How Anyone Who Works At An Abortion Clinic Becomes A Target For Violence And Harassment

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Clinic owner Diane Derzis stands outside the Jackson Women's Health Organization, Mississippi’'s only commercial abortion clinic

Joan, the president of a network of women’s health clinics in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States, isn’t comfortable using her real name in this story because her private residence was vandalized last year. Someone threw a bucket of red paint all over her house.

“It went on every surface — the door, the walkway, the screens, the glass, the wood, my Christmas wreath, my welcome mat. Everything. It was just a mess,” Joan recounted in an interview with ThinkProgress. She told the police that, considering where she works, she was pretty sure it was anti-abortion harassment. There wasn’t much the cops could do.

Ascribing blame to the anti-abortion movement — whose particularly far-right actors regularly picket at abortion providers’ private homes, and occasionally use sidewalk chalk to scrawl messages declaring them to be “serial killers” and “monsters” — wasn’t totally a shot in the dark. Protesters clearly know where Joan lives because they’ve shown up at her house several times before. One year, they rewrote Christmas carols to feature lyrics about “how horrible I am,” according to Joan.

“I don’t feel particularly paranoid,” said Joan. When she started her current position, she was given a bulletproof vest by her organization’s security director, but it’s been sitting untouched in a drawer ever since. However, she acknowledged that the risks associated with her line of work do have some impact: “When someone knocks on my door at night, I wonder why.”

Joan is just one of the dozens of people who’s featured in a new book that attempts to detail the scope of anti-abortion harassment present in clinic staffers’ everyday lives. Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism argues that, although most Americans don’t realize it, many of the people who work in the field of abortion are living in a state of heightened fear and anxiety because targeted harassment follows them everywhere.

The book’s authors, law professor David Cohen and practicing attorney Krysten Connon, once worked together to represent abortion providers in Philadelphia and were struck by the stories of stalking and intimidation they heard in court. They realized the scope of the problem is so much bigger than the public protests outside of clinics that Americans typically associate with anti-abortion activists. And once they started reaching out to interview more than 80 clinic staff members around the country, they quickly learned that abortion providers are under siege.

“This individual targeting impacts people’s lives in a way you just would not associate with medical professionals,” Cohen told ThinkProgress. “Taking different routes to work every day, wearing disguises to get into work, purchasing a bulletproof vest or a gun because of their profession — these are things we think about in terms of the FBI, the police, spies. This is not something we think about when it comes to people providing a lawful medical service.”

Nonetheless, it’s widespread. A recent survey of clinic employees conducted by the Feminist Majority Foundation found that there have been increasing levels of threats and intimidation aimed at doctors who provide abortion services over the past several years. The rates of stalking, home picketing, and distribution of personal information online have all increased since 2010.

And according to Cohen’s research, harassment doesn’t stop at doctors themselves. Anyone associated with abortion clinics — nurses, volunteers, and administrators like Joan — can find themselves the subject of threats. (Cohen and Connon include all of those people in the “abortion provider” category.) Then, the targeting is often extended to their loved ones. Protesters have showed up to picket providers’ children’s schools and mailed letters to providers’ family members; some of them have also gone to accost providers’ parents in their nursing homes.

Alesha Doan, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who has conducted previous research into the tactics employed by the anti-abortion movement, has found that this type of behavior is “particularly effective” because it’s so personalized. Being targeted with a personal touch ultimately puts abortion providers in “a constant state of feeling under attack and under scrutiny.”

“If you’re an abortion clinic and you receive a bomb threat, that’s scary — but if that threat doesn’t materialize, you eventually put that out of your mind. Whereas if you go to work every day, and people are calling out to you by your first name, and calling out the names of your children and your friends, it takes on a very different tone,” Doan told ThinkProgress.

Americans outside of this particular field might not understand why it feels so threatening to be reminded that anti-abortion protesters know your name, address, and family connections. But Cohen says it’s different when you’re actually working as an abortion provider. Those people are familiar with the legacy of anti-abortion violence that’s occurred over the past several decades. The murders and bombings perpetrated by extremists aren’t such distant history, in the grand scheme of things, and they didn’t always occur at clinic buildings themselves.

In 1998, an abortion doctor named Barnett Slepian was killed by a sniper who shot a single bullet through his window as he stood in the kitchen of his home in New York, where he was about to sit down to eat with his family. In 2009, the late-term abortion provider George Tiller was shot to death in the foyer of his church in Kansas, where he was passing out bulletins for the service.

“The people in the profession are acutely aware of what’s happened to people before them,” Cohen said. “People have been murdered at home, at work, at church. The message is: You’re not safe anywhere. There’s a strong collective memory among providers about this, and the extremists play off this history. We talked to so many people who said they close their blinds as night — not because they would otherwise want to, but because of what happened to Dr. Slepian in his home.”

That’s why incidents that one person might interpret as a relatively harmless prank — like, say, splashing red paint on the front of an abortion provider’s house — don’t seem quite so harmless to the abortion providers on the receiving end.

But there’s ultimately an “information gap” when it comes to the Americans’ understanding about the true nature and impact of anti-abortion harassment, Doan says. She noted that, after continual anti-abortion protests over the better part of four decades, this particular dynamic has become normalized. As long as doctors aren’t actually getting murdered, the ongoing harassment may not seem like that big of a big deal to the general public. “Protesting seems pretty mundane and innocuous. It doesn’t seem that harmful,” she said. “Unless you’re involved in that situation, you don’t have a good idea of what’s going on.”

Cohen’s book argues that, in order to better protect abortion providers, this information gap needs to be closed. Law enforcement officials in particular should learn more about the context in which this harassment is occurring, so they’ll be equipped to respond to calls from the abortion providers within their jurisdiction.

“It really helps when the police know where a provider lives, why they may call when someone else might not call, and why they may be concerned about other things that other people might not be,” Cohen said. “The more that police are aware of the history, and the particulars about the providers in their community, the better.”

The most provocative conclusion in Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism is right in the title — the argument that it’s appropriate to label this type of stalking, intimidation, and harassment as “terrorism.”

There’s no universal definition of terrorism. Cohen and Connon rely on one that was initially put forth by Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, who says that terrorism is “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in the pursuit of political change.” Cohen and Connon write that, since the most extreme anti-abortion protesters are instilling fear in providers as a means to accomplish the social and political goal of ending abortion, their activities can broadly be categorized as domestic terrorism.

It’s tricky legal territory because anti-abortion protesting often falls in a gray area — which, Doan says, is a big reason why this arm of the movement has been so successful in the first place. It’s hard to figure out how to crack down on the extremists without overstepping our democratic society’s larger commitment to peaceful political protest.

But Cohen believes that, if Americans started more seriously considering whether these actions fit into our understanding of terrorism, it would help us move toward a lack of tolerance for the behavior currently being perpetrated against abortion providers. He thinks the testimonies published in his book might help.

“When you lay out exactly how people are harassed at work, at home, in their community — they’re killed, they’re stalked, they’re picketed, there are death threats, their personal information is used against them — when you lay that out in detail and then show the way it affects people, I think it’s hard not to think of it as terrorism,” Cohen said. “And I would think that there would be broad agreement that people should not be terrorized, and fearful for their lives and their families’ safety, because of their profession.”