Anti-Abortion Terrorism and Free Speech, with David Cohen

June 08, 2015

Opponents of abortion have been largely successful in wielding the First Amendment in their fight to protest abortion providers and patients, and according to this week’s guest, this freedom has too often resulted in the terrorization and harassment of providers who are forced to live each day fearing for their lives. Few realize just how dangerous it is to be a doctor who preforms abortion procedures, who often feel that they have no choice but to wear bulletproof vests or carry a firearm for protection.

David Cohen is associate professor at the Drexel University of Law and co-author of Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, co-authored with Krysten Connon. They interviewed abortion providers across the country about what they deal with on a day to day basis. Talking with host Lindsay Beyerstein, Cohen brings the insight he’s gained as to how exactly we should be responding to anti-abortion terrorism, and the need to protect the lives of health care providers as much as we protect freedom of speech.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, June 8th, 2015. 

Hello and welcome to a point of inquiry. A production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And my guest today is David Cohen, the coauthor of Living in the Crosshairs The Untold Stories of Anti-abortion Terrorism, which is based on interviews with eighty seven abortion providers across the country. The book is coauthored by Krysten Connon and it’s published by Oxford University Press. David is a law professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. David, welcome to the program. 

Thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it. 

What inspired you to study the harassment of abortion providers? 

I had represented abortion clinics and abortion providers for a while before I became a professor. And I continued working on one case in particular that involved the Allentown Women’s Center and their executive director, Jennifer Boole, on J. While I was a professor. And in that case, the protesters did something that was actually quite novel. They sued the clinic and the clinic’s director for violating their First Amendment rights in the ways that the clinic tried to prevent the protesters from harassing the women who entered the clinic. And in the context of representing the clinic and their director, I and my coauthor, who was a student at the time, who’s now a practicing attorney. But she was helping me on the case. We learned more about the director’s personal life and how the protesters not only protest her at the clinic, but also follow her home, protest in her neighborhoods, send letters to her family members and target her individually. So it was from learning about that and thinking about how that’s an often underreported aspect of the issue of abortion. 

This individualized, personalized targeting of providers themselves that we decided that this more needs to be done to figure out what happens, how it happened and what, if anything, the law can do to try and help the situation. So that’s really how it started. 

You draw a sharp distinction between general anti-abortion clinic protesting and what you call targeted harassment of providers. What’s the difference and why is it important? 

Well, both are very important and both are an important part of the story of abortion and abortion access in this country. But the general clinic protests, I think, is what people are most familiar with. That is protesters standing outside of a clinic trying to talk to patients, going in, holding up signs, screaming and shouting outside the clinic, or even being at a rally and generally protesting. 

Abortion. That’s, I think. But not everyone is familiar with that. But I think a lot of people are familiar with that just from driving by it sometimes or knowing generally about abortion politics. But what we studied and what we think is equally, if you know, also very important is the way that protesters target individuals associated with abortion provision and not this generalized protest at a clinic. And that is what we studied. And that is the kind of thing that a protester will latch on to an individual provider, whether it’s a doctor, administrator, volunteer, someone who works at a clinic and says, I’m going to harass you as an individual. I’m going to talk about you as a person. I’m going to harass your family. I’m going to go to where you live, follow you around. And at its extreme, I’m going to have. There’s going to be death threats, hate mail, physical violence and that kind of thing. And so both of these general clinic protests and the targeted harassment that we studied, we think are very important. But it’s that the targeted harassment focusing on the individuals really is not as much a part of the picture of abortion in this country. And we think it should be. 

Do you think there are better legal opportunities to control targeted harassment if you strictly distinguish between that and more First Amendment clinic protest type stuff? 

