Womens Health

Terrorizing Abortion Providers: The “Other Abortion War” Quietly Continues

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9.pm. In bed at hotel. Landline rings. ‘Hello”? “Dr. Benton ?”  “Yes. Who is this?”  “How many babies did you kill today?”

I hung up. Heart started pounding. Someone who doesn’t like me at all at all knows exactly where I am. I disconnect the landline.

Immediately cell phone rings. Blocked number. “Hello?”  Same voice. I didn’t say anything but listened as he spoke…Heart pounding.  Someone who doesn’t like me…knows my cell phone number and knows other things about me. …I hang up.

Immediately he called again. I didn’t answer. He left a message on my voicemail, saying,  “this isn’t----(east coast state where Dr. Benton lives)—this is------------(southern state  where she traveled periodically to perform abortions).”

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I didn’t sleep much that night.

The above is an excerpt from an e-mail I received from Dr. Felicia Benton (not her real name).  I had recently concluded a phone interview with Dr. Benton about her experience as an abortion provider who travels from her home state several times a month to provide abortions in underserved areas.  The matter of these disturbing phone calls did not arise until we continued our conversation via e-mail. Dr. Benton also mentioned that the caller knew in which city she lived, and had even left abusive messages on her elderly mother’s answering machine.

The media’s coverage of abortion these past few months have focused, understandably,  on the seemingly endless assaults on the procedure by Congress and by individual state legislatures , who have passed  measures ever more extreme and bizarre: e.g., the House bill that allows hospitals to refuse abortions even if a woman’s life is at stake, the recently passed  South Dakota law that compels  women seeking abortion  to first go for “counseling”  to a religiously based, anti-abortion Crisis Pregnancy Center and then wait three days before they can legally obtain an abortion, and so on.  But Dr. Benton’s experience—which is hardly unique-- reminds us that there is, simultaneously, another war on abortion occurring, this one waged directly on abortion providers.

This war on providers has been going on so long that it has become essentially “the new normal,” with significant public attention coming only when a member of the abortion providing community is murdered. There have been eight such murders thus far, the most recent being that of Dr. George Tiller of Kansas, in May 2009.  Dr. Tiller’s murder, and the upsurge of aggressive incidents reported at clinics immediately following this tragedy, continues a pattern of the worst antiabortion violence occurring during the administrations of Democratic presidents. (The seven murders preceding that of Dr. Tiller came during Bill Clinton’s presidency).

Apart from these murders, how much antiabortion violence and harassment are there, and at what point can these acts legitimately be called “terrorism?” Certainly, noisy picketing outside a clinic can be annoying to both providers and patients, but such picketing is of a different order than a doctor in a hotel room receiving a threatening call on her unlisted cell phone number, which in turn is different from the firebombing of a facility, which in turn is different than attempted murders, which in turn are different from successfully executed murders.

The Guttmacher Institute, the National Abortion Federation, and the Feminist Majority Foundation are the organizations that have done the most to track violence against abortion providers and each make useful contributions to understanding a complex, and depressing, picture. From the Guttmacher Institute’s latest figures, we learn that 88 percent of abortion clinics experienced at least one form of harassment in 2008, most commonly picketing, but—notably—42 percent reported picketing that also involved patient blocking. Nearly one fifth of clinics reported vandalism. Harassment was especially acute at larger abortion facilities: nearly all providers that provided 1000 or more abortions reported picketing (with a higher incidence of patient blocking) and nearly one in five of these reported a bomb threat.

The Feminist Majority Foundation’s periodic surveys of clinic violence contains the category of “severe violence,” referring to blockades, invasions, arson, chemical attacks, stalking, physical violence, gunfire, bomb threats, death threats, and arson threats. The worrisome finding from the 2010 survey is that 23.5 percent of all clinics reported incidents of such severe violence, up from 18.4 percent in 2005. Stalking was the most common event in this category.

The National Abortion Federation has tabulated incidents of violence and disruption against its member facilities since 1977.  Here are some of the totals in various categories:  besides the 8 murders, there have been 17 attempted murders, 175 incidents of arson, 41 bombings, 1429 incidents of vandalism, 2057 cases of trespassing, 661 anthrax threats, 526 cases of stalking, and 416 death threats. 

While this level of violence would be unacceptable—indeed unthinkable-- in any other branch of American medicine,  in the case of abortion this violence is seen as acceptable fodder for politicians’ wisecracks. For example, at a recent mayoral candidate forum in Jacksonville, one of the contenders, according to a local paper, said “the only thing he wouldn’t do was bomb an abortion clinic, then….added, with a laugh, ‘but it may cross my mind.’”  Even more alarmingly, several states have recently introduced legislation permitting “justifiable homicide” in the defense of a fetus, which many feel would lead to open season on abortion providers.

To be sure, the federal government has tried to respond to the attacks on abortion providers. Most notably, in 1994, President Clinton signed the FACE (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) Act, which made it a federal crime to impede patients’ entry to an abortion entry. The FACE Act has been credited with significantly lowering the number of full-scale blockades of clinics that were commonplace in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And there is every reason to believe that President Obama’s Justice Department takes seriously threats of extreme violence against providers. Nevertheless, the depth of local law enforcement’s commitment to protect providers varies from place to place. The provider community is still haunted by the fact that Scott Roeder, Dr. Tiller’s assassin, was seen the day before the murder, vandalizing another clinic, and though his license plate was reported to local authorities, there was no action taken.

And how, finally, should we understand the frightening calls that Dr. Benton received?  Should they be seen merely as “harassment” or, as I believe—given the totality of the record of violence against providers since the 1970s-- as one element of a larger campaign of genuine terrorism?  Though the three organizations mentioned above have done an excellent job of tabulating incidents on the spectrum of abortion violence, the more qualitative question of the impact of such incidents remains unanswered.  In Dr. Benton’s case, though admittedly shaken by the calls, she remains resolved to continue abortion work.  For unrelated reasons, she no longer works at the southern clinic, but still travels to other facilities. What is unknown is how many providers have stopped such work—or never started it-- as a result of similar intimidation.