Commentary Violence

‘Living in the Crosshairs’ Puts Human Face on Grim Clinic Violence Statistics

Katie Klabusich

In addition to bringing to light stories of harassment, Crosshairs also calls for reforms in the legal system, making it an absolute must-read for anyone in media and reproductive rights advocacy.

Last month, Jackson Women’s Health Organization in Mississippi—also known as “Pink House,” the last abortion clinic in the state—was vandalized overnight in an attempt to cut the building’s power lines. In Kalispell, Montana last summer, All Families Healthcare suffered vandalism so severe that it was forced to close.

These facilities aren’t alone. According to the Feminist Majority Foundation’s (FMF) latest National Clinic Access Project Survey, released early this year, nearly 68 percent of reproductive health clinics nationwide experience frequent and regular anti-abortion activity and only 45 percent rated local law enforcement “good” or “excellent” in their response to the harassment.

A new book by lawyer-authors David S. Cohen and Krysten Connon, Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, gives these statistics a human face often missing in media coverage as it details the real, day-to-day experiences of abortion providers in this country. In addition to bringing to light stories of harassment, Crosshairs also calls for reforms in the legal system, making it an absolute must-read for anyone in media and/or reproductive rights advocacy.

Cohen and Connon’s first order of business in their introduction to Crosshairs—which precedes interview-based individual stories that refer to the subjects using pseudonyms; a broader look at the tactics harassers use; examples of legal responses; and potential ways to improve the current state of safety for clinic workers—is to expand the term “provider” beyond just the doctors who perform the procedures. Their national interview-driven research encompassed all those whose efforts provide patients with “a safe, caring, and medically-skilled environment in which to have an abortion.” This broader definition includes referring physicians, nurses, physician’s assistants, administrative staff, counselors, clinic owners, security guards, and volunteer escorts.

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Members of every group have experienced harassment; since 1993, Cohen and Connon note, eight have been murdered. Although the names Dr. George Tiller, Dr. Barnett Slepian, Dr. David Gunn, and Dr. John Britton may be better known than those of security guard Robert Sanderson, receptionists Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols, and clinic escort James Barrett, each was targeted and killed because of their service to patients accessing abortion care.

In fact, all those involved in full-spectrum reproductive health services are vulnerable to abuse such as assaults; threats in person and by mail; targeting of private practices and other places of employment; bombings; home picketing; stalking of providers’ young children; kidnappings; Internet attacks; and intimidation of extended family and neighbors. Some people participating in harassment are individuals who have personal motivations; others are backed and organized by long-standing anti-abortion groups such as Operation Rescue and the Pro-Life Action League. Still others are from splinter groups like Abolish Human Abortion, who feel the “pro-life” movement has not been militant enough.

These widespread activities have consequences that extend beyond individual safety. Cohen and Connon note that the number of medical facilities performing abortions is down 40 percent since 1982. Although the reasons for this downturn are themselves diverse, and include legislative restrictions, the authors note that harassment likely plays a role. With abortion providers in only 11 percent of U.S. counties, it is long past time that we instituted safeguards for those who do the work of full-spectrum reproductive health care, lest we see access erode further.

Yet this pervasive culture of abuse is rarely covered in the media, as Cohen and Connon point out, with mainstream outlets typically only reporting on anti-abortion activity when someone dies. To make matters worse, our Supreme Court has declared one form of targeting to be “free speech.” The repressive climate of harassment has been going on so long that even providers are at times numb to the conditions under which they work, accepting it as part of the job. For example, the first person quoted in Crosshairs, Rachel Friedman, says she often doesn’t recognize how out-of-the-ordinary her professional life has become:

I often say that as an abortion provider, you lose your sense of perspective. You think everybody has the FBI on speed dial on their phone. Doesn’t everybody have it on their phone? You forget that it really is a very unique set of circumstances that you work under.

Perhaps because the stories we do hear on the subject tend to focus on doctors, the anecdotes detailing the treatment of their friends, family, and neighbors stand out in the book as especially horrifying. In one section, Rodney Smith, an abortion doctor for almost three decades, recounts the aftermath of Dr. George Tiller’s murder. United States marshals had arrived to protect him within an hour of the shooting. Then, in the middle of the night, someone called his adult daughter and said, “Your mother and father were both just killed.” (In reality, both were unharmed.)

