste disposal company and then pressured them to stop picking up fetal remains. The clinic had to find another company to do the pick-up. In Texas, New Mexico, and Maryland, they’ve filed bogus complaints against clinics with the environmental board and health department. Each time they do this, it takes time and energy for the clinic to answer the complaint. The antis understand that the state always has to do due diligence and investigate, even if the complaint has no merit.”

What this means is that even in the absence of overt violence, the emotional toll caused by anti-abortion pressure is enormous. What’s more it extends beyond the clinic into the community. Clergy are not immune, says Rev. Rebecca Turner, executive director of Faith Aloud, a St. Louis-based prochoice and pro-LGBTQ group. “When Bill Clinton called abortion a tragedy, no one spoke out and said, ‘no, it’s not.’ The Right has been very successful with their messaging, and the message that abortion hurts women has worked. Instead of only focusing on ‘it’s a baby not a choice,’ people hear legislators talking about women’s grief and pain. They see the message reinforced on billboards and through other media outlets and it sticks. Rather than concluding that it’s the stigma that hurts women, they blame abortion.”

Turner’s work as a pastoral counselor and trainer helps women understand that there is nothing in the Bible condemning abortion. “I ask people to think about Jesus,” she says. “He never shamed women. He never told women they were going to hell.”

Still, with 4,000 “crisis pregnancy” centers located throughout the country, the anti-abortion message is everywhere, and its constant repetition lodges in our heads like a bad jingle, even when we know better.

What’s more, hundreds of anti-abortion legislators — some of whom got their start in Operation Rescue’s 1991 Summer of Mercy, a seven-week protest that led to the arrest of more than 1,700 people for trespassing at Wichita clinics — are now serving on state legislative bodies. In 2011 alone, their efforts led to the passage of 83 anti-choice bills, including the requirement that women have sonograms — and hear descriptions of the fetus or see the footage — before having an abortion.

Patricia Baird-Windle, my Targets of Hatred co-author, used to complain about “termite tactics,” the slow, relentless, whittling away at rights that were considered inviolate in the years immediately following Roe. Nearly four decades later, the termites have done their damage. Despite working overtime to keep the havoc at bay, clinicians and activists know that the foundation of the reproductive justice movement is tottering. The only solution is radical, bold action — sit-ins, civil disobedience and mass demonstrations — in defense of liberty, justice and gender equity.


Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance writer, teacher and activist. She writes for The Brooklyn Rail, RHRealityCheck.org, The Progressive, Theasy.com, Truthout.org and other progressive and feminist blogs and publications. For Eleanor’s author profile, click here.

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