Local Lawyers Present Groundbreaking Study on Abortion Clinic Violence
David S. Cohen, associate professor of law at Drexel University’s Earle Mack School of Law, and Krysten Connon, a 2012 Drexel Law grad, have conducted a groundbreaking national study of the toll that working under the constant threat of violence takes upon abortion clinic workers.
They interviewed 85 providers in 33 states to assemble a portrait of what life can be like for doctors, nurses and support staff who work at health-care facilities that provide abortion care to women.
As one doctor told the researchers, if anyone had told him that he’d be wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a gun to work every day back when he was in medical school, he would have said they were nuts. But, the study shows, that’s reality today.
“What we found,” said Cohen, “is that targeted harassment can take a variety of forms, is ongoing, and can affect anyone associated with abortion care.”
Cohen and Connon’s work, presented last night for the first time at a sold-out event co-sponsored by the Women’s Medical Fund and Women’s Law Project, focuses not on curbside protesters but on harassers who target and terrorize clinic workers. Common harassment tactics include: real-life and digital stalking; passive threats against targets’ families by mentioning they know the names of their children and spouses; building dedicated websites that let clinic workers know their every move is under surveillance; vandalizing buildings and leafleting neighborhoods with “Wanted”-style posters.
At the most extreme, the harassment escalates to terrorism includes arson, bombings and murder. The first abortion care provider was murdered in 1993. Since then, there have been seven more murders and additional attempted murders. Most notoriously, anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder assassinated Dr. George Tiller in 2009 while the doctor was serving as an usher on a Sunday morning in his church. Tiller was wearing a bulletproof vest, but was shot in the head.
Clinic workers’ responses to working under threat are diverse. Cohen and Connon say some providers exhibit fear, anger and frustration. Others are so desensitized to it that they say they have forget how unusual it is until they begin talking about it again.
They all have to decide whether or not to wear a bullet-proof vest and/or carry a gun.
Cohen and Connon’s presentation last night also addressed policy and law. Specifically, they’re looking for best practices. California, for example, passed a law to protect providers by shielding their names in public databases after a study revealed that “30 percent of respondents to a Senate Office of Research survey of 172 California reproductive health care providers reported they or their families had been targets of acts of violence by groups that oppose reproductive rights at locations away from their clinics or offices.”
Then there’s the question of how to increase public awareness of this type of violence and language. The media and the public need to distinguish between a sidewalk protester practicing their First Amendment rights and people using these targeted harassment techniques to threaten and intimidate providers in an effort to bully them out of work. “These acts should be branded by the law, by the public, as terrorism,” said Cohen, pointing out that such activities fit the federal definition of terrorism.
One point Cohen and Connon mentioned brings the atmosphere into sharp relief: Some care providers were hesitant to talk to them, despite assurances that their names and locations would not be revealed, because they believed that their harassers would read their words to find out what frightens them the most, and then use that against them. Still, Cohen said, despite these concerns, numerous abortion clinic workers spoke out because they want their stories told and are determined to not be terrorized.
Cohen and Connon are busy compiling their research into a book, which they hope to be completed by the end of the year.