The State of the Union:
Abortion in North America
When the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade on January 22, 1973, most Americans believed the abortion issue was finally settled. Women who desired to terminate unwanted pregnancies could do so; likewise, those who wanted to reproduce could have as many children as they felt capable of rearing.
Women's clinics began to proliferate, and it was the dream of entrepreneurs, many of them feminists, to make abortion as accessible as dental or optical care and as supportive, caring and nonjudgmental as possible. Unfortunately, their dream has been deferred. Although clinics did open in all fifty states, early opposition made it obvious that abortion was different from other medical services. By the late 1970s, well-organized foes had demonstrated that they would do everything within their means to close clinics or limit the availability of care. While their efforts to ban abortion have fallen flat, the gradual, incremental winnowing away of the right to choose has been extremely successful.
At the start of the twenty-first century, abortion services are available in only sixteen percent of U.S. counties. South Dakota has just one provider for the entire state; North Dakota has two; West Virginia has four. Between 1992 and 1996 the number of providers fell by fourteen percent, from 2,380 to 2,042, leaving nearly one-third of American cities without a reproductive health center. Rural areas are even worse off and would-be patients are often forced to travel hundreds of miles to see a physician.
A 1998 study by the New York-based Alan Guttmacher Institute attributes the drop in services to both anti-abortion terrorism and legislative successes in curtailing access. Take Medicaid, the federally funded health insurance program for the indigent. At the present time, Medicaid pays for abortions in extremely limited circumstances: if completing the pregnancy would endanger the life of the woman or if she became pregnant as a result of rape or incest. Only fourteen statesCalifornia, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and West Virginiavoluntarily pay for the abortions of all Medicaid-eligible women who want one. In the rest of the country, the poor have to borrow money, or scrimp on food or household supplies, to pay for their surgeries. Predictably, many bear children they do not want or believe they can adequately care for.
Teenagers, twenty percent of whom will get pregnant at least once before their twentieth birthday, also face roadblocks in exercising their freedom of choice. Thirty states currently enforce laws that require a minor to get the consent of or notify an adult, typically a parent, prior to an abortion. Of those, only Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia allow a medical professional to waive the requirement if he or she feels it is in the young woman's best interest to do so. In addition, with the exception of Idaho and Utah, all states with parental consent or notification laws have judicial bypass programs that force minors to go before a judge if they believe parental involvement to be ill-advised. Although eight states allow young women to confide in an adult other than a parent, "pro-family" activists have lobbied hardand made inroadsto give parents sole reproductive authority over their daughters. At their behest, the Child Custody Protection Act, currently before the U.S. Congress, would make it a crime punishable by up to a year in jail for a nonparent or guardian to transport a minor from a state with parental consent/notification laws to a state without them for the purpose of having an abortion.
Opponents of such strictures charge that those young women who can, already do confide in their parents; they further argue that good familial relationships cannot be legislated. According to a joint statement issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Public Health Association and the Society for Adolescent Medicine: "Adolescents should be strongly encouraged to involve their parents and other trusted adults in decisions regarding pregnancy termination, and the majority voluntarily do so. Legislation mandating parental involvement does not achieve the intended benefit of promoting family communication, but does increase the risk of harm to the adolescent by delaying access to appropriate medical care." Nonetheless, politicians continue to pander to "pro-family" constituents by campaigning on "I'm pro-choice, but ..." platforms.
While teenagers and poor women have been targeted for access restrictions, they are not the only ones to be threatened. For more than a decade Congress has barred military hospitals from offering abortion services, even if the servicewoman or the dependent of a serviceman is willing to pay for the procedure out of pocket; similarly, federal workers can use their health insurance to pay for abortions only in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest. Intact dilation and evacuation (the falsely named "partial-birth") abortions, many of them requested following the detection of fetal abnormalities in the second- or third-trimester, are prohibited in eight states: Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah. Nineteen states impose mandatory waiting periodsusually eighteen to twenty-four hoursthat keep women from having abortions until they have received a state-mandated lecture on abortion risks, fetal development, childbearing and adoption.
A 1998 study of Mississippi's waiting period, conducted one year after "informed consent" went into effect, revealed that the percentage of women seeking abortions who traveled out of state rose from 18.6 to 25.4. In addition, the percentage of procedures performed after twelve weeks' gestation rose from 10.4 to 14.5, a scary trend since the later the abortion, the greater the risk.
Yet the threat to access from legal requirements that limit availability are but part of the problem; coupled with the fact that the majority of abortions in the United States are performed by two percent of the country's obstetrician-gynecologists, two-thirds of whom are sixty-five years of age or older, the country is facing a critical shortage of providers. On top of this, since only twelve percent of ob-gyn residency programs require training in first-trimester procedures, young doctors eager to go into reproductive health have to go out of their way to study techniques. Additionally, doctor-only laws in forty-four states keep physician's assistants, nurse practitioners and midwives from offering services. Despite evidence of their competence in offering safe abortions, they are barred from doing so.