Volunteer targeting is also routine, yet largely unreported on. Kristina Romero, regional director for a clinic group, tells the story of one of her long-time volunteers:

She was in her 80s, it was her birthday, and the protesters cut the heads off of a bunch of roses and put them on the fence around her home with a card that said, “Hopefully you’ll have another birthday and here’s your dead roses.”

Along with incessant harassment, providers have also grown accustomed to the inconsistent response of law enforcement. The story of medical director Inez Navarro details the best and the worst of those charged with protecting and serving.

Clinic picketers, note Cohen and Connon, often use personal information—including someone’s hometown or their children’s names—in taunts outside the clinic, which they acquire by following, Googling, or looking up the license plates of staff and volunteers. Out of the blue, Navarro noticed the picketers at her clinic shouting her name. A few weeks later, she started hearing “No one is going to protect you” from one of the louder regulars. She notified the police.

“If anything did happen, I wanted them to know there was a history, it wasn’t just a one-time random incident,” Navarro explains. The police laughed, she says; her complaint was never taken seriously. She was “irritated and pissed and emotional all at the same time.” Like many people reporting harassment for the first time, she assumed she would at least be heard.

“Maybe I had a naive faith that the police were there to protect me,” Navarro tells Cohen and Connon. “I can tell you right now, I no longer trust that this police force is here to help. That was kind of my eye-opening experience with them.”

After a man followed her home and chased her into her gated neighborhood complex, she was again told the police were “unable to pursue anything.” She and her husband decided to move to another jurisdiction, where they contacted that police department ahead of time. The response couldn’t have been more different. The proactive police chief gave Navarro his cell phone number; offered to help with anything they needed; identified their house for special emergency assistance so that 911 calls would be flagged; sent a detective to perform a security assessment; and marked both their license plates for notification should anyone search for their information.

According to research done by the authors, anti-choice harassers rely on these kinds of inconsistencies in policing—along with the silence created by stigma—to push boundaries and instill fear. FMF research backs up the interviews in Crosshairs: Its 2010 clinic survey reported that “[c]linics which rated their experience with law enforcement as ‘poor’ were twice as likely to experience high levels of violence in 2010 as clinics rating their experience as ‘good’ or ‘excellent.’”

Of the ten reforms Cohen and Connon offer to better protect providers, improving communication between health clinics and law enforcement is one that anyone can advocate for in their community. Police should also implement programs to educate their officers on the history of anti-choice violence so that they can understand what would reasonably create fear. Cohen and Connon also call to increase penalties under the FACE Act; prohibit home picketing; protect providers’ identities in government databases; and strengthen anti-stalking laws.

The authors don’t propose their suggestions are the only available avenues for improving provider safety, nor do they claim that individualized harassment could be entirely eliminated without stigma-ending culture change. In fact, the recognition of this latter need is part of the impetus behind their final recommendation for federal law enforcement: labeling provider harassment as terrorism.

Anti-abortion targeting already fits the FBI’s shorthand definition of “domestic terrorism,” which reads: “Americans attacking Americans based on U.S.-based extremist ideologies.” Many providers, too, emphatically use the word “terrorized” to describe the climate created by constant harassment as well as their collective memory of arson and assassinations.

Officially and overtly labeling individual and coordinated attacks against providers as terrorism would allow greater coordination among jurisdictions and levels of law enforcement, Cohen and Connon note. Cases would be treated in a uniform fashion across the country and policymakers would be able to track related activity and develop protective policies. Law enforcement officials would more consistently access the history and tactics of the “pro-life” movement—context that is invaluable to investigating and prosecuting threats.

Beyond the legal implications, Crosshairs points out that a terrorism label could bolster public sympathy concerning the trials providers face. Cohen and Connon write:

By shifting terminology to include targeted harassment within the concept of terrorism, society will further brand these actions as unacceptable, possibly reducing the amount providers face through a shift in societal norms.

Overall, after dozens of alarming accounts, many readers will likely approach the conclusion of Living in the Crosshairs wondering why anyone would continue doing this work under such conditions. Dr. Warren Hern speaks to this at the beginning of the final chapter without hesitation:

I love my work. I could have been a dermatologist and nobody would care. I didn’t choose this because I wanted controversy. I thought this was the right thing to do. I felt that doing abortions was the most important thing I could do in medicine … And if somebody asks, ‘Why do you do this?’ Well, it matters. It matters for the health of the woman. It matters for the health of her family. It matters for the health of our society, and now it matters for freedom.

