“I was driving with a physician colleague and abortion provider to our book club, and we were both stunned and horrified,” remembers Dr. Monica McLemore, a nurse researcher and abortion provider, of the assassination of later abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. “We needed to pull over and have a minute to discuss our own work and what this meant.”
On May 31, 2009, while serving as an usher at his church, abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was shot in the head by an anti-abortion activist. Dr. Tiller had previously been shot in both arms in 1993, and had his clinic firebombed in 1986. Sunday marks the sixth anniversary of Dr. Tiller’s assassination, and as buffer zone laws protecting providers and patients from harassment crumble, the intimidation persists. Over the past four decades, the National Abortion Federation reports 8 murders, 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 181 arsons, over 660 bomb threats, and thousands of incidents of other forms of violence, targeted at abortion clinics and their staff. In March, Mississippi’s only clinic suffered vandalism and destruction to their surveillance camera and power lines. The award winning documentary film After Tiller, released in 2013, offers a harrowing, yet inspiring look into the danger four later abortion providers face while offering health care for their patients, particularly in the wake of Dr. Tiller’s assassination.
These ongoing acts of violence are the subject of a new book, Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism where authors David S. Cohen and Krysten Connon interviewed abortion providers across the country about their experiences. “Abortion providers regularly experience various forms of individualized harassment, intimidation, and even violence,” Cohen tells EBONY.com. “Not every abortion provider does, but many do, as it is a part of the anti-abortion movement’s strategy to end abortion.” He says that violence takes many forms, from criminal acts such as assault, stalking, and even kidnapping, to harassment like picketing a provider’s home or their children’s school, publicizing their personal information, and verbal taunts. For Black abortion providers and clinic workers, this violence is more racialized and intense. They’re often accused of being “race traitors” or “killing the Black race” simply for providing healthcare. In their book, Cohen and Connon share stories of providers who remember being called “a filthy Negro abortionist”.
Black abortion providers like Dr. McLemore know this experience all too well. “When I worked for Planned Parenthood, I had several protestors ask me ‘how as a Black woman can I participate in the murder of black children’.” History has shown us that Black women have been at the forefront of reproductive and abortion health care for hundreds of years, and over 80 percent of the Black community believes abortion should be legal and accessible, however anti-abortion protesters, often White, are quick to erase their contributions and autonomy.
Dr. McLemore also researches the experiences of nurses in providing abortion care and the hostile work environment due to anti-abortion protestors is a huge part of their work. She says nurses feel “upset, angry, and disappointed” race and ethnicity is used “to shame them for their work and to belittle the contributions they make to providing safe and compassionate care at what sometimes is a difficult and vulnerable time.”
This belittlement of Black abortion providers’ work often takes the form of denying their professional credentials because racist protesters simply don’t believe that the Black staff entering the clinic would be physicians or nurses. “There’s an intentional refusal to call me doctor or give me professional courtesies based on my chosen craft,” says Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion provider in Alabama. “They’re racializing the fact that I provide abortion care. As if there’s additional shame.” Cohen and Connon interviewed one Black provider who “plays off the protesters’ racism” by wearing sweatpants and headphones when he enters the clinic to avoid harassment.
Dr. McLemore says she too is frequently mistaken for a patient when entering the clinic, and those times it gives her another perspective; that of the patients. “[The] targeting all women of color [with verbal taunts] entering facilities that provide abortions made me realize how racially conscious anti-abortion people are and how they can, and do, exploit the race and ethnicity of the staff with targeted messaging that I believe is meant to divide and conquer.”
This harassment upon entering the clinic does have a deep impact on patients. “Oftentimes, the protesters’ yelling causes patients to experience anxiety and increased heart rates,” describes Connon. “Providers explained their concern for the patients in this regard – they take the extra step in ensuring that the patient has calmed down before starting an otherwise routine medical procedure.” While volunteer escorts are at some clinics to make sure patients have the ability to walk in unobstructed, the sight of bulletproof glass and security guards can increase worry.
Dr. Parker points out that for patients of color the harassment starts before they go near the clinic – billboards erected in predominantly Black communities seek to shame them for experiencing unintended pregnancies and seeking abortion care. “It has a more pronounced impact on women who are more poor and are already struggling,” he observes.
To fight back against these violent and racist tactics, one thing Dr. Parker says everyone can do is to become more aware of the issue and talk about it. With a third of women having an abortion by age 45, “everyone knows someone who has had an abortion,” he explains. “When abortion is being talked about in the public domain in the oversimplified way it jeopardizes women’s care.” Similarly, Connon and Dr. McLemore believe that everyone can stand up by talking about and voting their values. “We need more politicians, especially local ones, who care about these issues,” Connon says. Dr. McLemore agrees. “Building empathy one conversation at a time is important.”