Why Clinic Violence is Obama's Problem

I shouldn't have been shocked to see the news that Dr. George Tiller, an outspoken advocate for abortion rights and one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers, was gunned down yesterday morning as he attended church. Despite the fact that it's been more than a decade since an abortion provider has been murdered in America, I pay enough attention to hard-line anti-choice groups to know that a violent incident like Tiller's murder was all too predictable.

Tiller's clinic, Women's Health Care Services, was bombed in mid-1980s. In the '90s, it was the subject of blockades, bomb threats, and a shooting attack -- Tiller sustained gunshots to both arms. Just this month, Tiller's clinic was vandalized, with security cameras and outdoor lights damaged and the downspouts plugged, causing rain to pour through the roof. Protesters routinely gathered outside Tiller's church. In 2007, two men were arrested for disrupting services to speak out against him. Tiller often had a bodyguard by his side.

For workers and volunteers in clinics that provide abortions, the threats don't stop once they drive away from work. They extend to their private lives.

"Being a provider (or working for one) in this city is difficult. It involves people going through your trash, talking to your neighbor kids on the street and asking them if they know the lady down the street works for a baby-killer," says Stacy Tiemeyer, a volunteer with Planned Parenthood in Wichita. "It's not a small town, you wouldn't know private details about someone's life just because you see them in the grocery, at church, in the post office. Publicizing and targeting people takes work. It takes following them from work, taking pictures of their license plates, watching their house."

From the immediate post-Roe years to the mid-1990s, clinic violence and blockades were a constant threat. After Dr. David Gunn was assassinated in 1993, Congress passed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which specifically banned such acts as blocking clinic doors, trespassing, making violent threats, arson, vandalism, stalking clinic employees, and other forms of violence. Many of these acts were illegal already, but the law made clear that targeting a clinic with these crimes merited a federal response.

While FACE improved the situation (the number of clinics experiencing severe violence dropped from 52 percent in 1994 to 20 percent in 2000), it didn't succeed in ending the violence. Attacks against women's health clinics -- both those that provide abortions and those that do not -- continued throughout the Bush years. According to the National Abortion Federation, since 2000 abortion providers have reported 14 arsons, 78 death threats, 66 incidents of assault and battery, 117 anthrax threats, 128 bomb threats, 109 incidents of stalking, 541 acts of vandalism, one bombing, and one attempted murder.

Add one murder to that list.

The last time an abortion provider was murdered, when Dr. Barnett Slepian was killed in 1998, it was a wake-up call to the fact that passing the FACE Act wasn't enough. Attorney General Janet Reno established the National Task Force on Violence against Health Care Providers, which committed the Department of Justice to enforcing FACE, coordinating information on national anti-abortion extremist groups, funding clinic safety efforts, and training local law enforcement. The following year, the White House budget requested $4.5 million to beef up security at abortion clinics. But other than finally bringing James Kopp, Slepian's killer, to justice in 2003, the task force was largely dormant for eight years under the Bush administration.

Attorney General Eric Holder released a statement responding to Tiller's murder, promising that "Federal law enforcement is coordinating with local law enforcement officials in Kansas on the investigation of this crime, and I have directed the United States Marshals Service to offer protection to other appropriate people and facilities around the nation." He also pledged to take steps to prevent related acts of violence. Obama expressed that he was "shocked and outraged" by the killing. Neither mentioned the FACE Act or reviving the task force.

Tiller's death is a wake-up call to the fact that our existing laws and regulatory bodies to protect against clinic violence aren't working as well as they should. As written, FACE provides a lot of protection for reproductive health providers. But we need an active task force -- or some other means of accountability -- to make sure the law is fully enforced. This is something Obama's Justice Department could commit to doing tomorrow, sending a strong signal that this type of domestic terrorism is not acceptable.

It's apparent that we need someone at the federal level who is paying attention. After all, Tiller's assassin was not acting in vacuum. Even if no national anti-choice group directly ordered him to fire that gun, he is a product of a culture that thrives on systematically threatening reproductive health care providers and women who seek abortions. Militant anti-choice groups like Operation Rescue -- which has endorsed intimidation tactics in the past -- released statements yesterday condemning Tiller's assassination.

But after years of sending the message to its avid base that Tiller was a sub-human monster, a press release expressing dismay at the killing does little good. On the sidebar of the Operation Rescue blog, near where the press release appeared, was a small image featuring Dr. Tiller's face, some very sinister-looking flames, and the words "America's Doctor of Death," linking to a detailed dossier about all of Tiller's offenses. Other groups keep databases of reproductive health providers' addresses and phone numbers, all but daring their members to conduct harassment campaigns.

Letting FACE go unenforced is not just bad for clinic staff. This pattern of intimidation can affect the quality of care women receive.

The threat of violence is reflected in the very construction of Tiller's and other clinics around the country: high concrete walls, few windows, a secure entryway with bullet-proof glass. They look like bunkers, not doctor's offices. This sort of security would not be necessary if clinics only had to deal with peaceful protesters exercising their right to free speech. (FACE explicitly protects the right to protest peacefully outside abortion clinics.) Acts of vandalism also make it harder for clinics to provide a professional and inviting atmosphere for patients. Every dollar that Tiller put into fixing his water-damaged roof and replacing broken windows was a dollar not spent, say, upgrading medical equipment.

These harassment campaigns also have a chilling effect on medical students who are considering whether to become abortion providers. Would you choose a profession in which death threats simply come with the territory? A full 57 percent of abortion providers in this country are older than 50, and scant few provide late-term abortions. I was in Nebraska several years ago to interview Dr. Leroy Carhart (whose challenges to abortion-restricting laws went all the way to the Supreme Court), and Carhart and Tiller were the only two late-term providers in their region. If one wanted to go on vacation or got sick, the other had to fill in. There was no one else.

As abortion providers retire without replacements, women in most areas of the country are forced to drive further and further to access abortion. In a majority of cases, women who seek late-term abortions do so because they face serious health risks. Driving hundreds of miles to find a doctor -- and the usually facing harassment outside the clinic once they arrive -- makes what is already a difficult medical situation into one that is even more painful.

The only way to ensure that there is someone to take Tiller's place in the future is to find a way to actively combat the daily violence faced by women's health providers in this country. That doesn't mean ending the abortion debate, which is impossible. It means convincing all Americans, even those who don't feel they have a stake in this battle, that it's important to ensure women can access legal medical services safely -- and doctors can perform them safely, too.

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