Yeah, I mean, there’s always First Amendment issues that are gonna come into play. But what the First Amendment jurisprudence has differentiated with somewhat clearly is that threats against individuals are clearly off limits under the First Amendment. That home picketing coming to someone’s home, it’s easier to have restrictions on home picketing than it is to have restrictions on picketing and more public places. And that really comes from a basic sense that the home is where we go to get away from public life and where we expect to have some distance from those kinds of things. And it also impacts other neighbors and their quiet enjoyment of their life. So the First Amendment has certainly important implications in this area. Anything involving protest and our book is not to diminish that, but rather to say that when things are targeted at an individual, there are different considerations, especially in the context of abortion, where in the past twenty to twenty three years there have been eight abortion providers who have been murdered because of what they do. And that’s a really important context that is different than almost every other area where we talk about protest and opposition, because having the eight providers who have been murdered is something that’s in the back of the mind of almost every abortion provider in this country, that they work in a field where they are at risk of being assassinated because of what they do, because of the political point that people are trying to make. 

We’ve all heard of the tragic assassination of Dr. George Tiller of Kansas, but who are some of the providers who’ve lost their lives providing abortion that we might not have heard of? 

Well, the first abortion provider who was killed was in 1993, David Gunn, who was a doctor in Pensacola, and he was killed by Michael Griffin, who was a protester in the area. And this is March 10th, 1993 three. And that was that’s why every year on March 10th, the National Abortion Provider Appreciation Day to appreciate the providers who risked their lives doing what they’re doing. Since then, there have been seven, maybe eight, depending on exactly how you count other providers who have been killed. There were two others in Pensacola in 1994. A doctor and his escort were also murdered in Pensacola. Same clinic, which is just, you know, an awful thing to think that they had to go through that twice to administrative assistance in Boston, in the Boston area in late 1994 were murdered. And then in nineteen ninety eight, there was a security guard in Alabama who was murdered with a bathroom bombing. And then Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo was killed later in 1998 by a sniper who on a Friday night doctor slept. He was sitting down in his kitchen to eat dinner and a sniper took him out through his kitchen window. 

The same thing happened to the OPG Ryan, who delivered my partner, strangely enough, Dr. Garçon room, Alice. He was shot in Canada in his kitchen. 

Luckily, he did so the day before Dr. Slepian’s murder. There had been three or four obd you end in that, you know, Canadian American border area who were shot in very similar ways to Dr. Slepian. And Dr. Mollis is one of them. And they assume that James Cop who was convicted of the murder of Dr. Slepian also did the other attacks. None of those other ones were deadly, but they don’t know for sure that it was James Kopp. The amazing thing about Dr. Omar, this is not only was he shot, but then years later, he was stabbed at his office in, I believe, the Vancouver area. 

That’s right. 

And he was stabbed. So he was twice the victim of anti abortion, extremist violence. 

When we talk about the physical violence and especially, you know, the high powered rifle shootings at people’s homes, it’s very easy to conceptualize this as terrorism. How do you make the argument for the sort of lesser was less overtly violent kinds of infractions like, say, the hate mail or camping out in front of somebody’s house or something like that? 

Well, I think that hate mail picketing outside of someone’s house. They are certainly going to be concerning enough just in a vacuum. But you can’t look at them in a vacuum in this field because. The people to whom this happens know that this is happening from people who are involved in a movement that kills providers, doctors and others who work at abortion clinics or provide abortion care. And so, you know, the thing that really, really gets people who receive hate mail or home picketing or any anything else like this that really gets them upset is now they know where I live. And it’s it’s really a combination. One disrupting my life. But two, they’re sending me a message that they know where I live. And when you know where I live, then it can escalate. It doesn’t always escalate. But it doesn’t have to escalate. It’s the message that comes with it that delivered that you can’t hide from us. And when you look at the pattern of where people have been murdered, the first murders took place at clinics and then Dr. Slepian took place at his home. And then Dr. Tiller was assassinated at his church. And if you sort of think of that progression from work to home out in the community, it’s really delivering a message that you’re not safe anywhere. 

And that’s what I think the anti-abortion extremists who go to the lengths of home picketing and sending hate mail and a lot of the other things that we describe in our book, they really capitalize on that sense of lack of safety and that feeling of a threat, because maybe it’ll be me next that they target in a more violent way. 

What kind of measures are your providers taking, the people that you interviewed to feel more safe in their own lives and work? 

