In my 15 years as the executive director of the Allentown Women’s Center, a reproductive health care facility located in northeast Pennsylvania that also performs abortions, I have never felt more vulnerable. In the weeks since the murder of Dr. George Tiller, I have witnessed first hand an upswing in aggression and violent rhetoric by protestors; they’ve become more emboldened. After Dr. Tiller’s murder, mainstream pro-life organizations issued statements condemning acts of violence, but more needs to be done by the pro-life movement and by the Obama administration to reign in the rhetoric and identify those prone to violence.
This is a foundational common ground issue. No shared path can be discovered unless all parties embarking on it are truly safe. The pro-life movement has a deep interest in eliminating violent people from within its ranks and violent rhetoric from its messaging. These elements are corrosive and serve to alienate the majority of pro-life Americans who are peaceful and want to work through legal means. The Obama administration has an immense common ground opportunity at this very moment. He needs to take seriously the statements of nonviolence that pro-life groups released and build upon those pledges. Reasonable Americans on either side of this issue are united in their desire to fight this form of domestic terrorism that threatens the lives of healthcare providers and the legitimacy of the pro-life establishment. We all have a stake in this; that’s where the most potent common ground is discovered. Unless the Obama administration makes nonviolence a priority and works with peaceful pro-life groups toward that goal, I fear we will witness more violence and terrorism by those claiming to act on behalf of the pro-life cause.
Like Dr. Tiller, I have been called a baby murderer, and other chilling things including “the bride of Lucifer.” My husband and I have been told, “a family that kills together goes to hell together.” The physician who works at my Center and I get picketed at our homes monthly by a member of the Army of God, an organization that supports the use of violence to stop abortion and glorifies those who commit acts of murder. People calling themselves “Lehigh Valley Pro-Lifers” have targeted my mother – sending her hate mail shaming her and accusing her of raising a bad Catholic. I have been told by someone from this same group that I am going to die soon.
And while the news crews that covered the Tiller murder have now packed up and moved on, aggressive protesting in the weeks since the murder of Dr. Tiller has escalated. My abortion provider colleagues from across the country have noticed this alarming trend. Since Dr. Tiller’s murder, the threats and violent rhetoric have gotten much worse. On the day of Dr. Tiller’s funeral, one of our volunteers was asked, “How do you prefer to die, by knife or by bullet?” A week later, a protester told me, “Abortionists were executed after World War II by the Nuremburg Trials” and posed this rhetorical question, “You know what Von Brunn did at the Holocaust Museum?” This protester’s son, who has picketed the clinic since he was a small child (he is now in his early twenties), has made a point of mentioning ammonium nitrate, which is used in making bombs, to us while protesting on several occasions.
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This is not “sidewalk counseling” designed to persuade women from choosing abortion. It is terrorism designed to intimidate, threaten and harass clinic workers. Comments like these made to anyone would be considered threats – but when made outside of abortion clinics, they are also violations of the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) law. The protesters know this and that they are thumbing their noses in the face of federal law is a sign to law enforcement that not enough is being done to protect those who work at abortion clinics.
As we have seen with violent incidents in the past, such as the maiming of a nurse and murder of a security guard in Alabama, the murder of two receptionists in Brookline Massachusetts, and the murder of a clinic escort in Florida, extremists target not only the doctors, but everyone who helps provide women with abortion services including volunteer escorts, security guards, clinic staff, administrators, and their family members. Local law enforcement and the Justice Department must recognize that doctors and clinic staff need protections and that often it’s the staff to whom the aggressive protesting and verbal abuse is most directed. Given the history of murder of and violence against clinic staff, as well as doctors, when clinics are put on high alert and federal marshals are dispatched, the protection they offer should take into account, among other factors, who at the clinic is most targeted by protesters.
The recent rise in hateful rhetoric is not only poisonous but also contagious. Recently, we have seen protesters who were at one time peaceful become more aggressive and angry. Unhinged people, like Scott Roeder, are attracted to the high vitriol –it helps them justify to themselves their violent acts. The majority of pro-life groups maintain that these acts of vigilantism are made by lone assailants and are not condoned by their own members. Yet at our clinic, peaceful protesters demonstrate side by side with the extremists. Pro-life groups and individuals that truly abhor the violence against reproductive health care providers need to acknowledge that there are mentally unstable people among them who are masquerading as pro-life sympathizers in order to justify killing people. Those who protested with Scott Roeder knew of his violent tendencies and that he supported violence against abortion providers. More red flags could have been raised about him to local law enforcement had a determined anti-violence effort been underway.
As we have seen in the past several years, just because a pro-life President or Congress is in power it has little to no effect on reducing the number of abortions. In fact, anecdotal evidence (it will be several years until actual data is compiled) indicates we are now witnessing a surge of abortions as a result of the “pro-life” Bush administration’s failed economic policies. Yet the anti-abortion extremists seem to be under the impression that because we have a pro-choice President their values are somehow more threatened and that they have no recourse except by becoming more aggressive. Pro-life political leaders have the power to change this. Taking part in common ground efforts that are solution-oriented is the first step.
I see a great opportunity for both sides of the issue to come together with the Obama administration to take action to prevent future violence. It is time for mainstream pro-life groups to step up and promote reasonable dialogue and stop the hateful rhetoric. At the same time, President Obama must also do more than just say he is outraged by Dr. Tiller’s murder. He can work with his administration to put forth new and improved legislation that addresses the weaknesses of FACE, protects free speech, and provide local law enforcement with the ability to act quickly when protesters break the law which is often the first warning sign that violence might follow. The Obama administration needs to immediately convene pro-life groups, the Justice Department, pro-choice groups, abortion providers, and anti-violence experts to formulate a tangible plan before someone else is murdered.
There are effective solutions that both sides can agree to including safety zones around the entrances of clinics that allow patients and workers to enter and exit buildings and parking lots safely. Pro-life advocates can agree to assist law enforcement in identifying sociopaths like Scott Roeder, who have no qualms breaking laws. Restrictions on home pickets could be put into place that help protect providers who have been targeted outside of their homes. An alert system can be put in place so that authorities can act quickly to apprehend those who break laws designed to protect clinic staff and preempt any further acts. And FACE legislation can and must be improved so that there are clearer guidelines and more strict enforcement.
Dr. Tiller’s murder could have been prevented. My murder can be prevented. President Obama, I need your help.