‘A Backdrop Of Violence’: How Harassment Of Abortion Providers Lays The Groundwork For Anti-Choice Terrorism

murdered abortion providers
Photos of abortion providers and clinic workers killed by anti-choice extremists displayed at the South Wind Women's Center during the "Summer of Justice"

Earlier today, we released a report on the “Summer of Justice,” a week-long event this summer in Wichita, Kansas, that commemorated the 25th anniversary of the infamous anti-abortion “Summer of Mercy.”

At the event, activists organized by Operation Save America protested daily in front of Wichita’s two abortion providers and also traveled in groups to protest at abortion providers’ homes and at other locations throughout the city and state. The main focus of their attention was the South Wind Women’s Center, a clinic that Julie Burkhart, a former employee of Dr. George Tiller, opened at the site of Tiller’s practice after his 2009 assassination by an anti-choice extremist.

In Wichita, we caught up with David S. Cohen, the coauthor of “Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism,” a book that chronicles the daily harassment faced by abortion providers, ranging from low-level harassment to outright violence.

Cohen, who was in Wichita for a book reading meant to coincide with the protests, said, “The book is about anti-abortion harassment and violence, and so there’s no better place to be talking about that than Wichita, given the long history of mass protests here, violence, picketing, harassment, everything. Everything you can imagine that’s happened in the world of anti-abortion attacks has happened here, including the assassination of Dr. Tiller.”

We asked Cohen about how the everyday harassment that abortion providers and their families face is tied in with acts of violence, and how the rhetoric perpetuated by groups such as Operation Save America helps create a culture of intimidation and fear meant to drive providers from their work.

The interview has been shortened and lightly edited for clarity.

Right Wing Watch: In your book, you draw the connection between kind of activities that [Operation Save America] would portray as nonviolent with actual violence and an atmosphere of fear. Do you see a direct line between what they’re doing this week and [abortion providers] fearing violence?

David S. Cohen: It’s absolutely vital to understand that everything they do that’s short of violence takes place against a backdrop of violence. And with the three murders last year in Colorado Springs, it’s an ongoing problem.

It would be one thing if people showed up at your house to protest you for engaging in whatever activity that you engage in with your work, but there’s no history of violence against people like you. It would be an invasion of privacy, you’d be concerned that there are people protesting at your house, you wouldn’t be happy about it, but you might not then go to the next step and think, my life’s at risk.

But in this world, given that 11 people have been murdered since 1993, including someone murdered at their home, with Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1998, and someone murdered at their church, with Dr. [George] Tiller in 2009, I think that all of the lower-level harassment that happens takes place against that backdrop and sends the message that ‘you should fear for your safety because maybe people like me who stand in front of the clinic on a Saturday morning or whatever day aren’t going to be the ones to murder you, but our message is going to get across to someone who is crazy enough to do that.’

I mean, Robert Dear [who murdered three people at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs last year], to the best of what we know, wasn’t someone who stood out in front of clinics and was a part of that, but he fed off of that movement and he was crazy enough to take their message to the extreme that he did. And same with Paul Hill, and same with James Kopp and Eric Rudolph and Scott Roeder. These are all people who were able to take the message of the mainstream movement, take the message of the people who harass even more than the mainstream movement, and take it to a greater extreme. So, absolutely, this low-level harassment and the higher-level harassment takes place against the backdrop of violence, and that’s what makes it so scary.

RWW: To what extent do you think that the violence is part of the message that they’re sending with the low-level harassment?

Cohen: I think it’s an essential part of the message, which is, ‘wink-wink, nod-nod, we despise violence,’ but you know it’s in the background, you know someone might not despise violence. And so showing up at someone’s house is not just the message that ‘we’re here to protest you,’ it’s that ‘we know where you live, we’re able to find out information about you, we’re able to see who your family is, see what car you drive, see what your routines are and, in doing so, that information might get in the hands of someone who wants to commit violence, and if it does, that’s not our problem, but it could happen to you.’ I think that’s clearly part of the message.

RWW: How much of this harassment and protest [that you covered in your book] did you see was organized by a national group or a state or local group and how much of it was individual people taking it upon themselves?

Cohen: I think more commonly it’s just an individual or individual groups of people and not coordinated by the national groups or even the state and local groups. But it doesn’t need to be coordinated by these national groups in order to have the effect that it does. It seemed that everywhere we went to talk to people, there was one really vocal anti-abortion crazy who would either do it themselves or get enough people to support them to do it. And they may or may not be connected to a national organization, they may or may not go to meetings or be a part of that, but that’s enough to be scary and that’s enough to be harassing and to unsettle someone’s life.

