When Anti-Abortion Harassment Gets Personal

Anti-abortion demonstrators begin their march at the annual March for Life on the National Mall in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. Thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators are gathering in Washington for an ann... Anti-abortion demonstrators begin their march at the annual March for Life on the National Mall in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. Thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators are gathering in Washington for an annual march to protest the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision that declared a constitutional right to abortion. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) MORE LESS
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Katie Klabusich is an activist who works tirelessly for abortion rights and access. She is a journalist and blogger for various online outlets, frequently chronicling current events around abortion with a particular focus on the activities of anti-abortion protesters. She has helped organize fundraising events for abortion clinics and advocacy organizations. And she has also put herself on the front lines of the abortion fight, volunteering as a clinic escort to help women enter abortion clinics in Illinois and New Jersey.

On March 5, Klabusich woke to a message from a friend about a new blog post on the Pro-Life Action League’s (PLAL) website. The post urged readers to “pray and fast” for 40 days for three specific people — Dr. Cheryl Chastine, a doctor who has recently started performing abortions in Wichita, Kansas, where Dr. George Tiller practiced until he was assassinated in 2009; Robin Marty, a journalist who writes about abortion for many outlets and whose work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Rolling Stone, and RH Reality Check (full disclosure: Marty has written posts for TPM); and Klabusich.

In addition to the words encouraging people to “pray and fast” for the three women, the blog post also displays an image, styled as a poster. This poster features pictures of all three women, their names, and descriptions related to their professions. Dr. Chastine was labeled an “abortionist”; Marty was labeled a “pro-choice journalist”; and Klabusich was labeled an “abortion clinic escort.” The blog post also specifically details the cities where Klabusich and Chastine work and live.

We interviewed Klabusich about the poster, and she told us that her immediate reaction was “fear” because the image “looks like a Wanted poster.” Wanted posters have a chilling history in the anti-abortion movement. Since 1993, eight abortion providers have been murdered by anti-abortion extremists. A ninth abortion provider was murdered in circumstances that many abortion activists believe occurred because of his role as an abortion provider. Before at least four of these providers were murdered, anti-abortion extremists distributed Old West-style Wanted posters that depicted the provider’s name, picture, and other personal information beneath a “Wanted” headline.

Because of the clear threat involved, these Wanted-style posters have been the subject of litigation. In 2011, a North Carolina jury convicted Phillip Benham of stalking after he distributed these types of posters with the picture and name of a local physician who performs abortions. The judge sentenced Benham to 18 months of probation and ordered him to stop intimidating the doctor. A decade earlier, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a multi-million dollar jury verdict against an anti-abortion group that had distributed similar posters along with a website collecting the names of abortion providers and striking out the names of those who had been killed.

To Klabusich, it was this “distinct history of violence from extremists” that grounded her sense of fear. Even though this poster did not specifically include the “Wanted” label, the connection with the past was clear to Klabusich. The subsequent response from some in the anti-abortion world made that even clearer.

Since appearing on the PLAL website, the poster has been widely circulated. Until a few days ago, PLAL used the poster as its Facebook page banner photo. Renew America picked up the story and wrote about the poster along with quotes from leaders of other national anti-abortion groups about the campaign against the three women. For Klabusich, her fear became “a little more real when it wasn’t just a PLAL blog post.”

Klabusich was most concerned about the comments on Facebook and the blogs. Klabusich believes that the authors and commenters use code words that signal to others that more than just prayer and fasting is warranted. She and the other two women on the poster were called “notorious” and accused of promoting a “culture of death.”

In reading through the comments, Klabusich recognizes that it is unlikely that someone will explicitly say, “we’re coming to find you.” In fact, PLAL insists that it is a peaceful group wanting nothing more than prayer for the three women. However, Klabusich believes that anti-abortion extremists use “inflammatory rhetoric,” including these code words, to mask their true intentions or to spur others to act more extremely.

Marty, the journalist in the poster, viewed the poster similarly. As a journalist, she previously had a professional relationship with the people at PLAL, so she explained to us that she was bothered that she was put in the same light “as two people they consider to be active adversaries.” She was further concerned that after the poster surfaced, “additional abortion opponents framed it as ‘war’ and that sometimes uncomfortable action must be taken.”

This poster is just one example of how anti-abortion protesters target and harass individuals associated with abortion provision, even those loosely associated with abortion care such as journalists. From 2010 to 2012, the last three years that the National Abortion Federation has collected information about anti-abortion violence and harassment, there have been 9 reported attempted or successful bombings and arsons of abortion clinics; 61 reported acts of vandalism; 161 reported incidents of trespassing; 2 reported anthrax/bioterrorism threats; 14 reported assaults and batteries; 10 reported death threats; 14 reported bomb threats; 26 reported acts of burglary; and 14 reported incidents of stalking. Earlier this month, one of the only abortion clinics in Montana was severely vandalized by an anti-abortion extremist. Ninety-five percent of the items in the clinic were destroyed, and the owner is not sure if the clinic will reopen.

Some of these incidents get media coverage, but other kinds of anti-abortion harassment and violence fly under the radar. In fact, abortion providers are harassed in their everyday lives in countless ways that are often unreported. Many providers’ day-to-day lives are marked by incidents of anti-abortion protesters stalking them, picketing outside their homes, sending hate mail or threatening phone calls, and disseminating the provider’s personal information to the public. To deal with this harassment, many abortion providers commute to and from work in disguise, use evasive measures when driving, conceal their profession, and wear a bulletproof vest or carry a concealed weapon. For some providers, these routine evasive measures are the reality of being a women’s health professional in 2014.

For the past three years, we have been researching this issue of targeted harassment and will be publishing a book about it within the next year. We interviewed approximately 90 abortion providers who have practiced in 34 different states from every part of the country. We heard stories of anti-abortion protesters picketing doctors at their private medical practice and following doctors home from work; of medical administrators taking different routes home from work each day after receiving death threats; of nurses who worry that an angry mob will appear outside their house on a Saturday morning; and of parents of abortion providers who are harassed in their communities because of their child’s work.

Some people believe that this type of targeted harassment is a relic of the past. As our research demonstrates, and the three women on the PLAL poster have recently experienced, that is absolutely wrong. Abortion opponents have failed to end abortion through legislation, but they resort to other means to attempt to end abortion. As current events demonstrate, legislation disguised as regulating abortion is one way opponents seek to accomplish their goal. But as part of their arsenal, anti-abortion protesters also harass, intimidate, bully, target, and terrorize individual providers.

As our research also demonstrates, these terror tactics rarely work. Although Klabusich has taken temporary leave from escorting because of this poster, her momentary absence is not the result of intimidation. Rather, she believes that her presence as an escort will create an unnecessary distraction outside the clinic that could be detrimental to patient safety. She will return to escorting at the clinic when things surrounding the PLAL poster calm down, but in the meantime, she is speaking up about her experience with this targeted harassment.

Klabusich told us that it feels like too many people “don’t take this type of harassment seriously, and because we don’t take it seriously, people like Dr. Tiller get assassinated. And because that’s the case, it’s an issue people should be paying more attention to.” To her, the bright side of what she’s going through is that the poster gives her an opportunity “to shine as big a light on them as they were trying to shine on me.”

David S. Cohen is an associate professor of law at Drexel University School of Law. You can follow David on Twitter @dsc250. Krysten Connon graduated from Drexel University School of Law in 2012. They are co-authors of a forthcoming Oxford University Press book based on their research into the targeted harassment of abortion providers.

Photo: Shutterstock/Ken Hurst

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