Why is the Workplace So Unsafe For Abortion Providers?

In the 1980s, the city of Wichita, Kansas became a stage for the abortion culture wars. Anti-choice groups frequently ascended to the city to protest against the three abortion clinics with particular emphasis on one abortion doctor. The groups wanted to end abortion in the city — safe abortion, that is, by eliminating access. In effect, that goal was achieved four years ago last Friday in the most sinister and bone-chilling of ways when Dr. George Tiller was shot dead through the eye by a "pro-life" terrorist while serving as an usher in church, his wife and church community as witnesses.

George Tiller was targeted by anti-abortion groups for years for being one of very few providers in the nation to provide later-in-pregnancy abortions. Tiller’s face could be readily found on “Wanted” posters distributed by the radical anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue.  On these posters, his clinic was likened to the infamous World War II Nazi death camp of Auschwitz and the doctor himself compared to Adolph Hitler.


"Wanted" poster distributed by Kansas-based anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue

Source: Feminist Majority Foundation

In the Summer of 1991, Operation Rescue organized an unprecedented action against Tiller’s clinic called “Summer of Mercy.” Protesters stayed outside of the three Wichita clinics for weeks, leading to over a thousand arrests. The protesters literally used their bodies to block patients from entering the clinic, chanting, and aggressively attempting to persuade women not to undergo abortions. All three of Wichita’s abortion clinics shut down for an entire week.  This garnered nationwide media attention and led to federal judge Patrick Kelly sending in federal marshals, stating: "This kind of fanaticism leads to violence, and it clearly will come if we don't stop it.” Justice Kelly had incredible foresight.

In March of 1993, the first abortion provider was murdered in the United States. Dr. David Gunn, whose face was also plastered over “Wanted” posters by Operation Rescue, was shot dead three times in the back outside of his clinic in Pensacola. It is reported that Dr. Gunn’s killer shouted “Don’t kill any more babies!” before killing the man to add a dose of evil irony to the horrendous act of hate. Just a few months later, Dr. Tiller was shot in both arms outside of his clinic in Wichita but survived that assault. Again in Pensacola, just a year after Dr. Gunn’s murder, a well-known anti-choice protester shot and murdered Dr. John Britton and clinic escort and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, James Barrett. Acts of violence against abortion providers, associates, and clinics are vastly underreported by the media, leaving the numbers to largely speak for themselves. Since 1993, eight people have been murdered for helping women exercise their constitutional right to an abortion. From 1977 to 2010, there have been at least 6,348 incidents of violence perpetrated upon abortion clinics by so-called “pro-life” extremists. This includes at least 41 bombings, 188 acts of assault and battery, 523 events of stalking, and 100 butyric acid attacks. Sadly, this is just an approximation. The actual number is projected to be far higher.

When not targeted by violence, clinics are consistently and systematically threatened and intimidated to the tune of 6,815 “disruptions” to clinics in 2010 alone. While the horrific murder case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell enjoyed major media attention, the media has sat noticeably silent to these incidents of violence and threats to clinics. Mainstream media discusses attempts to defund Planned Parenthood nationwide but is mum on extremists with axes hacking away at women’s health centers like just over a month ago in Indiana. Providers are routinely targeted through campaigns such as that of AbortionDocs.org which lists the names, addresses, information, and pictures of abortion providers and clinics nationwide through a publicly accessible database. The website says its mission is to provide people “with comprehensive, up-to-date information about the abortion cartel” (Abortion cartel? Really?) so that abortion “can be exposed and stopped through peaceful, legal means.” In reality, it just provides an easy avenue for radicals to harass individuals and locations that provide abortions. 

The murder of Dr. Gunn in 1993 led to the passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act or FACE Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, making it a “federal crime to injure, intimidate, or interfere with those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health care services.” According to a study by the National Abortion Federation, violence against clinics declined since the act went into effect: “In 1994, 52% of clinics reported experiencing severe violence (classified as blockades, invasions, bombings, arsons, chemical attacks, stalking, physical violence, gunfire, bomb threats, death threats, and murder). That number declined to 20% in 1999 and 2000.” The Clinton administration filed several suits against violators of the law; however, this process slowed dramatically under the Bush administration where a whopping total of one lawsuit was filed during eight years in office. The Obama administration has changed the tide dramatically, upping lawsuits against violators.

Since Dr. Tiller's murder, the focus has shifted to another brave abortion provider: Dr. LeRoy Carhart. Dr. Carhart was a friend and colleague of Dr. Tiller and performs later abortions in Nebraska and Maryland. Carhart is no stranger to violence himself. In 1991, his farm was set ablaze by arsonists, killing many of his horses and other pets, and causing damage to his home. In 2011, twenty years after the inaugural Summer of Mercy, anti-choice groups formed "Summer of Mercy 2.0" in Germantown, MD to target Carhart; however, their effort resulted in far less protesters and participants than in Wichita in the 90s. This time, too, pro-choice groups and grassroots activists were there to meet them with "Summer of Trust" and "Summer Celebration of Choice" efforts to defend the clinic and the doctor. 


Source: RH Reality Check

Whether you agree with abortion or not, clinic violence should shock and disturb you. The reality is that bombing, shooting, stalking, and kidnapping abortion providers is domestic terrorism and as seriously as we take threats from international terrorists, we must take from domestic ones too. Doctors are rightfully terrified to practice abortion in this nation. That is a crime. If we do not right this wrong, we do not need to worry about the GOP passing laws to make abortion illegal: we will have no providers willing to perform abortions out of pure fear of putting themselves and their families at risk. This has been said time and time again: there is no choice without access. The best way to honor the memory of the women’s rights hero that is Dr. Tiller is to protect and support abortion providers who are on the front lines of the war for reproductive justice.

No person should have to wake up in the morning, brush their teeth, pull on their turquoise scrubs, and zip up their bullet proof vest before walking into work. Reproductive health care should not be a war zone. The murder of Dr. Tiller and the many before him will forever be a dark mark on the moral fiber of our nation. Dr. Tiller, Dr. Gunn, Dr. Slepian, Robert Sanderson, Lee Ann Nichols, and the others gave up their lives providing access to a basic right, to a medical procedure. We must honor these people by protecting providers, standing up for not only choice but access, putting pressure on lawmakers to protect clinics, and calling on our media to report on such crimes. The murder of Dr. Tiller shocked the nation, even prompting the House of Representatives to draft a resolution in his honor. A week after his death, the clinic shut its doors for good. Now, four years later, one of Dr. Tiller’s former employees, Julie Burkhart, has purchased the clinic from Dr. Tiller's wife with plans to reopen it, restoring hope to women not only in Wichita but all over the nation.

In loving memory of Dr. George Tiller (August 8, 1941 – May 31, 2009)


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Lily Bolourian

Lily Bolourian is a feminist organizer who has organized rallies, coordinated political campaigns, and spoken on national panels on the topics of modern feminism, reproductive rights, online feminist organization, and abortion stigma. Her interests are in reproductive justice, race, culture, social justice, political organizing, and their intersects. Proud Marylander.

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