Commentary Violence

Attacks on Planned Parenthood Part of a Campaign to Harass Legal Abortion Providers

David S. Cohen & Krysten Connon

Just as much as these videos are part of a highly orchestrated campaign to discredit Planned Parenthood, they were also part of an ongoing campaign to target and harass individual abortion providers and others connected with the safe and legal provision of abortion care.

See more of our coverage on the misleading Center for Medical Progress videos here.

In the wake of the undercover attack videos released in the last week, we are both proudly sporting our “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” buttons. But we should just as boldly display a different button: I Stand With Dr. Deborah Nucatola and Dr. Mary Gatter.”

Mostly lost in the intense focus on the brutally dishonest attacks on Planned Parenthood’s practices regarding tissue donation is that, just as much as these videos are part of a highly orchestrated campaign to discredit Planned Parenthood and ultimately undermine legal and safe abortion, they are also part of an ongoing campaign to target and harass individual abortion providers and others connected with the safe and legal provision of abortion care.

And these strikes are hardly an isolated strategy. As our new book, Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, covers in detail, abortion providers and clinic staff around the country can be the subject of unrelenting personal attacks by anti-abortion extremists. These personal attacks can have serious effects on abortion providers’ lives.

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This kind of individual targeting takes on a variety of forms—from hate mail and death threats, to regular large-scale demonstrations in front of people’s homes and stalking providers outside of work. At its most extreme, this kind of targeting has resulted in eight abortion providers murdered since 1993, the most recent being Dr. George Tiller in the foyer of his Wichita, Kansas church in May 2009.

One form of individualized targeting that is less commonly discussed is professional harassment, a type of abuse that seeks to destroy a provider’s professional standing or that occurs within the provider’s professional environment. The video released by the extremist-backed Center for Medical Progress is exactly this, as it attempts to suggest that Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, and Gatter, the medical director of Planned Parenthood Pasadena, were acting callously, unethically, and possibly illegally. Anti-abortion forces aren’t just trying to paint Planned Parenthood in a bad light; they are also trying to ruin Nucatola and Gatter’s individual professional identities, despite the fact that they did nothing wrong and despite the fact that they are trusted, caring, and committed reproductive health-care professionals.

Professional harassment such as this can be devastating for abortion providers. In her study of doctors who are willing but unable to perform abortions, Lori Freedman discussed the effects professional harassment has on doctors working within general-practice settings. One doctor explained to Freedman how difficult professional harassment made the choice between a practice without abortion care or a practice with abortion care:

Do I sacrifice myself for the greater good? But then I can’t take care of my wife and kids? I don’t like thinking about it too much.  It sort of burns me when I have to think about it too much. …  [T]o be labeled as the evil abortion doctor is a great way to make no friends amongst the OB/GYNs and to have no family practice docs refer patients to you.

Providers we talked with for our book also explained the consequences of this professional harassment. Doctors we talked with had their hospital admitting privileges and job offers revoked once people in charge knew about their being an abortion provider. This is a form of professional harassment rooted in stigma, as hospitals or other employers are sometimes afraid to be associated with doctors who perform abortions.

Other doctors described efforts, similar to the campaigns against Nucatola and Gatter, by anti-abortion extremists to use the Internet to ruin their professional identity. One doctor explained:

Once I came in to work and one protester said, “Is it true that you ripped out someone’s bowels and then sent them home to die like it says on the Internet?”  I didn’t know what she was referring to, and I went to the Internet, and they’ve got all sorts of medical “Rate your doctor” websites and I found a post like that, which was dated December of last year, when I hadn’t done surgeries in five years. So in my mind the protesters are filling those “Rate your doctor” sites with fictitious things.

Many providers around the country described to us a common way they have been targeted—having their professional identities smeared in response to their use of emergency services. Anti-abortion extremists lurk outside clinics and monitor whether the clinic uses ambulances or 9-1-1 calls in emergency situations. As one doctor explained to us, ambulances and 9-1-1 calls are perfectly appropriate responses to the rare medical emergency (given how extremely safe abortion care is), something that inevitably arises at some point in any form of outpatient medical care. “That’s what we’re supposed to do,” she said. “You know your limitations as an outpatient clinic, and you transfer people, and it’s better to transfer them earlier than later.”

However, anti-abortion extremists use these emergencies to personally attack providers. They post pictures of the ambulances at the clinics online in order to tarnish the provider or facility’s professional reputation. Or, they file formal complaints to state medical boards against the individual provider based on these emergency responses. Following these complaints, one doctor we spoke with was investigated by the state, their professional status threatened.

Perhaps the most terrifying instance of professional harassment occurred against Tiller prior to his death. Two successive Kansas attorneys general repeatedly investigated Tiller’s professional practices, both based on their own anti-abortion positions and at the behest of some of the most radical abortion opponents in the country. Eventually, this resulted in 19 misdemeanor charges against Tiller for having a financial relationship with the doctor from whom he sought legally mandated second opinions. Tiller was acquitted of all wrongdoing after a widely publicized trial in early 2009.

Scott Roeder was one of the people sitting in the courtroom as Tiller was tried and ultimately found to have done nothing wrong. He reacted very angrily when Tiller was acquitted, by picketing Tiller’s clinic and demonstrating outside his church. Then, on May 31, 2009, he assassinated Tiller in the foyer of Tiller’s church, shooting him point-blank in the head.

It is impossible to know whether Tiller would have been murdered absent the seemingly endless professional harassment he suffered, but it certainly increased the hostility he faced from anti-abortion extremists. Already, people are worrying about the same with Nucatola. As Bob Cesca wrote on Salon last week, “anti-choice extremists are likely fanning out around the Internet, collecting damaging information about her; finding out her home address and contact information; discovering whether she has children and where they go to school; planning rallies outside her house; or worse.” These concerns are not exaggerations; they are regular forms of targeted harassment of individual abortion providers.

Professional harassment like this can also have serious consequences for those who seek abortion care. In fact, it is one of the reasons most women who seek abortions in this country have to go to a freestanding abortion clinic rather than a different type of medical setting. After abortion was legalized nationwide with Roe v. Wade, providers feared professional harassment in the hospital setting, so they developed separate clinics for abortion care. There are many benefits to these separate settings, including the fact that providers can be assured that everyone working there supports abortion rights. But one of the downsides of separate easily identifiable abortion clinics is that patients walking in and out of clinics are more easily harassed by opponents, a common occurrence throughout the country.

Moreover, because of the threat of this type of harassment, abortion providers sometimes have to alter how they work. They can be loathe to advertise, making it harder for patients to find their services. They can limit their practice of abortion, or opt to not go into the field at all even though they trained to do so, decreasing the number of abortion providers in the country.

Or, as a reasonably predictable fallout from these deceptive videos, they may be less open and honest with other professional or potential colleagues out of the fear that they will be taped and their private conversations manipulated and exposed, possibly hampering professional development and innovation.

The victims of this type of professional harassment here are legion. Planned Parenthood as an organization is certainly one, but so are Nucatola and Gatter; other abortion providers around the country whose professional identities could be next; and abortion patients whose services are being threatened.

It is just as important to talk about these other consequences of these deceptive videos as it is to talk about their effect on Planned Parenthood. Which is why we should all proudly wear “I Stand With Dr. Deborah Nucatola and Dr. Mary Gatter” buttons.

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