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FEATURE | Winter 2015

Saving Doctors' And Clinic Workers' Lives

New study shows abortion providers still face intimidation and violence


By STEPHANIE HALLETT

BEFORE DR. GEORGE TILLER, AN ABORTION PROVIDER IN WICHITA, KANSAS, WAS shot to death by an anti-abortion extremist in 2009, he faced persistent threats and intimidation. Anti-abortion radicals stalked him and his family, harassed him at home and at his church (where he was eventually killed) and plastered “wanted” posters— featuring his name, photo and address—all over town.

At that time, a little more than one-quarter of abortion clinics reported similar kinds of threats and intimidation by anti-abortion extremists. But now, according to data from the Feminist Majority Foundation’s 2014 National Clinic Violence Survey, those numbers have shot up to nearly 52 percent of clinics.

“The spike in serious threats and coordinated intimidation by extremists is of grave concern,” says duVergne Gaines, director of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project. “We know there is a connection between threats like wanted-style posters, residential targeting of physicians and serious violence because these types of threats preceded the murders of doctors in the ’90s and Dr. Tiller in 2009.”

The survey of 242 clinics by FMF (publisher of Ms.) shows that nearly 18 percent of clinics found that their doctors’ pictures and personal information had been posted online, while 8.7 percent of clinics reported that doctors had been stalked. Nearly 28 percent of responding clinics reported that pamphlets featuring photos of their doctors and clinic staff had been distributed, including some titled “The Killers Among Us,” and the use of wantedstyle posters was reported by 7.7 percent of clinics.

There’s some heartening news, though: The survey found that the number of clinics experiencing the most severe types of anti-abortion violence— blockades, invasions, bombings, arson, chemical attacks, gunfire and more—decreased from 23.5 percent in 2010 to 19.7 percent in 2014.

Additionally, the survey found that a positive relationship with local law enforcement correlated with lower rates of violence and harassment. Of the surveyed clinics that highly rated their relationship with local law enforcement, 55 percent said they’d experienced no incidents of antiabortion violence and harassment, while just 41 percent of clinics with a “fair” or “poor” police relationship said the same.

Still, nearly 1 in 5 clinics experienced severe anti-abortion violence, which is why Gaines says there’s a “clear need” for law enforcement to vigorously prosecute criminal threats. “Stopping the threat of violence before it becomes actual violence is critical,” she says.

In fact, a Supreme Court decision that’s on the horizon could significantly impact abortion providers facing threats and intimidation: In Elonis v. United States, the court will decide what constitutes a “true threat.”

The case revolves around Anthony Elonis, who began making violent and vulgar postings on Facebook after his wife, Tara, left him in 2010. For example, he once asked if Tara’s protection-from-abuse order could “stop a bullet.” Elonis v. United States will test the limits of free speech, as Elonis claims he was channeling his frustrations about the separation and not actually threatening his wife. The Supreme Court will determine whether a prosecutor would have to prove that the accused actually intended to place the victim in fear of great bodily harm or death (known as “subjective intent”), or if that prosecutor only must show that a “reasonable person” would regard a statement as threatening (known as “objective intent”).

Constitutional law expert Erwin Chemerinsky explains, “The Supreme Court has long said that true threats are not protected by the First Amendment.” In other words, free speech rights do not trump the threats. He adds, “Until now, most federal and state courts have said that a true threat is determined from the perspective of a reasonable person.” But cases involving threats and intimidation, particularly of abortion providers, have rarely been prosecuted because of—as the Elonis case shows—ongoing confusion in the courts over the definition of a “true threat.”

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Kansas is currently considering what constitutes a true threat in Dillard v. United States of America, a case involving Kansas doctor Mila Means, who planned to set up an abortion clinic in Wichita after Dr. Tiller was murdered. She received a letter from anti-abortion extremist Angel Dillard advising Means to “[check] under your car every day— because maybe today is the day someone places explosives under it.”

Feeling threatened, Means took her case to local police, and it eventually found its way into the hands of the Department of Justice. The DOJ filed a lawsuit against Dillard under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which prohibits violence and threats of violence against abortion providers, but the district court said the letter didn’t constitute a “true threat” and let Dillard off the hook. The DOJ has appealed the court’s ruling.

Chemerinsky is cautious but hopeful. “What’s ultimately at stake here is whether or not those who threaten reproductive health-care facilities and the personnel who work there can be punished and deterred,” he says. “If the Supreme Court changes the law and requires a subjective intention to threaten, then that really is going to make it much harder to protect reproductive health-care facilities. [But] assuming the Supreme Court takes the [reasonable person] standard, I think we’ll continue to be able to protect clinics.”

Reprinted from the Winter issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, Apple, or Android device, join the Ms. Community.

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