Hern’s sentiments echo many other providers’ throughout the text, which they often offer to their interviewers unprompted. Those individuals cite varying reasons for why they’ve stayed in the field, including commitment to patients and health care, commitment to reproductive choice, a refusal to “let the terrorists win,” and the memory of pre-Roe v. Wade suffering.

All those providers featured in Crosshairs will leave readers inspired and motivated to make their vital work safe and free from attack. It is nearly impossible to finish Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Story of Anti-Abortion Terrorism without a renewed desire to help protect people like Marsha Banks, who responded to decades of attacks, arson, and protest in her professional life this way: “It’s what I was born to do really, to be a human rights advocate. It’s human rights. How could anybody tell anybody what to do with their body? It’s as simple as that.”

News Law and Policy

Anti-Choice Group: End Clinic ‘Bubble Zones’ for Chicago Abortion Patients

Michelle D. Anderson

Chicago officials in October 2009 passed the "bubble zone" ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support.

An anti-choice group has announced plans to file a lawsuit and launch a public protest over Chicago’s nearly seven-year-old “bubble zone” ordinance for patients seeking care at local abortion clinics.

The Pro-Life Action League, an anti-choice group based in Chicago, announced on its website that its lawyers at the Thomas More Society would file the lawsuit this week.

City officials in October 2009 passed the ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support. The law makes it illegal to come within eight feet of someone walking toward an abortion clinic once that person is within 50 feet of the entrance, if the person did not give their consent.

Those found violating the ordinance could be fined up to $500.

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Harassment of people seeking abortion care has been well documented. A 2013 survey from the National Abortion Federation found that 92 percent of providers had a patient entering their facility express personal safety concerns.

The ordinance targets people seeking to pass a leaflet or handbill or engaging in “oral protest, education, or counseling with such other person in the public way.” The regulation bans the use of force, threat of force and physical obstruction to intentionally injure, intimidate or interfere any person entering or leaving any hospital, medical clinic or health-care facility.

The Pro-Life Action League lamented on its website that the law makes it difficult for anti-choice sidewalk counselors “to reach abortion-bound mothers.” The group suggested that lawmakers created the ordinance to create confusion and that police have repeatedly violated counselors’ First Amendment rights.

“Chicago police have been misapplying it from Day One, and it’s caused endless problems for our faithful sidewalk counselors,” the group said.

The League said it would protest and hold a press conference outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in the city’s Old Town neighborhood.

Julie Lynn, a Planned Parenthood of Illinois spokesperson, told Rewire in an email that the health-care provider is preparing for the protest.

“We plan to have volunteer escorts at the health center to make sure all patients have safe access to the entrance,” Lynn said.

The anti-choice group has suggested that its lawsuit would be successful because of a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled a similar law in Massachusetts unconstitutional.

Pam Sutherland, vice president of public policy and education for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune back then that the health-care provider expected the city’s bubble zone to be challenged following the 2014 decision.

But in an effort to avoid legal challenges, Chicago city officials had based its bubble zone law on a Colorado law that created an eight-foot no-approach zone within 100 feet of all health-care facilities, according to the Tribune. Sidewalk counselor Leila Hill and others challenged that Colorado law, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in 2000.

Analysis Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats Employ ‘Dangerous,’ Contradictory Strategies

Ally Boguhn & Christine Grimaldi

Democrats for Life of America leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradict each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party's platform is newly committed to increasing abortion access for all.

The national organization for anti-choice Democrats last month brought a litany of arguments against abortion to the party’s convention. As a few dozen supporters gathered for an event honoring anti-choice Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), the group ran into a consistent problem.

Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradicted each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party’s platform is newly committed to increasing access to abortion care for all.

DFLA leaders and politicians attempted to distance themselves from the traditionally Republican anti-choice movement, but repeatedly invoked conservative falsehoods and medically unsupported science to make their arguments against abortion. One state-level lawmaker said she routinely sought guidance from the National Right to Life, while another claimed the Republican-allied group left anti-choice Democrats in his state to fend for themselves.

Over the course of multiple interviews, Rewire discovered that while the organization demanded that Democrats “open the big tent” for anti-choice party members in order to win political office, especially in the South, it lacked a coordinated strategy for making that happen and accomplishing its policy goals.

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Take, for example, 20-week abortion bans, which the organization’s website lists as a key legislative issue. When asked about why the group backed cutting off abortion care at that point in a pregnancy, DFLA Executive Director Kristen Day admitted that she didn’t “know what the rationale was.”

Janet Robert, the president of the group’s executive board, was considerably more forthcoming.

