Friday, June 3, 2011

Honoring Dr. George Tiller: A Conversation with National Abortion Federation President Vicki Saporta

Ever since President Obama’s historic election, clinic violence has been on the rise.  And that level of violence has increased exponentially since the 2010 midterm elections.  Recent news articles have trumpeted how the Obama administration has increased enforcement of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.  The Associated Press reported last month that the “…Justice Department under President Barack Obama has taken a harder line against anti-abortion activists accused of trying to block access to clinics, suing at least a half-dozen of them under a federal law that lay mostly dormant during the Bush administration.” 

Moreover, days after Dr. George Tiller was murdered, Attorney General Eric Holder, and members of the National Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers (Task Force) met with abortion rights groups to discuss the security needs of providers.  The Task Force was established in 1998 and charged with enforcing the FACE Act and coordinating criminal investigations of anti-abortion activities on a national level.  However, for all intents and purposes the Task Force was inactive during the eight years of the Bush administration.  The restoration of the Task Force has made the most significant impact and been the most effective tool in the ongoing battle to stem the tide of clinic violence over the past two years.  Specifically, the targeted coordination between federal and local law enforcement has created an effective working partnership that was so clearly absent and vitally needed during the Bush years. 

May 31, 2011 marked the second anniversary of the assassination of Dr. George Tiller.  Dr. Tiller was attending church services in Wichita when he was gunned down by anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder.  Scott Roeder would later be arrested, tried, and convicted of first degree murder.  On April 1, 2010, Roeder was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years.  Shockingly, Dr. Tiller was targeted by anti-abortion extremists for more than a decade. 

On the two year anniversary this past Tuesday, Rachel Maddow discussed Dr. Tiller’s murder and the coordinated anti-abortion extremist campaign that created a culture of hate dating as far back as Operation Rescue’s “Summer of Mercy” protests in Wichita and Buffalo in 1991.  Congress enacted the FACE Act  after Dr. David Gunn was assassinated in Pensacola, Florida in March 1993.  The FACE Act bans “…blocking clinic doors, trespassing, making violent threats, arson, vandalism, stalking clinic employees, and other forms of violence.”  And even though “[m]any of these acts were illegal already…the law made clear that targeting a clinic with these crimes merited a federal response.” 

The anti-abortion media campaign against Dr. Tiller also fueled hate against him; most notably the constant use of the term “Tiller the baby killer” by Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly.  Maddow remarked that Roeder’s ultimate goal was to cut off abortion access wherever possible.  And indeed, ever since Dr. Tiller’s death, there has been no abortion provider in Wichita or south central Kansas. 

Attempts by Dr. Mila Means to restore abortion services in Wichita have been thwarted by protests at her office and at her home.  Dr. Means is now seeking alternative office space in Wichita because she was forced out of her office by her landlord who sued her claiming that her abortion practice “…would create ‘a clear nuisance’ and disturb the ‘peaceful possession’ of other tenants.”  Anti-abortion protesters have threatened her clinic and “…held ‘vigils’ outside the building where her office is located, even though she had not started to offer abortion services.” 

In April, the Justice Department filed a FACE Act complaint against Kansas anti-abortion activist Angel Dillard; she is accused of sending a threatening letter to Dr. Means.  Dillard is now countersuing the Justice Department alleging “…that the government's lawsuit against her has had ‘an unlawful chilling effect’ on her free speech and religious rights.”  The Justice Department recently “…filed an amended complaint against Dillard that added quotes from an Associated Press story which had quoted Dillard during a 2009 interview talking about her friendship with Roeder and her admiration that he had followed his convictions.” 

However, abortion providers are not only targeted by violent anti-abortion extremists, but by anti-choice politicians as well.  Similarly, Dr. Tiller was not only targeted by anti-abortion violent extremists, but also by former Kansas State Attorney General Phil Kline.  Kline is currently accused of ethics violations stemming from his relentless harassment and investigations of Dr. Tiller.  Kline charged Dr. Tiller with misdemeanors accusing him of performing illegal abortions in December 2006.  But when that case was dismissed, Kline’s successor filed additional charges in 2007.  Eventually, Dr. Tiller was acquitted of all wrongdoing in late March 2009; and shortly thereafter he was murdered on May 31, 2009.  The political targeting of specific abortion providers and providers in general, inevitably engenders a climate of hate and violence. 

Last Friday, Rachel Maddow discussed a recent arrest in Wisconsin involving the targeting of abortion providers and clinic workers at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Madison, Wisconsin.  The man arrested in that case had every intention of murdering Planned Parenthood workers.  Maddow discussed the arrest within the general context and history of clinic violence throughout the nation.  Specifically, she noted the terror inflicted upon abortion providers by the radical anti-abortion movement has resulted in the murder of eight doctors and clinic workers over the past 18 years; and seventeen attempted murders and bombings over the past 20 years. 

Currently, the endless political attacks against Planned Parenthood, that continue to permeate our national political debate over abortion rights, are fueling a culture of hate that becomes fertile ground for inevitable clinic harassment and violence.  And the recent failure to defund Planned Parenthood at the federal level is now serving to further embolden anti-choice political zealots in state legislatures across the country. 

The most frightening examples of this resultant extreme anti-abortion legislative agenda and political targeting of providers occurred in February when South Dakota proposed a law that would have permitted the murder of abortion doctors under a “justifiable homicide” defense; the same defense that Scott Roeder tried and failed to present to the court prior to his ultimate conviction.  Nebraska then followed suit a week later when South Dakota abandoned the alarming legislation. 

