The Disturbing Levels Of Stalking And Intimidation Plaguing Abortion Doctors

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

Pro-life and pro-choice supporters face off in front of the State Capitol in Denver

Over the past several years, there have been increasing levels of threats and intimidation aimed at doctors who provide abortion services, according to a new survey of abortion clinic violence published by the Feminist Majority Foundation. Some of the tactics mirror the harassment that doctors faced in the 1990s before becoming the victims of violent and even fatal crimes.

The National Clinic Violence Survey is the first comprehensive nationwide review of the atmosphere at women’s health clinics since 2010. Nearly 250 abortion providers across the country responded to the questionnaire with information about how anti-abortion harassment affects their patients and staff.

“The most stunning result in the survey, really, is this surge in serious threats that are being carried out against providers nationwide,” duVergne Gaines, the director of the National Clinic Access Project and one of the authors of the report, told ThinkProgress. “Those threats have almost doubled since 2010.”

abortion doctor intimidation chart

CREDIT: Feminist Majority Foundation

Gaines is particularly concerned about the uptick in the distribution of Old West-style “Wanted” flyers that include doctors’ photos and personal information. They’re typically labeled with dire messages like “Killers Among Us,” “Wanted For Killing,” and “Stop This Abortionist Now,” and activists often distribute the leaflets in the neighborhoods where abortion providers live. While about 19 percent of clinics said their staff members were being targeted with flyers in 2010, that number rose to about 28 percent in 2014.

“They are very much like the flyers used to target physicians in the 90s when they were being shot and killed. They profile their photograph, their name, their place of business’ address, and often their own private residence,” Gaines said. She described the posters as “almost like putting a target on their back.”

Picketing doctors’ private residences is one of the explicit strategies detailed in Closed: 99 Ways To Stop Abortion, the unofficial handbook instructing activists on how to end legal abortion in the U.S. Extreme groups like Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust often show up at the private homes of abortion providers, chalking messages like “your neighbor is a monster” on the sidewalk and using megaphones to chant “this doctor kills babies.” Some doctors are forced to alter their routes home from work to attempt to hide where they live.

The internet has also given rise to new forms of cyberstalking. About 18 percent of clinics reported that their staff’s personal information and photos has been posted online, up from about 9 percent in 2010. Some abortion providers have found aerial photos of their private homes published on the internet. Prominent right-wing websites like compile doctors’ information in searchable databases, allowing abortion opponents to browse through phone numbers and addresses.

“I think the average legislator, and certainly the average citizen, has no idea what is really happening to the abortion providers who care for women’s comprehensive reproductive health. If they did, they would be truly horrified,” Gaines said.

Considering the fact that choosing to provide abortion services can put doctors’ personal safety at risk, reproductive rights activists argue that government officials have a responsibility to prevent them from becoming targets solely based on their line of work. In addition to tracking incidences of threats and harassment levels at abortion providers, the National Clinic Access Project also works with law enforcement to prosecute right-wing activists.

When these types of cases make it to court, Gaines said that juries are often quick to crack down on extremists. She recounted a case brought by a North Carolina provider who testified about being stalked, encountering protests at his private OB-GYN practice and at his personal home, and being the subject of “Wanted” flyers. Gaines said that when the jury realized what was happening, they were “absolutely appalled” and moved to convict. But doctors don’t always feel comfortable speaking out like that, and local criminal statutes often aren’t broad enough to apply in these cases.

Advocates want to strengthen the legal tools in this area — they’re looking ahead to a forthcoming Supreme Court case that will hopefully help clarify what constitutes a “true threat” under the First Amendment — but they also think making doctors feel safer needs to involve a broader culture change.

“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,” Vicki Saporta, the president of the National Abortion Federation (NAF), which also tracks data on clinic violence, told ThinkProgress last year.