How Abortion Providers Are 'Living in the Crosshairs'

David Cohen and Krysten Connon discuss their new book on the persistent harassment faced by abortion clinic workers

David S. Cohen and Krysten Connon's new book, "Living in the Crosshairs," is the first in-depth national analysis of the anti-choice harassment of abortion providers. Credit: Kelly Glasscock/Getty

Eight abortion doctors have been murdered by "pro-life" terrorists since 1993. These assassinations, and the somewhat more frequent bombings and arson attacks on abortion clinics, usually make national news. What doesn't often make headlines, and in fact has remained mostly undocumented until now, is the daily stalking and harassment of abortion providers and their families.

Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, a new book by Drexel University law professor David S. Cohen and attorney Krysten Connon, is the first in-depth national analysis of what life is like for abortion providers who routinely endure harassment, stalking and paranoia-inducing surveillance.

Cohen and Connon interviewed 87 providers, who shared their experiences of being followed to their homes, of protesters turning up at their children's school, and of finding posters of their face inside a bull's eye. (The authors use the term "abortion provider" to mean not just doctors, but nurses, administrators and accountants – pretty much anyone associated with an abortion clinic.)

Frightening doctors and staff out of working at clinics is just one piston in a well-oiled machine that, for all its sinister sophistication, is built on a false premise: that forcing abortion clinics to close and scaring people away from working in the field will "end abortion." But of course, even if every abortion clinic in the United States closed tomorrow, that wouldn't stop women from getting abortions — it would only stop poor women from having access to safe, affordable care.

Nonetheless, here we are, living in a country where medical professionals are forced to don bulletproof vests, carry guns, alternate their routes to work, hire body decoys and pay experts to scrub their addresses from the Internet out of fear of being killed.

And the situation is getting worse. According to recent research, the kind of targeted harassment of abortion providers documented in Living in the Crosshairs has increased since 2010 — which is, not coincidentally, right around the time the number of abortion restrictions around the country spiked to unprecedented levels.

Nearly all of the abortion providers Cohen and Connon interviewed said they've experienced harassment. Almost half said they've had protesters picket their homes. More than one mentioned that even though they wear a bulletproof vest, they assume doing so is pointless — if they're shot, they figure, it'll probably be in the head, like Dr. George Tiller was in 2009. One provider talked of catching herself gazing out her kitchen window, idly wondering if there could be a sniper out there, waiting in the dark.

But they also spoke of resilience. One doctor whose barn was burned down by an apparent anti-choice terrorist, killing more than a dozen horses and other family pets, said that after the attack he decided to start providing abortions full-time. "I went to the hospital and told them I was going to resign my privileges on the staff there and I was going to travel and do abortions," he told the authors.

Rolling Stone recently spoke with Cohen and Connon about their new book and its findings.

One way to prevent policy change is to pretend incidents are random rather than part of a systemic problem. What was the most striking pattern of harassment to emerge in your interviews?
Connon: Home picketing was the most consistent story. We heard a lot of stories about providers whose families woke up on Saturday morning to anywhere between five and 50 people standing outside their house.
Cohen: We also heard a lot of stories about anti-abortion protesters using providers' personal information to send the message, "I know about you. I know where you live. I know who your kids are. I know what activities they participate in." Extremists will find their information any way they can – public databases, Internet searches, lawsuits, following people home – and then they state it or yell it to the provider, which says to them, "If I wanted to, I could get to you. I can invade your space or harm you." Given the murders and violent assaults and arsons in the past in this field, it's a lot more sinister than if someone just comes up to me and says, "Oh David, I know your name."

I was surprised by the targeting of providers' families.
Cohen: It all goes back to: "We know things about you, and we can use that against you." One provider received phone calls in her hotel when she traveled to another city, on both her cell phone and the landline of the hotel. That was scary enough, but then her mother, who lived across the country from where she was working, also started receiving phone calls, and the people on the phone were using information from her mother's past. The providers are at risk, but so are the provider's family and neighbors and communities members.

I witnessed an anti-abortion group recruiting in a suburban church basement for this kind of intel. At the time, the group was building an online database of doctors' personal information, so they asked these church ladies to call clinics and pretend their daughter needed an abortion, and then ask for the doctor's name. These women probably had no idea how that information is actually being used. Or maybe they do.
Cohen: Some of the people who have murdered providers started out as regular peaceful protesters outside the clinic, and then they become radicalized. I think the movement plays on that – they know there are people within the movement who are prone to doing something more extreme, and their efforts can push their boundaries.