Hospitals present another obstacle to access. A 1996 study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found just 703 hospital providers in the fifty states. Most, 58 percent, performed fewer than 30 procedures annually; only twelve facilities provided 1,000 or more. Worse, between 1988 and 1992, eighteen percent of American hospitals stopped providing abortions altogether. Much of the blame for this reduction falls on mergers. In the past several years, forty percent of the nation's 5,200 nonfederal hospitals have either merged or entered into an agreement to do so; the vast majority have joined with Catholic institutions. While about half have maintained their reproductive health services, the remainder have eliminated abortions, vasectomies and tubal ligations in accordance with Catholic dictate. Distribution of contraceptives, including the morning-after pill and condoms for the prevention of pregnancy, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), has also ceased. In many rural areas, this effectively denies care to thousands of people. Equally appalling, write pro-choice activists Rosemary Candelario and Catherine Rich, "if fewer hospitals perform fewer abortions, fewer providers are trained."
Small wonder, then, that the number of abortions in the United States has declined steadily since the first years after Roe v. Wade and now total between 1.2 and 1.4 million annually. While better access to contraception and the availability of the morning-after pill account for some of the reduction, anti-abortion violence, harassment and propaganda are also partly responsible.
"In 1977 it was almost a party when women came for their abortions," says Eileen Schnitger, director of Public Affairs at Women's Health Care Specialists (formerly called the Feminist Women's Health Centers), a nonprofit four-clinic chain in California. "The women would feel joy because they were in a pro-woman place. Now we see women who want to have smiles on their faces, want to show their relief, but who feel guilty. I blame that on the anti-abortion movement. The shame thing has been brought out by them. Today when women feel genuinely good about having an abortion, they act as if it's a feeling they should not have." Still, despite the shrinking numbers of procedures and providers, the fact remains that forty-three percent of American women will have at least one abortion in their lifetime. Furthermore, women have shown that they will jump through rings of fire to get them. But as tenacious as abortion patients have proven themselves to be, anti-abortion extremists are equally intrepid.
WHO, WHAT, WHEN AND WHERE:
THE ANTI-ABORTION MOVEMENT
Hundreds of anti-abortion groups, many of them church- or community-based, currently exist; all want to reverse Roe v. Wade and recriminalize abortion. While most engage in legal protestlobbying legislators, pro-choice lawmakers and feminist organizationsmany of those remaining at clinics have tested or crossed the line into illegal activities. Quiet, peaceful pickets are largely a thing of the past, say providers, because most moderates have left the field due to increasing violence. The extremists who remain employ actions spanning a broad continuum, from the increasingly nasty pestering of patients as they enter and leave reproductive health centers, to harassing clinic workers and their families; from tampering with or destroying medical equipment, to brutal violence against clinic property or personnel. Arson, chemical attacks, firebombings, kidnappings, stabbings, shootings, vandalism and murderall have occurred because some extreme anti-abortionists are frustrated that legal efforts to outlaw abortion have so far failed.
Who are these anti-abortion groups? What distinguishes those who do and do not engage in terrorism, violence or other illegal actions? The following roster, beginning with the most moderate group and ending with what many consider the most extreme, is meant to introduce the major anti-choice organizations operating in the United States and Canada:
The Washington, D.C.-based National Right to Life Committee (NRTLC; www.nrlc.org) is the oldest and most staid anti-abortion organization in the United States. Its goal is to end abortion; its strategy is to chip away at the right to choose. Toward that end, it supports legislation and does extensive lobbying to curtail abortion access. The NRTLC's current agenda? State-by-state passage of bans on dilation and evacuation (NRTLC erroneously calls them "partial-birth") abortions and human embryo research. It has also launched a campaign in favor of the Women and Children Resources Act, an $85 million federal appropriation bill that seeks to fund services for women seeking "abortion alternatives." The act would finance virulently anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers, maternity homes and adoption agencies. In addition, the NRTLC is lobbying hard in support of the Child Custody Prevention Act, the bill that would make it a crime for a nonparent or guardian to transport a minor across state lines for an abortion.
Right to Life leaders argue that Roe v. Wade brought with it an ethos of disrespect for human life that is exemplified by efforts to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia. Opponents of both, they have initiated a national campaign for passage of the Pain Relief Promotion Act. The act would bar controlled substances from being used to "kill patients" and would mandate palliative care in all instances, regardless of what the patient desires.
While individual members of the NRTLC have participated in actions sponsored by organizations including the more radical Lambs of Christ and Operation Rescue/Operation Save America, NRTLC publicly denounces violence directed at abortion providers and plans neither clinic invasions nor "rescues." At the same time, the group has done precious little to dissuade violent extremists or decry the use of inflammatory rhetoric.
