Living in the Crosshairs: Violence Against Abortion Providers Hurts Us All

by | Nov 23, 2015 | Reproductive Rights

In an ideal world, abortion providers would lead lives just like any other medical professional. However, in the highly charged environment we live in, abortion providers’ lives are different. Because of their work, providers have been murdered, shot, kidnapped, assaulted, stalked and subjected to death threats. Their clinics have been bombed, attacked with noxious chemicals, invaded, vandalized, burglarized and set ablaze. Individual abortion providers have been picketed at home and have received harassing mail and phone calls. Their family members have been followed where they work, their children have been protested at school and their neighbors’ privacy has been invaded.

Unfortunately, as the attacks of the past few months show, this kind of targeted harassment of abortion providers is not a relic of the past, when Operation Rescue was at its peak and clinic bombings seemed to be a weekly occurrence across the country. Although the federal government passed a law in 1994 that greatly reduced the number of clinic blockades, the day-to-day harassment that some providers experience continues.

In our recent book, my co-author Krysten Connon and I detail findings from interviews with almost 90 providers across the country. We document the types of individualized harassment providers face and the toll this takes on their lives. Some register property in other people’s names, wear disguises to work, take different routes to and from work and leave restaurants quickly so no one identifies them.

These evasive measures are foreign to almost all other medical professionals. As one abortion provider told us, “If anybody told me when I was in medical school that I would go to work armed and with a bulletproof vest, I would have thought they were nuts. But I do have a bulletproof vest, and I do go to clinics armed these days.”

Although the Supreme Court failed to uphold buffer zones outside of clinics, there are other ways the law can help providers. Police can work preemptively with clinics and providers to enhance security, legislators can strengthen harassment and stalking laws and pass laws restricting home picketing, states can better protect providers’ identities from being included in public databases and judges can obtain a thoughtful understanding of an abortion provider’s unique conception of a threat.

It’s rare for an abortion provider to leave the field because of this harassment; they are too committed to their patients and the cause to do so. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. Just the opposite — these defenders of human rights need to be better protected so that women can more easily access the basic constitutionally protected medical care they seek.

David S. Cohen is a law professor at Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, where he teaches constitutional law and gender and the law. Prior to teaching, Cohen was a staff attorney at the Women’s Law Project. He is currently on the board of the Women’s Law Project and the Abortion Care Network and writes for The Good Phight and occasionally for Slate and Rolling Stone.