There’s a lot of different things that providers do to feel safer both at home and at work, some their own kind of self remedies, others involving the authorities. So starting with some of the self remedies, a lot of providers know, I should say, to be clear, this is not something that happens to every provider. Far from it. And this is also not something that bothers every provider. Some providers have an attitude which, you know, is really a sad commentary about the state of this situation. But they have the attitude that this is a normal part of my life and I have to accept it and I’m not going to do anything different. But for the providers who feel like this is something they need to deal with in a more proactive way, some of them take evasive measures that you would not expect for medical professionals like wearing a disguise to and from work so that they can’t be identified hiding their information as much as they can in public databases so that they have a P.O. box or they register their car and their partners name or to their business rather than to their personal name. Other providers take different routes to work on a regular basis so that someone can’t tell them to find where they’re going or where they’re leaving from. 

And then other providers take even more drastic action, like purchasing a gun when they wouldn’t normally. Other was the gun owner or purchasing and wearing a bulletproof vest just to go to and from the medical office where they work. 

There’s a whole section in the book just on the bulletproof vests. Yeah. And I know it was fascinating. The doctors had such complicated emotional relationships about the decision whether to wear one. 

Yeah. I mean, a lot of people had very difficult decisions because some people just said, yes, I need to wear this because this is for my safety and I’m going to wear it. Others felt a deep sense of if I wear that I am giving into what they are doing to me. I am changing my life in such a significant way that they are in some way getting a small victory. And then some other people just have such a strong opposition to gun violence and guns that they don’t want to be the ones purchasing a gun, but they know they have to think about it because of their profession. And I think some of the most shocking moments, and this happened in several of the interviews with the interviews, was when doctors and medical professionals were telling us that they were doing this and comparing themselves to people like the police or the military saying, well, the police in the military have to wear guns or have guns or wear confessed confess. So we did, too. It’s not a big deal. But, you know, our reaction was. But you’re a doctor and or you’re a nurse. You’re not you’re not someone trained in war or violence. But that’s what they have to do to make themselves feel safe. Given the climate. So those are kind of the self-help things. And then there are you know, we heard from a lot of providers who. Some of the ones who have managed to feel safer, I think, are the ones who have a good relationship with their local police, whether it’s at home or at work, where they’ve been able to proactively talk to the police about their profession, give them warnings about why they may call in situations that other people may not, and then know that they have sort of the authorities on their side. 

If that situation ever arises, Stand Your Ground laws have gotten a lot of publicity lately. What would happen if a protester got in a doctor’s face, say, in a private parking lot in Florida where she had every right to be? Could she just legally shoot that protester because she has no duty to retreat? 

Yeah, I know that’s a complicated area. And I’d have to know the specifics of the Stand Your Stand Your Ground laws. But I think that’s one of the one of the concerns is that. The protester who’s approaching the doctor who has a strong sense of self defense and has a gun that could escalate the situation, we haven’t seen that resulting in any violence yet. But you can imagine a situation where it would. We did talk to one doctor who and we tell his story in the book, how he was followed home from or he was followed from work and into a mall parking lot. And he stopped his car when he realized that who was behind him? And he got out. And the protester sort of slammed on the brakes who was right in front of him. And the doctor pulled a gun on the protester and he said, I’m not afraid to use it. And the protester left. But that was after basically that, you know, this protester followed and stalked this doctor away from the clinic. 

But then there was that other doctor who was faced criminal investigation herself because protesters claim that she pulled a gun when she didn’t even do it. 

Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing. A lot of the one of the problems with one enforcement’s involvement in trying to police this kind of targeted harassment is that it often occurs far from any other witnesses. So you have the protester who’s certainly going to claim, oh, I didn’t do anything wrong, and then the provider who is going to claim that something happened. And then the police often will say, OK, well, I’m going to take sides because I don’t want to make it seem like I’m being political here. So we’re not going to do anything and we’re just going to let it sit. And nothing, nothing lines up happening. 