The American Life League (ALL; www.all.org) "exists to serve God by helping to build a society that respects and protects innocent human life from fertilization to natural death without compromise, without exception, without apology." Founded in the late 1970s by disgruntled former NRTLC staffers Judie and Paul Brown, the group relies on "biblical principles" and, unlike the NRTLC, has a wide political agenda. According to its statement of purpose, ALL opposes "all abortion, contraceptive methods that cause abortion, and other threats to the human person and the family." Their platform forbids abortion in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity or life endangerment, even if the life of the woman is in danger, and opposes eugenics, human embryo research, population control and reproductive technologies. ALL literature also explicitly denounces violence and the notion that it is "justifiable homicide" to kill abortion providers.
The American Life League does not confine its work to an adult membership and several ALL offshoots attempt to reach youth. Among them: Crossroads, a college outreach group based at Steubenville University in Ohio; Rock for Life, an international organization that distributes anti-abortion leaflets at concerts and shows; and Why Life?, an outreach effort aimed at junior high and high school students.
Stop Planned Parenthood (STOPP), another outreach effort, exists to denounce the reproductive health organization. Despite the fact that only 72 of the 132 Planned Parenthood affiliates in the United States provide abortions, ALL continues to portray the group as the nation's primary provider. In fact, says Ron Fitzsimmons of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers (NCAP), independent clinics and doctors terminate more than three-quarters of America's unwanted pregnancies. This does not faze STOPP founder Jim Sedlak. "Even if Planned Parenthood stopped doing abortions tomorrow we'd still oppose them because they support a free-sex lifestyle among youth," he says. "We don't believe kids have to have sex. We talk about all the problems that occur when you have sex and we send out a pro-chastity message."
The Pro-Life Action League (PLAL; www.prolifeaction.org) was founded in 1980 by former Roman Catholic (Benedictine) seminarian and journalist Joseph Scheidler. Eager for tangible victories, Scheidler opted to bypass the NRTLC and has, for twenty years, organized in-your-face demonstrations, sit-ins and blockades. His 1985 book, Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion, is a classic text for anti-choice zealots and would-be saboteurs. Aggressive "sidewalk counseling" meant to stop women from ending unwanted pregnancies; amplified demonstrations, often using bullhorns, outside operating rooms; "rescue" missions, the precursors of blockades, at clinics; confrontations with doctors at their homes, offices, churches and at restaurants, funerals and social functions; the taunting of pro-choice politicians and organizational representativesthese are the stock-in-trade of PLAL.
The group purports to engage in only aboveboard activities; nonetheless, it was found liable for extortion, a violation of the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, in 1998 and has been ordered to pay damages to two clinics represented by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Women's Health Organization (NWHO). PLAL is currently appealing the decision.
Operation Rescue/Operation Rescue National/Operation Save America (OR or OSA; www.operationsaveamerica.org; www.orn.org), a group founded by fundamentalist preacher Randall Terry in 1986, changed its name from Operation Rescue National to Operation Save America in the spring of 1999, presumably to reflect its growing interest in denouncing not just abortion but family planning, homosexuality, pornography and the lack of prayer in public school classrooms. (Most pro-choice activists believe that the change had a more sinister motive: to confuse the courts and dodge attempts to trace the organization's financial assets and potential liabilities. Patricia Baird-Windle states that "the name change fits the Operation Rescue pattern of making public threats, overtly or covertly carrying out these threats, then denying that they did anything. OR members distance themselves from their actions by frequent name changing and denials, maintaining the pretense that they were never involved in illegal activities.")
The OR/OSA Web page states its purportedif ambiguouspurpose: "OR unashamedly takes up the cause of pre-born children in the name of Jesus Christ. We employ only Biblical principles. The Bible is our foundation; the cross of Christ is our strategy; the repentance of the church of Jesus Christ is our ultimate goal.")
During its brief heyday, 1988 to 1994, OR/OSA's sole focus was on "ending the slaughter of innocent babies" by blocking clinic doors. Terry says that this was a tactical decision. "From the beginning when I founded OR, the vision was not only to end child killing; the vision was to recapture the power bases of America, for child killing to be the first domino, if you will, to fall. Once we mobilize the momentum, the manpower, the money and all that goes with that to make child killing illegal, we will have sufficient moral authority and moral force and momentum to get the homosexual movement back in the closet, to get the condom pushers in our schools to go back to the fringes of society where they belong."