And I think that the national groups try to distance themselves from a lot of the stuff that we uncovered in our book because they know it doesn’t go over well. I mean, it’s been very rare since we published the book for us to talk to anyone who says, ‘Well, we support what goes on in your book,’ no matter how you feel about abortion. So I think the groups know to distance themselves, but they also aren’t unhappy that what is described in our book happens.

RWW: To what extent do you think the militant wing [of the anti-choice movement] helps or is helped by the mainstream groups? How do those two parts of the movement fit together?

Cohen: I think they egg each other on, not in obvious ways, but I think they go hand-in-hand. The legislatures that are spurred on by the more mainstream groups can try and limit the procedure and try and shut down clinics, make it harder for women to access abortion, whereas the anti-abortion extremists, they get at the personnel who are involved in the procedure and try and limit the procedure that way.

So I think that they work hand-in-hand and they sort of know that they’re working hand-in-hand, although I don’t think you’re going to prove a conspiracy. I think they’re just happy that the other, each one’s doing what they’re doing and then they can wash their hands of the other one.

Because I don’t think the legislators want to be involved with this stuff that’s in our book. And the people in our book, I think, in some ways they’re very critical of the legislatures, which is why they do what they do, because they don’t like the incremental approach, and so they’re frustrated by the fact that the legislatures and the politicians are not just overturning Roe. They’re making it so a woman has to wait 24 hours. Now, obviously, that’s not good for the woman, but it means she’s still gonna get her abortion, most of them. Or she can’t have a D&X [“dilation and extraction,” a procedure that was renamed “partial-birth abortion” by the anti-choice movement and outlawed in 2003], but she can have another procedure. So that doesn’t end abortion. It makes it more difficult for women, but it doesn’t end abortion.

The extremists want to end abortion, so they take to these more extreme measures to try and end the procedure while the legislature’s chipping away. So in some ways, they don’t like what the other one’s doing, at least they say that, but I think they’re happy that each one’s doing what they’re doing.

RWW: In your research, were there any types of harassment that surprised you that you hadn’t realized were going on?

Cohen: Yeah, what we call in the book secondary harassment, where the provider’s family members, friends, loved ones get harassed in order to get to the provider, that that was surprising at the level that that happens. Picketing at providers’ kids’ schools; we heard two stories of people’s parents in nursing homes being harassed; letters being sent to parents who live across the country; employers being harassed because someone has a second job and they go to that person’s employer. That is not as uncommon as I would’ve thought it was.

And the providers who told us about that were saying, ‘Look, I can take it, I can deal with it, but don’t go after my family members, they’re not involved.’ And that’s exactly why the extremists do it, because they see the providers as too stubborn, but if their parents are getting harassed, then maybe the provider will stop.

RWW: A lot of the people you interviewed seemed to approach this [harassment] with defiance, you know, saying, ‘No, I can’t quit because they’re being so horrible.’ But to what extent do you think their strategies are working and deterring people?

Cohen: I think it works more in preventing people from going into the field than getting people to leave the field once they’re in it. And that’s good and bad. I mean, you want people in this field who understand—I mean, it should not be this way, this should just be another medical procedure just like anything else, anyone interested in medicine and medical care should be able to have jobs doing abortion or working in the abortion field—but given how politicized it is, given the history, you need people who are working at clinics who are committed, who are committed to the movement, because it is a part of the movement.

So I think the harassment weeds out people who are not committed in that way, and then the people who are there are, and it just solidifies it. And I think that’s why you see a low number of people who leave the field because of harassment, because they’ve already committed themselves to this movement. Whereas, you know, you wouldn’t see the same thing with colonoscopy professionals, they’re not committed to a movement for colonoscopy, so if they’re getting harassed for whatever reason, they’ll be like, ‘I’ll go do something else.’ But people who work at clinics, they’re being harassed and they say, ‘But I’m doing this, this is the movement I’m a part of.’ And, now, again, it shouldn’t be this way, it shouldn’t have to be this way, but it is.

But I think it does deter people from going into the field who are uncertain or just don’t know what it means in the first place, and then they look at what happens and they say, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ But once in the field, the Feminist Majority Foundation has looked at this and in 2010 they found about a little less than two percent of people in the field leave because of harassment. And that’s similar to the numbers that we had in our book, so it’s a pretty small number.