“Well, the group of pro-life people who came up with the 20-week ban felt that at 20 weeks, it’s pretty well established that a child can feel pain,” Robert claimed during an interview with Rewire. Pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which protected the right to legal abortion care before the point of fetal viability, Rogers suggested that “more and more we’re seeing that children, prenatal children, are viable around 20 to 22 weeks” of pregnancy.

Medical consensus, however, has found it “unlikely” that a fetus can feel pain until the third trimester, which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. The doctors who testify otherwise in an effort to push through abortion restrictions are often discredited anti-choice activists. A 20-week fetus is “in no way shape or form” viable, according to Dr. Hal Lawrence, executive vice president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

When asked about scientific findings that fetuses do not feel pain at 20 weeks of pregnancy, Robert steadfastly claimed that “medical scientists do not agree on that issue.”

“There is clearly disagreement, and unfortunately, science has been manipulated by a lot of people to say one thing or another,” she continued.

While Robert parroted the very same medically unsupported fetal pain and viability lines often pushed by Republicans and anti-choice activists, she seemingly acknowledged that such restrictions were a way to work around the Supreme Court’s decision to make abortion legal.

“Now other legislatures are looking at 24 weeks—anything to get past the Supreme Court cut-off—because everybody know’s it’s a child … it’s all an arbitrary line,” she said, adding that “people use different rationales just to get around the stupid Supreme Court decision.”

Charles C. Camosy, a member of DFLA’s board, wrote in a May op-ed for the LA Times that a federal 20-week ban was “common-sense legislation.” Camosy encouraged Democratic lawmakers to help pass the abortion ban as “a carrot to get moderate Republicans on board” with paid family leave policies.

Robert also relied upon conservative talking points about fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, which routinely lie to patients to persuade them not to have an abortion. Robert said DFLA doesn’t often interact with women facing unplanned pregnancies, but the group nonetheless views such organizations as “absolutely fabulous [be]cause they help the women.”

Those who say such fake clinics provide patients with misinformation and falsehoods about abortion care are relying on “propaganda by Planned Parenthood,” Robert claimed, adding that the reproductive health-care provider simply doesn’t want patients seeking care at fake clinics and wants to take away those clinics’ funding.

Politicians echoed similar themes at DFLA’s convention event. Edwards’ award acceptance speech revealed his approach to governing, which, to date, includes support for restrictive abortion laws that disproportionately hurt people with low incomes, even as he has expanded Medicaid in Louisiana.

Also present at the event was Louisiana state Rep. Katrina Jackson (D), responsible for a restrictive admitting privileges law that former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed into law in 2014. Jackson readily admitted to Rewire that she takes her legislative cues from the National Right to Life. She also name-checked Dorinda Bordlee, senior counsel of the Bioethics Defense Fund, an allied organization of the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“They don’t just draft bills for me,” Jackson told Rewire in an interview. “What we do is sit down and talk before every session and see what the pressing issues are in the area of supporting life.”

Despite what Jackson described as a commitment to the constitutionality of her laws, the Supreme Court in March blocked admitting privileges from taking effect in Louisiana. Louisiana’s law is also nearly identical to the Texas version that the Court struck down in June’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision.

Jackson did not acknowledge the setback, speaking instead about how such measures protect the health of pregnant people and fetuses. She did not mention any legal strategy—only that she’s “very prayerful” that admitting privileges will remain law in her state.

Jackson said her “rewarding” work with National Right to Life encompasses issues beyond abortion care—in her words, “how you’re going to care for the baby from the time you choose life.”

She claimed she’s not the only Democrat to seek out the group’s guidance.

“I have a lot of Democratic colleagues in my state, in other states, who work closely with [National] Right to Life,” Jackson said. “I think the common misconception is, you see a lot of party leaders saying they’re pro-abortion, pro-choice, and you just generally assume that a lot of the state legislators are. And that’s not true. An overwhelming majority of the Democrat state legislators in our state and others are pro-life. But, we say it like this: We care about them from the womb to the tomb.”

The relationship between anti-choice Democrats and anti-choice groups couldn’t be more different in South Dakota, said state house Rep. Ray Ring (D), a Hillary Clinton supporter at DFLA’s convention event.

Ring said South Dakota is home to a “small, not terribly active” chapter of DFLA. The “very Republican, very conservative” South Dakota Right to Life drives most of the state’s anti-choice activity and doesn’t collaborate with anti-choice Democrats in the legislature, regardless of their voting records on abortion.