OR/OSA is currently headed by the Reverend Philip "Flip" Benham, a former bar owner who was "saved" in 1976. Under his leadership, the group has continued to protest at abortion clinics and leads a "God is Going to School" project to promote daily prayer and the posting of the Ten Commandments in educational settings. OR/OSA has also demonstrated against the sale of "pornographic" books by Barnes & Noble Booksellers. In addition, in 1998 and 1999 the group picketed the annual June Gay Days gathering at Disney theme parks and has assailed the diversity and tolerance that Gay Days celebrates.
Although OR/OSA has pursued only minor efforts against contraception, Randall Terry has repeatedly exhorted his followers to oppose human interference with God's reproductive plan. "We should trust God with how many children we should have," he wrote in an article reprinted in Life Advocate Magazine. "At its core birth control is anti-child. When we use birth control we are saying, `No, I don't want children.' If you are on the pill or using an IUD, stop immediately. They are abortifacients. ... Leave the number of children you have in God's hands.... Our children are the only eternal possession we have except our souls."
While OR-sponsored "rescues" often involve low-level violence, the group publicly condemns the concept of "justifiable homicide" against providers.
Missionaries to the Pre-Born (MTP; www.execpc.com/~restore/mtp/ mtp) was founded in 1990 by fundamentalist Matt Trewhella, a former Detroit gang member. An avid supporter of armed resistance and Christian militias, Trewhella has great contempt for reformist groups such as the National Right to Life Committee. MTP castigates the incremental approach to ending abortion demonstrated by the push to ban so-called partial-birth abortions and sees the campaign as a move from "a half-measure to a minuscule-measure strategy." It further opposes the gradual winnowing away of reproductive options. For the Missionaries, it is all or nothing.
The Lambs of Christ (www.thelambsofchrist.com) are best known for organizing mass sit-ins at clinics and pushing junker cars into entryways to prevent ingress and egress and then encouraging participants not to divulge their names to arresting police officers. Once incarcerated, Lambs often show their "oneness with the unborn" by refusing to bathe and defecating and urinating on themselves. Lambs founder Father Norman Weslin, a retired military officer, was married and raised two adopted children before being called to the ministry as a middle-age adult.
A member of the Roman Catholic Oblates of Wisdom, Weslin was ordained in the late 1980s. Since founding the Lambs, he has been arrested between sixty and seventy times for anti-abortion protests. He is rumored to support himselfand at least partially finance the Lambsthrough donations supplemented by a substantial military pension.
The Lambs' Web page, complete with funereal music, includes articles about abortion, morality and political doctrine. "One Nation Under Satan," for example, advises readers that "all the severe problems which the administration of our beloved country is now experiencing are not so much because of the sexual abuse of young women, perjury, obstruction of justice or tampering with witnesses, but the reason for evil that prevails in the United States is because our president kills Jesus Christ's babies. This is no longer `One Nation Under God.' This is now `One Nation Under Satan.'" Another piece depicts "unborn babies" as "America's most despised minority."
Life Advocate Magazine/Advocates for Life Ministries (ALM; http:// spiritone.com/~lifeadvo/) was one of the most extreme groups and publications in the United States before it dissolved in late 1999. Multnomah Bible College graduate Andrew Burnett started the Portland, Oregon-based Advocates for Life Ministries in 1985. ALM's initial publication, The Advocate, evolved into the slick, full color, bimonthly Life Advocate Magazine a decade later. In 1994 Burnett started the American Coalition of Life Activists (ACLA) to explicitly foster a pro-violence ethos.
ACLA also published The Nuremberg Files, a Web page that continues to urge readers to "visualize abortionists on trial." They name more than three hundred health workers, clinic owners and pro-choice activists, many of whom have no direct connection with the provision of abortion, and label them murderers, criminals and child killers. The pro-choice community calls it a hit list. ALM calls it First Amendment privilege. Former ACLA director David Crane told the press at the time of the Files' 1997 posting that the page was organized as a forum for the gathering "of information on abortionists and their accomplices for the day when they may be formally charged and tried at Nuremberg-type trials for their crimes." He makes no bones about ACLA's beliefs; for members of the group, Roe v. Wade should be overturned, abortion should be recriminalized and capital punishment should be made the appropriate penalty for everyone engaged in reproductive health work. The Web page is currently bouncing between several Internet service providers.
The Files became contested terrain following a Planned Parenthood lawsuit in which several doctors identified on them sued ALM for threatening and menacing behavior. In February 1999 a jury ruled in the doctors' favor. In the case the Nuremberg Files were found to pose an explicit threat and to incite violence, illegal activities under the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. The jury hearing the case also awarded Planned Parenthood monetary damages of $107 million, money that, to date, has gone uncollected.
ACLA officially disbanded in 1997; Life Advocate Magazine ceased publication in late 1999.
Excerpted from TARGETS of HATRED by Patricia Baird-Windle and Eleanor J. Bader. Copyright © 2001 by Patricia Baird-Windle and Eleanor J. Bader. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.