Remember Roe v. Wade–and Stop the Violence

We mark the 38th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision tomorrow, and celebrate how it affirmed that women should have power over their own bodies–but we are also alarmed at the rising tide of anti-abortion violence in the U.S.

Following the 2008 elections, and with little hope of a quick reversal of Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion extremists announced they would “return to the streets.” Threats escalated against clinics and doctors in some 14 states, and on May 30, 2009, late-abortion provider Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in Wichita, KS.

Shortly after the murder, the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue of Wichita launched its “Keep It Closed” campaign to prevent Dr. Leroy Carhart–who had travelled monthly from his home in Nebraska to work with Dr. Tiller–from reopening a clinic in Kansas or expanding his own clinic in Nebraska. Nonetheless, Carhart did expand his Nebraska practice, only to see Nebraska lawmakers enact onerous new abortion restrictions last April. As Carhart explained,

Under one law, even a woman who has been hospitalized and diagnosed suicidal or a young girl who has been raped, even raped by a close family member, would not be able to obtain an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. A second law would put any questionable medical study that has ever been published above a doctor’s informed medical judgment and expertise. These laws will make it harder for patients to get an abortion when they really need them, when they are under the most desperate of circumstances and even when they are clearly medically, morally and religiously justified.

Saying that the legislation “merely strengthens my commitment to fight for women’s reproductive health and rights,” Carhart joined forces with an abortion clinic in Germantown, Md. to provide hard-to-get late abortions there. Operation Rescue countered by joining local Maryland anti-abortion leaders in announcing plans to drive him out of the state, organizing demonstrations against the clinic in December and this coming weekend. Leaflets with Carhart’s photo have been circulating as part of the protests.

Meanwhile, in Charlotte, N.C., Old-West-style WANTED posters of abortion doctors have been distributed, featuring photos of the physicians and their home and office addresses.

Publicizing images of abortion doctors is chilling. WANTED posters have been part of a deadly anti-abortion extremist strategy since the early 1990s. Dr. David Gunn’s picture appeared on a Florida unWANTED poster in early 1993, and in March of that year he was gunned down outside a Pensacola abortion clinic. Dr. Tiller himself was shot (but only wounded) that year–after he appeared on a  WANTED poster. Just days later, Dr. Wayne Patterson, another WANTED abortion provider who owned clinics in Pensacola and Alabama, was murdered on a Mobile, Ala., street.

In 1994, the killing continued: Dr. John Bayard Britton and a clinic escort were shot to death in Pensacola. Extremists had previously nailed a WANTED poster to the front door of Britton’s home.

As Ms. magazine has reported, anti-abortion extremists who shoot doctors are not “lone wolves.” They operate in a climate in which fellow extremists treat them as heroes and label the murder of abortion doctors “justifiable.” They are emboldened by an atmosphere in which clinics are vandalized, staff and patients harassed and threats too-often ignored by law enforcement.

Anti-abortion extremists are now threatening doctors and clinics in a large number of U.S. states beyond Kansas, Nebraska, Maryland and North Carolina–including New Mexico, Mississippi, Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Montana, Colorado, Virginia and Michigan. And in every place where abortion providers are threatened, Roe v. Wade is under attack–because the right to a legal abortion means little without safe access to the procedure.

We who support a woman’s right to an abortion can’t stand by idly when violence compromises that right. Here’s what we have to do:

–Mobilize within communities where doctors and clinics are threatened and work with local and state officials to establish safety buffer zones around clinics.

–Volunteer at clinics that need assistance.

–Work to ensure that anti-stalking laws and state and federal FACE laws against clinic violence are rigorously enforced.

–Make sure that the network of extremists who advise or act in concert with those who commit violence against abortion providers are prosecuted and brought to justice.

For more than 20 years, the Feminist Majority Foundation (publisher of Ms.) has worked to stop anti-abortion extremist violence and provide crucial aid to besieged clinics. We can always use help in those efforts. But we also need everyone concerned with this issue to speak out, encourage better law enforcement and never waver in support of a woman’s right to the integrity and safety of her own body.

Photo by Matt H. Wade of James Earle Fraser’s statue “The Contemplation of Justice” at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., from Wikimedia Commons under license from Creative Commons 3.0.


Katherine Spillar is the executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms., where she oversees editorial content and the Ms. in the Classroom program.