TrustLaw: And now some good news for women’s abortion rights…

By Cynthia Soohoo, Director of US Legal Program

In the heart of Philadelphia, a doctor who has provided abortion services to women in the Northeast for years ends his long workday at a clinic only to be ambushed by an emphatic and ominous message scrawled across the body of his car. The words proclaim “Murderer” in white paint and are written large enough that he can read them from fifty feet away. It’s the latest in a series of similarly threatening incidents that have prompted the Pennsylvania physician to change homes a number of times over the last three years, drive different routes to work every day and purchase a bulletproof vest.

We’ve all heard these stories. We all also know—especially after the murder of Kansas provider Dr. George Tiller—that anti-choice extremists’ intimidation and sometimes, violent tactics have lead to a striking decrease in the numbers of abortion providers over the last two decades. The good news is that in the midst of what seems to be an increasingly untenable situation, there is a little-known movement to raise the status of abortion providers here in the U.S. and it is gaining momentum.

For the first time, health professionals who provide sexual and reproductive health services have been explicitly included in a select group of heroic individuals who work non-violently to protect and promote human rights. The designation of human rights defenders, as they are called, was first officially recognized in 1998 by the United Nations General Assembly with the adoption of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.  Since then, the international human rights community has worked to publicize the work of human rights defenders and to encourage governments to do more to protect them.  For example, the U.N. and the human rights groups have rallied international support to end the imprisonment of political dissidents working for democracy in China, threats, harassment; and murder of activists in Mexico working to end impunity for murder, abduction and rape of women; and attacks on peaceful protesters in the Middle East.  They’ve also protested government attempts to shut down organizations that defend human rights such as LGBT rights organizations in Turkey.

Recognizing reproductive health professionals as human rights defenders is an important step towards getting governments to understand that the doctors, counselors, nurses, and health professionals who provide abortion and other reproductive health services play an indispensible role in making sure that women have access to essential medical services fundamentally tied to their health and well-being. Without committed reproductive health professionals, women’s right to make personal and fundamental decisions about their reproductive health and lives would be meaningless. Recognizing them as human rights defenders requires that governments take responsibility for ending attacks and harassment and encourage respect for these individuals and the work that they do.

For the last two years ago, the Center for Reproductive Rights has worked to document the threats and harassment faced by abortion providers and submitted the information to a U.N. human rights expert who works to publicize attacks on human rights defenders and encourage greater efforts to protect them. We found that they operate under siege, legal and physical. They are harassed and intimidated and often live in fear of violence. 

In addition to facing increasingly threatening “protests” at clinics, abortion providers are often targeted at homes. A doctor in Pennsylvania stopped providing abortions because “she was hunted down by protestors” – dead animals were placed at her home and her house was broken into. Anti-choice protestors sometimes go door-to-door to advise neighbors that a “baby killer” lives nearby, and publicize photos and personal information on the internet. One provider described the effect on her family of anti-abortion protest activity in her neighborhood:

[The protestors] terrified my young daughters and their friends.  My youngest daughter suffered a sleep disorder, nightmares, and fear of just about everyone and everything-including playing in our yard.  She cried every night before bed for us to please brick in her bedroom windows so that the protestors could not come in and kill her and us.  We put alarms in our home and cars.

Rather than taking steps to speak out against these attacks or pass legislation to protect abortion providers, irresponsible state legislators often fuel an atmosphere in which attacks are permitted. This year, the South Dakota legislature introduced a bill that would legalize the killing of an abortion provider. The bill sought to create a defense of justifiable homicide for killing a person to protect a fetus. Lawmakers only shelved the measure after national public outcry. While the South Dakota bill was certainly on the extreme end of the spectrum of abortion restrictions, across the country, laws are enacted ever year that are intended to either eventually shut them down or make it extremely difficult for abortion facilities to provide services.

In the face of ever multiplying legal restrictions and regulations, threats to safety and daily harassment, many abortion providers around the country proudly provide reproductive health services and fight to ensure that the women retain their reproductive choices and have the safe, confidential and dignified medical care that all women deserve.

Unfortunately, stigma against abortion has made it easy for anti-choice activists to harass and attack reproductive health professionals without sufficient public outcry or government response.  Their recognition as human rights defenders is an important building block in changing attitudes, but it is just the beginning.  We cannot let reproductive health professionals and abortion providers bear the burden of defending and ensuring women’s rights alone. We must pressure federal and state governments to adopt laws and policies to ensure their safety and to meaningfully enforce laws to protect them. We must work to end stigma and prejudice against the women who get abortions and the health providers who perform them.  It’s time to defend the defenders.

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