Five years ago, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down by an anti-choice activist as he was attending church services in Wichita. His name remains one of the most prominent symbols of the potentially deadly consequences of radical anti-abortion activism. But although Tiller’s murder shook the nation in 2009 — and led Attorney General Eric Holder to dispatch U.S. Marshals to protect abortion doctors across the country — his line of work hasn’t actually gotten much safer in the years since his assassination.
“Threats, intimidation, and violence continue to be aimed at abortion providers,” Vicki Sapota, the president of the National Abortion Federation (NAF), said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “In some ways, we’ve been fortunate that more people who meant to do abortion providers harm were caught before they were able to do so… It’s still a very real problem here in the United States in 2014.”
Fortunately, there hasn’t been another murder in the past five years. But we’ve come close. In 2009, a Wisconsin man was arrested the night before he planned to go to a Planned Parenthood clinic and shoot an abortion doctor. The only reason he was taken into custody in time is because his gun misfired while he was cleaning it in a hotel room, and someone notified the cops. He told law enforcement that he wished he had a machine gun to “mow down” the clinic’s entire staff.
More recently, Julie Burkhart, the reproductive health activist who re-opened Tiller’s former clinic in Wichita, has been the subject of threats and harassment as local anti-abortion activists are attempting to prevent her from carrying on Tiller’s work. One abortion opponent was recorded as saying it would be a “blessing to the babies” if someone shot Burkhart and her staff. Another suggested that Burkhart was trying to incite gun violence by re-opening the clinic after Kansas passed a concealed carry law that that allows residents to carry hidden guns in public.
Aside from threats to their personal safety, abortion providers also continue to face obstacles to their professional success. This March, an abortion clinic in Montana was forced to close after it was completely destroyed in an act of anti-choice vandalism. It’s the second time that clinic owner, Dr. Susan Cahill, has faced this type of harassment — back in 1994, the clinic she operated was fire bombed.
According to Saporta — whose organization works to track incidences of violence and harassment against abortion providers — there have been at least 61 acts of vandalism, 14 assaults, six arsons, and a bombing in the years since Tiller was murdered. There have been ten death threats.
The stakes are particularly high for the handful of doctors who continue to perform the same kind of later term abortion procedures that Tiller provided, a small group that was the subject of a documentary released last year. There are just four doctors who publicize their work in this area, and they’re forced to go to great lengths to ensure their safety — heightening security at their clinics, installing metal detectors, and even relocating across the country. The threats and harassment that late-term abortion providers face is one of the reasons why so few people are willing to offer those services.
Reproductive rights activists argue that law enforcement and government officials have a responsibility to prevent abortion providers from becoming targets solely based on their line of work — especially since the country wouldn’t tolerate this type of harassment against other type of medical professional.
“There needs to be a zero tolerance policy for violence against abortion providers in this country. Regardless of how people think about a woman’s right to choose, violence is never warranted, and people can’t try to justify acts of violence and terrorism,” Saporta pointed out.
There are some concrete policy solutions to help nudge the country toward that goal. In response to clinic violence, some cities and states have begun enacting buffer zones around their reproductive health facilities to keep anti-choice protesters at bay. For instance, after a gunman went on a shooting rampage at two Boston-area abortion clinics in 1994, killing two people and injuring five others, Massachusetts approved a 35-foot buffer zone.
“Buffer zones ensure that women and their health care providers can enter clinics safely and without intrusion into their private decisions,” Dr. Nancy L. Stanwood, the board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, said in a statement provided to ThinkProgress. “No one should be forced to endure harassment, violence, obstruction, or intimidation when they visit a medical facility.”
But Massachusetts’ law is the subject of a current Supreme Court challenge, and it’s possible that it will be struck down, putting similar measures in other states in potential jeopardy. Dozens of reproductive rights groups, including the National Abortion Federation and Physicians for Reproductive Health, have submitted an amicus brief urging the court to uphold the policy.
That decision is expected to be handed down sometime later this summer. If buffer zones are invalidated, some clinic owners and volunteers predict there will be a future upswing in anti-abortion violence and harassment.
Despite the challenges, there are obviously still some medical professional who do continue to provide abortion care. Although they’re not naive about the risks, they say they do it because their patients need them. “Everyone who does the work we do can’t forget the things that have happened, and the people who have been murdered and attacked. But I don’t let it stop me from doing what I do,” one abortion provider from Florida told ThinkProgress in an interview earlier this year.
“We salute, not only Dr. Tiller, but the many women and men who work tirelessly to provide abortion care for those in need despite the intimidating threats that surround them,” Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement to commemorate the anniversary of Tiller’s death. “Their work on the dangerous front lines of this movement shows courage and a conviction that should be admired.”