One provider said memorably in the book that she really enjoyed her daily commute, except for the last two minutes where she feared for her life. It sort of struck me that this is just such an incredibly daily thing. Like you think about purchaser’s maybe showing up for protest now and then. But for a lot of these people, it’s something that they face every day as they try and get to work, right? 

Yeah. I mean, it’s the situation on the ground that abortion clinics and providers lives across the country varies tremendously and it varies tremendously within a particular city or in any state. But in some places where the protesters are really active, they’re a daily presence in provider’s life, not only in terms of the targeted harassment that they face, but they’re outside the clinic every day. And when you’ve got the same doctor or the same administrative assistant or executive director entering and exiting the clinic every day, the protesters get to know that person and they start targeting them on the simple act of getting to and from work. And so, yeah, when when someone’s driving to work every day and the last minute or two and they have to cross this, this protest line, these people who have cameras and signs and sometimes your name on the sign and they’re shouting epithets at you that, you know, we like to think of that those that time in a car while we’re driving to and from work as a relaxation time. But it’s not a relaxation time and it’s actually a very threatening moment for a lot of providers. 

I found it was really kind of inspiring the positive attitude that that particular doctor had, where she divided her her life up into fear moments and non fear moments. So the first part of her commute was great. Then the death fear part was not so great, but that was only two minutes. 

Yeah, exactly. I mean, people have some really amazing ways of dealing with this kind of day to day trauma, our day to day intimidation or threats. Some people are able to you know, it’s just different personalities and different reactions to things. Some people are able to put a positive spin on it, or at least somewhat positive spin on it, whereas other people can’t and just react to it in ways that are really emotional and difficult. And it was it was certainly some of the most difficult parts of doing the interviews, hearing how deeply this kind of harassment affects people. 

Some of the providers talk about their religion and its role in sustaining them as providers. Can you talk about a bit about that and also whether you encountered any providers? You talked about a secular world view as being sustaining for them. 

So, yeah, I mean, some some providers are just like the general population, some providers are not religious. Some providers are very religious and see that their job is it’s within their religious mission in terms of caring for people in need and providing a service that they can provide for people who need help, and that that’s part of their religious beliefs. And and for the providers who are open about that, as some are, whether it’s talking about it publicly or just wearing a religious some kind of religious piece of jewelry when they’re going to and from work or when they’re out in public. A lot of protesters can latch onto that and use that as the basis for the harassment and talk to them about ridicule them for not being a good Catholic or not being a good whatever religion they’re a part of and thinking that and using that as a way to latch onto. And I think that’s one of things we saw, which is that excuse me, is that protesters will latch on to anything they can, any kind of personal identifying information they can about a provider and use that to target them. And so some of it can be just the simple act of using the provider’s name once they discover what the provider’s name is. And there’s a sinister. Now I know who you are that’s behind that. Whereas others can turn into racialized taunting that swinging epithets at providers and using that to get to them. So religion and race and really any personally identifiable information is used in ways to torment providers. 

You write that there’s a code of silence among providers where people don’t want to talk about how hard this is because they don’t want to give the anti choices that kind of satisfaction. What was the downside of that kind of code of silence? 

So that code of silence is something that was really complicated for us to navigate in the sense that, I mean, certainly the people we talked with were willing to talk, but we we had to think about it before we embarked on this project. The idea that we don’t want in this is now a book. It’s out there for people to read. And in some sense, you can imagine a protester who reads through this and says, wow, we’ve been pretty successful in really spooking people and making people concerned for their safety. 

And so there is some sense that this shouldn’t be talked about because of that. But the downside is that people don’t aren’t able to have a sense of community and support if they don’t talk about this and they’re not able to. What we hope and the people we interviewed hope will happen from this book is build a sense of this kind of action goes too far, and that if this is the byproduct of our abortion discussion and discourse in this country, then we’ve gone too far. Certainly almost everyone agrees that murder is too far. All but the most extreme fanatics, that murder goes too far. 

But this kind of individualized harassment goes too far, too, because look what it does to people. Look at it. That’s their kids. Look what it does to their family and their neighborhoods. And so speaking up, I think, can be an important political opportunity. And so did the people that we interviewed. They wanted their stories told so that hopefully things could change for the better. 

