"Working As An Abortion Doctor In The Town Where Dr. Tiller Got Shot"
Most people are excited to receive invitations to holiday parties in the mail. For Chicago physician Dr. Cheryl Chastine, however, the Christmas card was yet another reminder of something she’d been trying hard to forget.
Abortion protesters had her home address.
Petite, young, and unassuming, few would recognize Chastine on the streets as the one of the top targets for extreme anti-choice action groups desperate to end legal abortion. Even abortion opponents themselves have trouble identifying her by sight, as they proved when they they posted a photo of her allegedly entering her office building during one local protest. In reality, they had photographed a drug rep entering the building — and she was giving them the finger.
They may not be able to pick Dr. Chastine out of a crowd, but that didn’t stop them from crossing the line from professional to personal when trying to urge her to give up her work in Wichita.
Step One: Identifying Their Target
Last April, Dr. Chastine was identified as one of the new abortion providers who would be working at South Wind Women’s Clinic, the newly opened reproductive health care center that stood in the place of Dr. George Tiller’s former clinic. The campaigns against her quickly followed.
Soon, Troy Newman of the national anti-abortion group Operation Rescue posed as a reporter and called her Chicago office, asking her questions about her role in the Kansas clinic and releasing the conversation online. By the end of the month, local anti-choice group Pro-Life Action League was picketing her Oak Park, Illinois practice — despite the fact that she wasn’t offering pregnancy terminations there — hoping to convince her to give up her work in Wichita.
Dr. Chastine remained unmoved by their pleas, or their constant presence. Others, unfortunately, were more easily intimidated. As her office began the process of leasing from a new building, the Pro-Life Action League sent letters to current renters, warning them that an “abortionist” would be moving into the location and urging them to contact building management and refuse to rent space as long as Dr. Chastine was coming, too. If they didn’t, the group’s Executive Director Eric Scheidler promised, they would be subject to the same graphic, disruptive protests that plagued the previous building.
“Unborn children deserve an advocate in every one of us who recognizes the injustice and inhumanity of abortion,” wrote Scheidler to one tenant. “But if you are not inspired to call [the building agent] on that account, then do it to avert the profoundly negative impact this controversial tenant will have on your own business and your patrons’ peace of mind.” He offered his phone number should the tenant wish to “further discuss what you can do to prevent the upheaval” that would come to the building if Dr. Chastine’s practice was allowed to move in.
The practice did move, but by then they had let Dr. Chastine go. With no medical position in Chicago, Dr. Chastine spent more time in the Wichita clinic, and abortion opponents looked for more ways to convince her not to practice in Kansas anymore.
That’s when they sent a letter to her home.
“We Know Where You Live”
Established in 1980, Pro-Life Action League is a Chicago-area group that opposes abortions and trains “sidewalk counselors” to try to convince patients to choose not to terminate their pregnancies, but opt to give birth instead. Lead by Joe Scheidler, author of Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, Pro-Life Action League a spent much of the 80s using the tactics in Scheidler’s tome to try to convince clinics and abortion providers that their abortion work wasn’t worth the constant harassment they would undergo by doing it.
Before the FACE Act, which made blocking access to an abortion clinic a crime, many of the “99 ways” were actively employed by activists — ranging from “rescue” door blockades to “picket a provider’s home.”
Technology changes and better laws have eliminated some tactics encouraged by the book. You can no longer repeatedly call a clinic as a means of keeping a line busy in order to make it impossible to schedule an appointment. Sending in a couple to pretend they’re planning to abort, but then loudly discuss why they changed their minds in an attempt to encourage others in the lobby to rethink their own decision, is more likely to get an activist arrested than win conversions today.
However, other approaches persist to this day, such as displaying graphic photos in pubic or crashing and counter-protesting every reproductive rights event to be sure to get mentioned in the media.
Sending a letter to a provider is an approved method of communication in “Closed,” which suggests reaching out to and even “adopting” a provider as a means to convince him or her to stop terminating pregnancies.
Still, to receive such a letter to her home address was unnerving for Dr. Chastine. When she received a letter in September 2013 signed by Ann Scheidler, wife to founder Joe and mother of executive director Eric, she couldn’t help but see the action as an escalation of Pro-Life Action League’s intrusion into her personal life in Chicago.
“I had a sinking feeling when I opened the letter and saw who the sender was,” Dr. Chastine recounted to me over email. “These were the same people who’d just mounted a full scale campaign to make my professional life unpleasant. I couldn’t help but take it as an announcement: We know where you live. You’re not safe anywhere.”