Democrats hold a dozen of the 70 seats in South Dakota’s house and eight of the 35 in the state senate. Five of the Democratic legislators had a mixed record on choice and ten had a pro-choice record in the most recent legislative session, according to NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota Executive Director Samantha Spawn.

As a result, Ring and other anti-choice Democrats devote more of their legislative efforts toward policies such as Medicaid expansion, which they believe will reduce the number of pregnant people who seek abortion care. Ring acknowledged that restrictions on the procedure, such as a 20-week ban, “at best, make a very marginal difference”—a far cry not only from Republicans’ anti-choice playbook, but also DFLA’s position.

Ring and other anti-choice Democrats nevertheless tend to vote for Republican-sponsored abortion restrictions, falling in line with DFLA’s best practices. The group’s report, which it released at the event, implied that Democratic losses since 2008 are somehow tied to their party’s support for abortion rights, even though the turnover in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress can be attributed to a variety of factors, including gerrymandering to favor GOP victories.

Anecdotal evidence provides measured support for the inference.

Republican-leaning anti-choice groups targeted one of their own—Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC)—in her June primary for merely expressing concern that a congressional 20-week abortion ban would have required rape victims to formally report their assaults to the police in order to receive exemptions. Ellmers eventually voted last year for the U.S. House of Representatives’ “disgustingly cruel” ban, similarly onerous rape and incest exceptions included.

If anti-choice groups could prevail against such a consistent opponent of abortion rights, they could easily do the same against even vocal “Democrats for Life.”

Former Rep. Kathy Dalhkemper (D-PA) contends that’s what happened to her and other anti-choice Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, which resulted in Republicans wresting control of the House.

“I believe that pro-life Democrats are the biggest threat to the Republicans, and that’s why we were targeted—and I’ll say harshly targeted—in 2010,” Dahlkemper said in an interview.

She alleged that anti-choice groups, often funded by Republicans, attacked her for supporting the Affordable Care Act. A 2010 Politico story describes how the Susan B. Anthony List funneled millions of dollars into equating the vote with support for abortion access, even though President Obama signed an executive order in the vein of the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on federal funds for abortion care.

Dalhkemper advocated for perhaps the clearest strategy to counter the narrative that anti-choice Democrats somehow aren’t really opposed to abortion.

“What we need is support from our party at large, and we also need to band together, and we also need to continue to talk about that consistent life message that I think the vast majority of us believe in,” she said.

Self-described pro-choice Georgia House Minority Leader Rep. Stacey Abrams (D) rejected the narratives spun by DFLA to supporters. In an interview with Rewire at the convention, Abrams called the organization’s claim that Democrats should work to elect anti-choice politicians from within their ranks in order to win in places like the South a “dangerous” strategy that assumes “that the South is the same static place it was 50 or 100 years ago.”

“I think what they’re reacting to is … a very strong religious current that runs throughout the South,” that pushes people to discuss their values when it comes to abortion, Abrams said. “But we are capable of complexity. And that’s the problem I have. [Its strategy] assumes and reduces Democrats to a single issue, but more importantly, it reduces the decision to one that is a binary decision—yes or no.”

That strategy also doesn’t take into account the intersectional identities of Southern voters and instead only focuses on appealing to the sensibilities of white men, noted Abrams.

“We are only successful when we acknowledge that I can be a Black woman who may be raised religiously pro-life but believe that other women have the right to make a choice,” she continued. “And the extent to which we think about ourselves only in terms of white men and trying to convince that very and increasingly narrow population to be our saviors in elections, that’s when we face the likelihood of being obsolete.”

Understanding that nuances exist among Southern voters—even those who are opposed to abortion personally—is instead the key to reaching them, Abrams said.

“Most of the women and most of the voters, we are used to having complex conversations about what happens,” she said. “And I do believe that it is both reductive and it’s self-defeating for us to say that you can only win if you’re a pro-life Democrat.”

To Abrams, being pro-choice means allowing people to “decide their path.”

“The use of reproductive choice is endemic to how we as women can be involved in society: how we can go to work, how we can raise families, make choices about who we are. And so while I am sympathetic to the concern that you have to … cut against the national narrative, being pro-choice means exactly that,” Abrams continued. “If their path is pro-life, fine. If their path is to decide to make other choices, to have an abortion, they can do so.”

“I’m a pro-choice woman who has strongly embraced the conversation and the option for women to choose whatever they want to choose,” Abrams said. “That is the best and, I think, most profound path we can take as legislators and as elected officials.”


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