Let’s talk a little bit about the secondary targets who are going after other people in the provider’s life. What kind of things have been done to parents and kids and friends of abortion providers? 

Yeah, we have a whole chapter about people who are not abortion providers, who are personally targeted as a way to get to the abortion provider. Presumably the thinking behind it is that, well, we’re not going to convince the provider to stop working at the clinic by targeting him or her. But maybe if we target someone close to them, that the provider will stop because that goes too far. And so we’ve seen a long history and continued activity around protesting and picketing schools of providers, kids going to their school, whether it’s elementary, middle or high school, and standing outside with pictures of bloody fetuses with the provider’s name on it and saying this provider’s kids go to school. That is not that that has happened and it continues to happen. They’re providers whose parents who don’t live anywhere near them often, sometimes in other states or other parts of the country receiving hate mail because of what their child does. And that’s just another message to the provider. Not only do we know where you live, but we know where your parents live. And we can get them if we want. And then we heard two stories, one that we go into depth in depth about in the book about a provider whose mother was accosted in a nursing home. The one we go in depth about, the provider was visiting her older mom in a nursing home. And a protester must have noticed that the provider’s car was outside the nursing home and came into the nursing home and just started yelling at this old lady in a nursing home saying your daughter is evil and she does this and she needs to stop. And she had to be escorted out of the nursing home. But that kind of targeting someone’s parent really goes in a way that I think a lot of people don’t expect. But it’s also other people. It’s neighbors, other coworkers with providers who have second jobs. 

Their coworkers can be targeted. It’s really anyone who is a part of the provider’s life can also sometimes be a target. 

If we change the laws, I mean, if we could do whatever we wanted to make this stop, what remedies would you recommend? 

There are a few that we wreck. I mean, there’s a bunch we recommend in the book, but there are a bunch of policing reforms that I think are important to provide, give providers a way to better communicate with the police. So having put a special police liaison for abortion providers and clinics so that that person is particularly responsible for knowing what’s going on in the world of abortion and what with the clinic that is in their community or the provider who is in their community having police take all issues related to clinic safety and provider safety seriously and not just struggling some office? Well, that’s just the minor trespass. We don’t have to worry about that because we’ve seen in the past with anti-abortion violence that the people who wind up killing providers started off vandalizing or trespassing and then got worse. So taking everything seriously is important for the police. The police need to be able to flag providers homes. They know that there needs to be quick response if this person calls. There might be a reason for a different response for this person. Some laws that could be changed that we advocate in the book are increased use of third enactment of home ticketing laws. And a lot of communities have home picketing laws that do not prohibit home picketing entirely at all. But they require that people keep moving. They can’t camp out and once in front of one house or they have to go back and forth a certain number of houses that they’re not just stationed right in front of someone’s house. In the absence of one of those laws, picketers can just set up tent right in front of someone’s house and not move. But having laws that regulate home picketing I think is important, adding there is a federal law that prohibits blockading clinics and violence against providers and threats against providers. It has a pretty low penalty. This law is called the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. It has a pretty low penalty for violation. And it was written 20 years ago. And I think the penalties need to be up. There’s also some laws that protects providers identities in California, for instance. There’s a law that says that a provider can register with the state and have all of their information from public databases use the State Department provided mailing address instead of their home mailing address. And that should be a model for the entire country so that providers can have that kind of protection. More generally, we advocate the courts, understand what a threat is from the perspective of a provider rather than an average citizen, because providers seem to have this sense of a collective memory of what’s happened to other providers. And so that should inform how courts think of what a threat is. 

Do courts do anything like that in terms of hate crimes of other groups? 

So that, yes, they do. And so there’s a Supreme Court case about burning across where the court is very clear that given the history of cross burnings and what that particular thing means to a particular community, to African-Americans, that that should be looked at from their perspective and not from your average anyones perspective, that you need to understand that unique history. And that should be true with abortion providers, too. And some lower courts have been good about that and others have not been so good about that in terms of thinking about that kind of unique context that abortion providers live within, that other people don’t. And so we think that that’s a natural there’ll be a natural translation from that one context to the context of abortion providers. 

