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Threats, harassment, and murder: being an abortion provider is a dangerous job

Twenty-two years ago today, Dr. David Gunn was shot and killed outside the medical facility where he worked. This was no ordinary murder, though; Dr. Gunn was assassinated because of his profession.

Dr. Gunn was an OB/GYN who provided abortion services. He was murdered by an anti-abortion extremist who had been protesting outside the Pensacola, Florida abortion clinic where he worked. Michael Griffin, now serving a life sentence in prison for the murder, spent the morning of the murder praying among other protesters. When Dr. Gunn arrived at the clinic that morning and got out of his car, Griffin yelled, “Don’t kill any more babies” and shot him three times in the back, killing him.

Dr. Gunn’s murder was the first of what is now a list of eight targeted murders of abortion providers in this country. Dr. George Tiller was the most recent murder victim. He was shot in his church foyer in Wichita, Kansas on 31 May 2009. In between, two other doctors (John Britton and Barnett Slepian) have been killed, along with a volunteer escort (James Barrett), two receptionists (Shannon Lowney and Leanne Nichols), and a security guard (Robert Sanderson).

All were killed for the same reason — they helped provide women with the safe, legal abortions.

Abortion providers are seriously affected by the violence of the past. Everyday incidents of harassment that they deal with are so threatening and terrorizing precisely because they conjure the murders and violence of their colleagues. And for women who need to access abortion services, this violence and harassment is another contributing factor to the reduction in abortions taking place in the United States.

In memory of these eight fallen abortion providers, today is National Abortion Provider Appreciation Day in the United States. While the day is intended to honor those providers who were murdered by showing appreciation for those currently working, it is also a timely occasion to look at abortion access. We often hear about new abortion restrictions that are making abortions harder to obtain in certain parts of the country, but the day-to-day experiences of abortion providers are largely left out of the national dialogue.

"Abortion kills children" by University of Toronto Students for Life. CC BY-SA 2.0 via .
“Abortion kills children” by University of Toronto Students for Life. CC BY-SA 2.0 via .

Providers endure all sorts of targeted and individualized harassment. Before Dr. Gunn was murdered, he was subject to other kinds of targeted harassment — being followed at night, receiving hate mail and death threats, being yelled at and called a murderer. This type of targeted harassment of abortion providers continues to this day and is a constant threat to women’s access to abortion.

Over the past four years, we have interviewed almost ninety providers across the country about their experiences with this kind of targeting by anti-abortion extremists. One common theme among our interviews is that providers are acutely aware that they work in a profession where their colleagues have been murdered for doing the same job they do. For instance, after local protesters recently began picketing one Midwest doctor at home, he took precautions specifically because of the 1998 murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo. (Dr. Slepian was shot by a sniper through his kitchen window on a Friday night.) With Dr. Slepian’s murder in mind, this Midwest doctor told us, “When I’m in the kitchen and it’s dark outside and I’m standing in front of my kitchen window, more than just a couple of times I’m thinking ‘is there going to be a rifle shot coming through this window?’ And I never used to think that. That was the furthest from my mind until these protests started.”

Dr. Tiller’s murder also weighs heavily on this provider, especially since this doctor has also been protested at his church. “George Tiller was supposed to be safe in his church. You just never know. Some of the folks out there are just really insane, and the world is so black and white to them.”

The Midwest doctor is not alone in connecting his experiences with harassment to the past murders. Many providers often speak about the ways that their memories of these past murders continue to affect them. Another doctor told us that he bought a house in a private location because he likes to play piano at night and doesn’t want “someone to blow me away like Dr. Slepian,” or “shoot me in the back, while I am playing piano.” Yet another doctor said that to her, Dr. Tiller’s murder was “the most frightening because of where it happened — not on clinic grounds. Which is really what concerns me more than here at the clinic — everywhere else I’m circulating.”

So today, when you are thinking about those who work for clinics that provide abortions, remember that they are not only providing necessarily medical services, but also for risking their safety in the process.

Heading image: A pro-life group protesting at Supreme Court in Washington, DC, by SchuminWeb. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

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