Not a Moment to Lose: We Must Protect Abortion Providers’ Rights

Dr. Suzanne Poppema

A new declaration spells out the rights of providers to practice medicine free from fears of violence, harassment, and intimidation; to give patients complete, medically accurate information about procedure; and to continue training and research.

When Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health was founded in 1992, it was a dangerous time for abortion providers. Several of my colleagues had been shot by anti-choice extremists, some murdered, and many clinics were bombed or blockaded by protestors. I wore a bulletproof vest to work at my abortion clinic outside Seattle. It sometimes felt like providers were an endangered species.

Physical violence ebbed over the next decade, but that proved to be a temporary lull. In the past few years, I’ve seen one colleague’s clinic destroyed by arson, while my friend George Tiller was murdered last spring. It isn’t just violence that affects abortion providers today, though—we are also the targets of pointless state laws that limit women’s access to health care. The number of anti-abortion laws this year—about 370—may be a record high.

After LeRoy Carhart declared his intention to continue Dr. Tiller’s work and provide later abortions to women who need them, the state of Nebraska passed a law banning abortions after 20 weeks. Their ostensible reason—that the fetus can feel pain at that point—contradicts the best scientific evidence about fetal development. The real goal of this law was clear from the beginning: to make it impossible for Dr. Carhart to offer women abortions later in pregnancy.

Nebraska wasn’t the only state this spring to target abortion providers and the women they serve. Oklahoma stood out with a series of bills aimed at making abortion more difficult, including a mandatory ultrasound and a lengthy questionnaire doctors must complete before a woman can have an abortion. Meanwhile, Arizona, Mississippi, and Tennessee have blocked women from buying insurance policies that cover abortion, and more states are considering similar bans.

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In light of the many restrictions and fears abortion providers must live with every day, Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health has introduced an Abortion Provider’s Declaration of Rights. The aim of the declaration is simple: to state that abortion providers deserve the same treatment and protections that other physicians enjoy as a matter of course.

Among the rights spelled out in the declaration are: the right to practice medicine free from fears of violence, harassment, and intimidation; the right to give patients complete, medically accurate information about the procedure; and the right to continue their training and conduct research on abortion methods. All are basic rights taken for granted in any other field of medicine, but denied to abortion providers.

While a part of me is discouraged that we need to enumerate these rights, I also know that there is strength in numbers. Among the first signers of the petition were Jeanne Tiller, Dr. Tiller’s wife; his daughter, Rebecca Tiller-Bunting; Dr. Carhart; and other prominent abortion providers. More than 800 people have signed the petition to date, and I urge you to add your name. Together, we can show the extremists and anti-choice politicians that there is a strong community committed to protecting abortion providers and the women they serve.

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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