The Truth About Working at an Abortion Clinic

December 7th 2015

The domestic terrorist attack, on November 28, at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado showed us how dangerous it can be to work at an abortion clinic—but it was certainly not the first example of violence aimed at an abortion clinic. Famously, Dr. George Tiller (subject of the film "After Tiller") was a late-term abortion provider whose clinic was firebombed, and he was eventually murdered at his church. Beyond that, there are many examples of clinics and employees being targeted. Those who are radically anti-abortion sometimes ironically turn to murder.

Doctors and employees at abortion clinics know the fragile nature of their safety. Each day they approach their place of business, they lock eyes with protesters who vehemently disagree with their line of work and a woman's right to choose.

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The threats abortion clinic workers face.

David S. Cohen is a professor of law at Drexel University. He and his co-author Krysten Connon wrote a book called "Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism," which is about doctors and abortion clinic employees who have been targeted by anti-abortion groups.

Cohen told ATTN: that beyond doctors and clinic employees being murdered, the sheer fact that being killed is a known possibility makes every encounter with an anti-abortion activist that much scarier for people involved in providing abortions.

"It's because [murder] is the back drop that everything else I'll mention is so scary, because abortion providers generally know about these other incidents," Cohen said. "They know people in their field have been murdered and shot, so something that seems less concerning ... can be very concerning to abortion providers because of that history."

Cohen and Connon talked with people from 87 abortion providers in 34 states around the country. They talked with doctors and people who work low-level jobs at abortion clinics. Everyone at the clinics faces danger.

Cohen said there are many things he learned anti-abortion activists do that can be terrifying for clinic workers. These incidents include being stalked and followed around town, people picketing at their homes, abortion protesters saying personal information when they confront workers at the clinic, like someone saying they know the names of the doctor's or employee's kids, people will protest outside of the kids' school, send hate mail to the doctor's or employee's home and much more. He said people typically focus on the doctors, but anyone can be targeted.

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Laws that protect abortion providers.

One of the more important laws protecting people who work at abortion clinics is the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE). That law passed in 1994, and it prohibits people from using force or the threat of force to prevent an abortion patient/provider from accessing a clinic, among other things. There are also local ordinances in many states that prevent people from picketing at a abortion provider's home.

A program in California called "Safe at Home" was originally created to protect survivors of domestic violence. It makes it so the personal information of people who have experienced domestic violence can be removed from state databases, so they can't be stalked. It also covers abortion providers. "That law should be a model for all of the other states, because one of the ways that extremists find this information and go to people's homes and stalk them or their kids is by accessing state databases," Cohen said.

Cohen interviewed one doctor from the Midwest for his book, who was found in a medical records database by anti-abortion activists. Protesters came to his house, and his children were scared for their lives. The police weren't very responsive, and they would just sit there and watch the protest. Protests also went to his clinic, and they held up signs with his name on them and at one point his picture with crosshairs over it.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law that made it so there was a "buffer zone" between where protesters could stand and the entrance of an abortion clinic. The court said the law impeded free speech. These kinds of laws have been laid out across the United States in response to violence and intimidation that can occur when someone tries to get inside a clinic. Cohen said the Supreme Court's decision was a serious mistake, because he believes it was an important protection for abortion providers and patients.

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Why doctors choose to provide abortion services.

Cohen said there are many reasons people work for abortion clinics despite these threats. "A first trimester abortion [91 percent of abortions] is a pretty simple, quick procedure that is very safe and is one of those rare medical procedures where a doctor can solve the person's problem in a short period of time and be successful," Cohen said. For this reason, many abortion workers take pride in being able to help vulnerable patients.

Beyond that, many abortion workers that Cohen has talked with say they do it for women's rights purposes, because they don't want radical protesters to say they can't, or because they know what could happen to the country if abortions weren't available.

"For others, it's because they remember the times before Roe v. Wade," Cohen said. "The history and international experience tells us that women are always going to seek abortions, no matter what. Before Roe v. Wade that was just as true, but women were getting sick and dying because they were getting illegal abortions." Countries where abortion is illegal see many deaths from illegal abortions, and women who are caught getting them are often thrown in prison or attacked.

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Rhetoric around abortion.

One topic of discussion since the Colorado terrorist attack has been if the rhetoric around abortion used by some of the Republican presidential candidates might be stoking a fire that ends up burning abortion clinic workers.

"The character of this nation cannot be about butchery of babies for body parts," Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina said in September after misleading videos were released showing Planned Parenthood employees discussing the organization's fetal tissue donation program. Ted Cruz has touted an endorsement from Troy Newman, who is an anti-abortion activist known for applauding people who murder abortion providers.

"I think that the rhetoric [around abortion] contributes to the environment in which fanatics can go out and do the things we're talking about," Cohen said. "When you walk around calling abortion providers murderers and killers and [say they're] selling baby parts, some people are going to take that as a justification to do the kind of stuff we're talking about. I think the rhetoric plays a huge part in what's going on."

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