What’s the latest from the Supreme Court about buffer zones around abortion clinics? 

Well, so the Supreme Court last summer when the case out of Massachusetts, McCullen struck down a buffer zone and it was a 30 foot zone around abortion clinics in Boston, 35 foot zone that protesters could not enter. And the court said it was too broad and that Massachusetts should have tried other things first before it instituted this 30 foot, 35 foot zone. And that it really restricts too much speech because the Supreme Court. Portrayed the protesters as little old ladies who are just trying to counsel women not to have abortions. The problem is, I mean, there’s a bunch of problems with the decision. But one of the problem, major problems with the decision is that it was entirely unclear about buffer zones. Generally, it’s very clear that it struck down the Massachusetts law. But what it did not do was explain whether a similar law in Colorado that the Supreme Court had approved 13 or 14 years ago. What this new case means for that, it really never really explained anything about the Colorado case or the Colorado law. The lower courts now are trying to figure out, well, what do we do with the Colorado law being allowed from 2000 and the Massachusetts law being struck down in 2014? How do we navigate that? And so that’s been a confusing. Thing for the lower courts to do. Thanks to the lack of clarity from the Supreme Court. The things we did find in our research was that buffer zones, which are billed as a way to keep women who are accessing reproductive health services safe and free from this kind of harassment. They also help the providers themselves because it gives providers a way to enter and exit work free of harassment in the immediate vicinity of the building. So rather than opening the door to leave work and having protesters right there accosting providers, it gives a bit of a breather area so that providers can have a little bit of peace of mind when they come and go. It also gives police a clear guideline as to where protesters can be and where they can’t be. And that helps with targeted harassment, too, because it gives police something clear to enforce. So the lack of clarity based on the Supreme Court decision from last year is really an unfortunate situation we’re in right now. Hopefully, at some point in the near future, we’ll get some more clarity. 

Are there other legal things that are analogous to a buffer zone about where you can’t protest? Like I seem to remember reading that there’s some kind of buffer zone around nuclear missile test sites or something like that. Is that true? 

I don’t know about nuclear test sites, but I know that, for instance, around the Supreme Court, there is a buffer zone and that’s been approved by the Supreme Court. And there were people who tried to bring that up as a something for the court to think about in the context of abortion. And it’s a much bigger zone and the 35 feet we were talking about for the clinic. But the court has definitely not agreed with that and has really seen the issue of abortion as much more about free speech. And they think that there’s this dialog going on between protesters and patients or protesters and providers. I think if you were to go to almost any clinic in the country, you would see that it’s not a dialog, it’s a shouting one way shouting match or one way harassment protesters towards the patients and that it’s not that robust exchange of ideas that the Supreme Court thinks it is. 

What would the practical effect be of classifying the furthest and most violent fringe of the anti-abortion movement as terrorists? 

So I think the practical effect would be that there would be more resources to investigate and prosecute them from the federal government because they have particular units who are devoted to terrorism and and resources. 

I think also it would. It would show a little more consistency in American policy that we understand that people in this country who are white and Christian can also be terrorists because often we, the media or the politicians reserve that word for people of a particular region of the world and particular race. And, ah, you know, in that sense, seem very bigoted in that. But we have homegrown terrorists to assassinate who blow up buildings and do horrible things. And I think that that needs to be a part of the discussion. It would also I think if we talk about this as terrorism, besides the resources that can come from the federal government, it also, I think, would help move the conversation so that people understand what’s happened, what’s really happening here. And, you know, I don’t think it’s going to change the fact that a lot of people are against abortion. But I would hope that it would make more people see that some of the tactics being used to end abortion really cross the line by calling it protest or part of a dialog. We are really doing a disservice to the effects that it has on people in the way people are really feel terrorized. And maybe if we tell those stories and think about it that way, there’ll be more public opposition to what these extremists are doing. 

That’s all the time we have for today. David, thanks so much for coming on the program. 

I really appreciate it. Thanks for having me on. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.