“We Just Want To Sit Down And Talk”
On the surface, the letter appears to be a benign, friendly-looking missive to urge Dr. Chastine to meet with her and discuss her career.
“I would like you to help me understand what would lead a promising young woman physician to choose a career path that can only lead to unhappiness and isolation,” Ms. Scheidler writes. “You could actually help women choose life, empower them to celebrate their femininity and fertility, rather that consider pregnancy a disease and fertility a ‘treatable condition.’ ”
Although Ms. Scheidler provided a number to be reached at, she had few illusions that the attempt would work.
“We usually receive no reaction,” Ms. Scheidler told me via phone this fall when I asked her about the letter as an approach to reaching Dr. Chastine. “We feel like it’s an outreach, it’s worth trying. If we can get an opportunity to sit down and talk, great. If we don’t, we don’t.”
According to Ms. Scheidler, outreach to abortion providers was more successful in the years immediately after Roe v. Wade was decided, when abortion was less “entrenched” in society.
However, Ms. Scheidler was firm that making contact, even if it was at Dr. Chastine’s home, was not meant to appear intrusive or a new level of harassment. “We try to be very open and not aggressive about it, while at the same time being firm in our belief that doing abortions is not good for anybody — not good for the doctor, of course not good for the babies, and not good for women, because to lead a woman into killing her own child is not going to be good for her in the long run, not good for society.”
“We just want a chance to see why she is doing this and if we could answer some of her rationalizations and show her there is another way.”
So what would a vehement opponent to abortion say to a doctor if she had the opportunity to sit with her and discuss why she provides abortions? “I would tell her all of that medical training has to be good for something other than killing babies. A baby is such a beautiful little creature, and motherhood is such a beautiful thing.”
“I’m not naïve about how difficult many circumstances are,” continued Ms. Scheidler. “They certainly are. Women are facing rejection from a boyfriend or a husband or they are facing financial difficulties or they’ve got some health issues or something. But it does not negate the fact that human life is very beautiful and that human life is a gift, and to take that is contrary to what people are trained in medical school to do. You are trained in medical school to be a healer. It can’t be good for you to take those talents and skills and turning them into taking a life, instead of preserving a life.”
Even if the intentions behind the letter are benevolent, it’s unsurprising that Dr. Chastine may be nervous to see the same names that forced her out of her own Chicago practice suddenly arriving unannounced in her mailbox. Especially considering the last few years of history surrounding those who performed or intended to perform abortion in Wichita.
Dr. George Tiller was gunned down by an extremist in his own church after a decade of being targeted by abortion opponents. Just the announcement that she was intending to provide abortions in the city caused abortion opponents to target Wichita physician Dr. Mila Means’ landlord until he forbade her to perform them at her office. Then, there was the letter from Angel Dillard warning her that if Means did continue with her intent to provide abortion, she would need to worry about someone trying to blow her up.
Is it any wonder that, to Dr. Chastine, a letter may not seem like just a letter at all?
Just As Committed As Ever
Other than an invite to their annual Christmas party once again delivered to her home address, Pro-Life Action League has had little impact on Dr. Chastine’s life now that they have succeeded in their primary goal — forcing her to choose between her personal practice and her work bringing back access to the full spectrum of reproductive health care to the underserved residents of western Kansas. If their intent was to convince her to stop providing abortions, their actions had the opposite effect. Without a practice in Chicago to divide her time between, South Wind has become her number one priority, and the push to intimidate her into giving that up only made her more firmly committed to that cause.
“These campaigns of harassment and intimidation are a huge reason for the drop in availability of abortion care,” said Dr. Chastine. “People like PLAL keep this up because it works. If these tactics didn’t work, they’d have stopped. If I let this dissuade me, it’s a victory for harassment and bullying.”
She may not have years of experience facing the levels of harassment that some of her more well-known colleagues like Dr. Leroy Carhart or Dr. Warren Hern have undergone, but Dr. Cheryl Chastine has already lived the number one rule of being an abortion provider in the United States today — the more they harass you, the more your patients truly need you.
“I won’t be bullied,” declared Dr. Chastine. “I’m providing compassionate, high quality care that people need. I won’t let a harassment campaign from a few loud bullies make care unavailable again. It would be the people of Kansas who would suffer.”
“I’m here for Kansas, and I’m here for women. “
Robin Marty is a freelance writer, speaker and activist, and the author of Crow After Roe: How Women's Health Is the New Separate But Equal and How to Change That. Robin's articles have appeared in Ms. Magazine, Rolling Stone, Bitch Magazine,Talking Points Memo and other publications.