A lucky misfire in a Madison, Wisconsin motel saved potentially scores of lives recently. Police arrived on the scene to find Ralph Lang armed with a .38 caliber gun and 35 bullets he intended to use to murder reproductive healthcare providers at Planned Parenthood affiliates in Madison, and then Milwaukee. Lang said his purpose was to "line them all up in a row, get a machine gun and mow them all down.”
Falling days before the second anniversary of Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller’s assassination, Ralph’s Lang misfire should be greeted with more than just a sigh of relief. The murder of Dr. Tiller in 2009 sparked a short-lived, narrowly focused debate about the relationship between extremist rhetoric and violence: Did right-wing commentators like Bill O’Reilly, who said that anyone who didn’t stop Tiller would have “blood on their hands,” bear some responsibility in inciting the murder? Notably absent was an honest stock-taking of the government’s responsibility to nurture a culture of respect for providers and the rights they defend by setting concrete laws to protect their practice and their lives.
State legislatures have instead been busy in the last two years reinforcing stigma and discrimination against abortion providers. Over 50 abortion restrictions have passed in 2011 alone, by far the most in the past decade. The state of Kansas, for example, responded to Dr. Tiller’s murder by passing laws that increase the burden on doctors who provide abortions. An especially burdensome law that will go into effect July 1 is expected to drive at least one of Kansas’ three abortion clinics out of business. This law will require unannounced inspections of abortion clinics and impose onerous and arbitrary building and operations standards specifically for them. And Lang’s arrest came one week after Wisconsin’s Joint Finance Committee approved a bill to eliminate state family-planning grants to organizations that use separate funds to provide abortions. If signed into law, it will deprive Planned Parenthood of $1 million and severely restrict services to those clients living at or below the federal poverty level—nearly 40,000 women in 2009.
The impact of these laws is twofold. They are designed to block access to abortion by making it very difficult or impossible for doctors to continue to work and for women to obtain an abortion. But more insidiously, these laws increase stigma surrounding abortion by marginalizing abortion providers. The separate rules and enforcement regime for clinics has nothing to do with the level of risk of the procedure, and everything to do with harassing providers. The implicit message behind such legislation is that abortion providers are suspicious—even blameworthy—and in need of constant monitoring, while women seeking abortions need to be protected from their own decisions.
Affirmative measures are desperately needed to address this stigma, which lies at the root of violence against providers. In the United States, abortion providers are often portrayed not as healthcare professionals who ensure women can access the medical procedures they choose for themselves, but as shady actors undermining woman’s ‘essential nature’ to procreate. Abortion stigma is rooted in rigid gender roles, attempts to control female sexuality, and unequal access to power and resources. As such, addressing it will require long-term engagement with media, community education and activism, and realignment of public resources. But government, at all levels, can take immediate action to combat stigma and help prevent violent attacks on providers. The Obama administration should step up enforcement of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) and increase funding for federal initiatives to train local law enforcement on clinic security. State governments should repeal harmful abortion restrictions and stop pending legislation that will further curtail women’s rights. City councils should pass and enforce buffer zones and noise ordinances to ensure safe and dignified clinic access for both clients and providers; ban residential picketing to prevent harassment of providers at their homes; and ensure local law enforcement receives adequate training and resources to prevent acts of violence while ensuring protestors’ right to exercise protected speech.
It is time for the law to ensure that abortion providers don’t have to put their lives on the line to defend women’s rights to health, equality and reproductive autonomy.