But about the doctors' names, that's one of the horrible aspects of all this: There are many parts of regular medical care that abortion providers and clinics can't participate in because of fear. If you call an office for any other medical appointment, and you want to know who the doctor is, they should be able to tell you. You should be able to know that, maybe look the person up. Whereas an abortion clinic has to be concerned: "Why do you want to know?"

When you walk in, it'd be nice if the receptionist was right there without any barriers between you, and you could have a nice conversation and feel welcome. But many abortion clinics have to think, "Do we put up bulletproof glass to separate the reception from the patients?" That's because of everything we document in this book. So there's a lot of thought and compromise that goes into patient care in this field, because of a concern about harassment and violence that is foreign to any other kind of medical care. 

How else is the Internet used to harass providers?
Cohen: One of the most prominent uses of the Internet was the Nuremberg Files, from the late Nineties and early 2000s, when anti-abortion terrorists put up a website that had the names of providers, with the people who had been murdered crossed out, and people who had been injured grayed out. It was almost like a hit list: "Here are the ones we've got, and here are the rest." There was a long legal battle to get it taken down. It was ultimately found to be a threat and a violation of the law, but that website remains up on the Internet in remnants – you can still find it today.

How well are these tactics working? Did you interview people who couldn't take it anymore and quit?
Connon: Of everyone we interviewed, only one person had stopped providing abortion as a result of these tactics. Everyone else we talked to, they continue, because they feel a commitment to their patients, and a lot of them embody this feeling that they don't want to let the extremists win. They don't want to be bullied.
Cohen: There is evidence that some people don't go into the field because of this harassment, and other people who've looked at the numbers have found that a small number of people every year do leave the field of abortion care because of it. And it does affect people's lives, there's no doubt about that. We talked to many people who are constantly vigilant, looking over their shoulders, wearing disguises to get to and from work. Again, these are medical providers wearing disguises.

Other people have the attitude that this is now a normal part of their life. To them, this is just life.

I understand that response on a personal-survival level, but is there a consequence to not taking legal action against harassers, or calling the police?
Cohen: In the last part of the book, we recommend various legal reforms to try and both prevent and better respond to these types of harassment. One of the things we talk about for police departments is to take seriously even what may seem like the most minor problem related to targeted harassment of providers, because you need to have that record. They need to know about the little things so they may be able to see a pattern developing, of a particular protester doing certain things, for instance. Or maybe there's enough to get an injunction against them, or to have a local council pass a buffer zone [a law that prevents protesters from coming within a certain distance of a clinic]. Without recording those incidents, it's hard to respond to a pattern and prevent something worse.

You specifically use the word "terrorism." Is this kind of harassment terrorism in a legal sense?
Cohen: There's no one legal definition of terrorism, but for the most part when people use the term as a legal or political or academic matter, they're talking about people who resort to violence or a threat of violence in order to achieve political goals that they can't achieve through other, normal political means. And we think that's very appropriate for most of what we're talking about here, because as much as the anti-abortion movement has been successful in restricting abortion and making it inaccessible for a lot of people, the extremists – the terrorists – want complete abolition of abortion, and they have not been successful at that. Roe v. Wade has been on the books for 42 years now, and they have been unsuccessful in their many attempts to make abortion illegal. So they're saying, "What can we do to end abortion? What can we do to make people who work the field scared for their lives, for their kids' safety, for their sanity? What can we do that we can't get done through the normal political process?" And that fits the definition of terrorism.

Even though most providers will not be physically harmed, will not be murdered, the providers know that some have been, and the terrorists' use that knowledge to make the providers scared, and they hope that will end abortion.

It's amazing that they still haven't figured out the only way to reduce the abortion rate is to ensure access to contraception and sex education.
Cohen: They don't want women having sex.

"We're willing to do anything! Except…"
Cohen: "…what works."

Meanwhile, most anti-abortion activists publicly condemn acts of violence, but they also directly benefit from such violence – they need it to give their threats heat. 
Cohen: The organizations that are pushing legislation restricting abortion all over the country no doubt would say they don't support violence and are against the arson of clinics, but some of the legislation they propose is almost inviting those things. Like, there's been proposed legislation to make public the names and home addresses of any doctor who performs abortion. If you asked the people proposing it, they'd say, "Of course we don't condone violence," but they absolutely know it will be used in the wrong way.

Did hearing all of these stories make you hesitate to pursue the project out of fear of becoming a target?
Connon: Not really. Though I think my mom might have been concerned.
Cohen: We did an event at [Philadelphia bookstore] Giovanni's Room [recently], and my mom wanted me to text her as soon as I got home.

Did you text your mom when you got home?
Cohen: Yes.

Editor's note: Tara Murtha works at the Women's Law Project, of which David Cohen is a board member and former employee.