The latest National Clinic Violence Survey conducted by the Feminist Majority Foundation found that while “…the percentage of clinics reporting FACE violations increased in 2010, the number of clinics reporting that investigations were opened into these FACE violations decreased dramatically.”  The 2010 survey also found “…the percentage of clinics experiencing severe violence has increased to 23.5% of all abortion providers participating in the survey in 2010, compared to 20% in 2008 and 18.5% in 2005.  Moreover, this marked the highest level of violence recorded since 1997 when 25.0% of all clinics experienced one or more incidents of severe violence.” 

A 2009 Center for Reproductive Rights report titled, Defending Human Rights: Abortion Providers Facing Threats, Restrictions, and Harassment, details violence across the nation and the types of tactics used to intimidate, harass, and violently assault abortion providers and clinic workers.  The report outlined the increasing shortage of providers; the intimidation and harassment at clinics; and the urgent action needed to protect abortion providers and hold perpetrators accountable for violations of federal and state laws.  And the Guttmacher Institute reports that “…the number of abortion providers nationwide has declined by 25% since the 1990s.  Currently, more than a third of women of reproductive age live in counties without an abortion provider.”

Recently, I had the opportunity to delve more deeply into the alarming increases in clinic violence with nationally renowned expert and president of the National Abortion Federation Vicki Saporta.  I asked Ms. Saporta to evaluate the political climate fueling this surge in anti-abortion terrorism and the concomitant law enforcement response to that increased violence. 

The Feminist Majority Foundation’s 2010 National Clinic Violence Survey, revealed that “[i]n 2010, for the first time since 1999, the percentage of clinics reporting potential FACE violations to federal law enforcement authorities increased…However, of the reported violations only 35.3% resulted in the opening of an investigation, a decrease from 56% in 2008.” 

These survey results clearly demonstrate “…the need for increased federal, state and local prosecution of anti-abortion extremists to counter this trend toward higher levels and greater concentration of violence.  Effective law enforcement continues to be a critical factor for reducing violence against clinics.”  And notably, “[c]linics which rated their interaction with local law enforcement as ‘poor’ were twice as likely to experience high levels of violence in 2010 as those which rated their experience as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.  However, although the number of FACE Act complaints filed by clinics is up, the number of FACE investigations decreased.” 

National Abortion Federation (NAF) president Vicki Saporta and her staff track incidents of clinic violence and threats of violence throughout the country, working closely with the Task Force.  Ms. Saporta agrees with recent media analyses indicating that the Obama administration has indeed stepped up its FACE Act enforcement efforts.  To date, the Obama administration’s Justice Department has filed six FACE Act complaints versus just one complaint filed during George Bush’s entire eight year tenure in office. 

More importantly, Ms. Saporta emphasized that the Obama administration has reinforced a fundamental vision, with local law enforcement in particular, that protecting clinics from violence must be devoid of political partisanship; that clinic violence is first and foremost a law enforcement imperative that must be treated as such by everyone within the law enforcement community. 

Ms. Saporta explained that the Task Force works closely with local law enforcement to provide comprehensive protection, training, and coordinated law enforcement efforts throughout the country.  Enforcement efforts consist of local law enforcement training and coordination with federal law enforcement personnel and officials, including the FBI and when necessary the U.S. Marshals Service. 

Ms. Saporta also believes that President Obama’s election created a feeling of great anxiety within the anti-abortion movement.  She said that political loses like this can cause those within the fringes of the anti-abortion movement to feel increasingly threatened and frustrated, which can lead to an increase in harassment and violence directed towards abortion providers.  And even though abortion politics was noticeably absent from the 2010 midterm election rhetoric, after the elections the onslaught of anti-choice state legislation has fueled an environment of hateful rhetoric. 

Ms. Saporta stated that as more cases of clinic violence are reported, the Justice Department has become increasingly responsive.  She described NAF’s relationship with the Justice Department as being “excellent.”  In fact, NAF remains in regular communication with the Task Force.  The Task Force hosts law enforcement briefings around the country; works with local law enforcement so they understand their responsibilities for protecting clinics and providers; and clearly defines how laws need to be enforced.  The FBI was tasked with being more responsive after Dr. Tiller’s murder and the FBI specifically reached out to clinics around the country immediately after his murder.  The one thing Ms. Saporta would change however about the FACE Act would be to enhance criminal and financial penalties for offenders. 

Ms. Saporta explained that the FACE Act complaint filed against Angel Dillard in Kansas clearly demonstrates the difference between free speech and threatening speech.  Moreover, Dillard’s counter-suit against the federal government, claiming a violation of her free speech rights, is a common tactic used within the anti-abortion movement.  These extremists often sue local law enforcement and municipalities as well.  Ms. Saporta said these counter-suits rarely work and she fully expects the case against Dillard to be successful. 

Ms. Saporta noted that after the 1998 murder of Dr. Bernard Slepian in Buffalo, local law enforcement protocols in the Buffalo and Rochester area improved dramatically.  Dr. Slepian’s murder was a huge wake-up call for the Buffalo and Rochester law enforcement community.  And increasingly because of the newly reinvigorated Task Force, local law enforcement no longer looks the other way and ignores ongoing and systematic threats of violence.  Similarly, following the murder of Dr. Tiller, law enforcement response to incidences of violence and harassment outside of abortion facilities has improved.  Ms. Saporta and NAF expressed their gratitude for the Obama administration’s continued leadership and responsiveness towards clinic violence. 

The pro-choice community must soldier on in Kansas and throughout the nation to continue to honor Dr. Tiller’s memory and courage; and to ensure that Dr. Tiller’s ultimate sacrifice for his patients will never be in vain. 

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