Terry J. Allen | 802.229.0303m
w| tallen@igc.org


Abortion Terror: The Fear Comes Home

It's easy to be complacent about the right to get an abortion in Vermont. Compared to the rest to the nation, facilities are numerous and legal restrictions few. The political climate is solidly pro-choice, training for doctors is available, and the ranks of providers is increased by non-physicians. Vermont is one of only three states where physician assistants perform surgical abortions, and the only one in which a nurse practitioner do.

In Indiana, by contrast, the right to an abortion, constitutionally guaranteed in 1973 by Roe v. Wade, has been restricted by parental notification, a waiting period, bans on "partial birth" abortions and most public funding, and a marked lack of providers.


But even in Vermont, the cost to women of exercising their relatively unrestricted right is escalating. Providers and supporters engage in a constant battle to prevent legislative restrictions; more than that, they face intimidation, stigmatization, threats, and even fear of injury and death.

Vermont providers have been deeply shaken by a pattern of violence and suddenly, none of them want to risk becoming even more of a target by having their nameS printed. Rachael Atkins, executive director of the Vermont Women's Health Center, was willing to comment. "I am concerned for the climate of reproductive rights. We have gone from a period when abortion was illegal AND women were dying to one in which providers are dying."

Despite the risks, Vermont providers are performing about 2,500 abortions a year, many in doctors' offices as well as in clinics. While nationwide, only 4 percent of abortions occur in doctors' offices; in Vermont the figure is 15 percent. That we know this information is part of how abortions are treated as something outside routine women's health care. IT is the only office procedure – other than those on birth certificates – that doctors are required to report to the state. Abortion--the most common procedure performed on women – is different.


Asked if she had ever performed an abortion, one Vermont doctor replied tersely "You don't need to know that."

"Have you ever performed a pap smear?" "Yes," she replied without hesitation.

The extreme nature of how different abortion is, was embodied in the sniper who, on October 23, took aim through a kitchen window and shot Barnett Slepian in the back. As he stood chatting with his wife and children, the Buffalo obstetrician- gynaecologist became the seventh fatal victim of anti-abortion violence since 1977. He also became the first fatality in a string of five shootings aimed at doctors in the northern US-southern Canada area. All took place around Canadian "Remembrance Day," which some anti-abortion forces have designated as a time to commemorate aborted fetuses.


"We would be putting our head in the sand," warned U.S. Attorney Charles Tetzlaff shortly after the shooting, "if we didn't show great concern. Buffalo is not that far from Vermont and that can happen anywhere. What is going on, on the national level, we consider a threat to Vermont."

In the days that followed, Buffalo proved closer than Tetzlaff had imagined. James Charles Kopp, sought as a material witness in the slaying had lived in Swanton and been arrested in 1990 in Burlington for anti-abortion activities.

Some pro-life groups are repulsed by the violence done by those who share their goals, but not their tactics. The Vermont Right to Life (VRL) movement, says group president, Mary Hahn-Beerworth, "has consistently advocated lawful advocacy. Both the doctors who kill babies and the crazies who kill doctors are totally misguided. I don't think people associate VRL with the violence but the cloud hangs over everything."

Increasingly, though, extreme elements of the pro-life movement, frustrated by their failure to stop what they characterize as "the baby butchers," have slid underground and embraced terrorism. They justify their fervor with quotes from the Bible and model their tactics on those of the ragged edge of the militia movements. The small cells or one-person units of "leaderless resistance" they form are difficult for law enforcement to unearth and stop.

"There is cross pollination among white supremacist and Patriot groups and fringes of anti-abortion movement," warns Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Now Ku Klux Klan groups are naming abortion as the number one issue and neo-Nazi groups also getting more and more tied up in the issue."


One result may be an increase in anti-Semitism. Some pro-life organizations, especially Human Life International, have long pointed to Jews as disproportionately responsible for abortion As far back as 1977, HLI founder Father Paul Marx, wrote: "I do not blame the Jews for the abortion movement. I do say, and will say because it is the truth, that it is a strange thing how many leaders in the abortion movement are Jewish." An HLI newsletter 18 years later reiterated that position. "American Jews have been leaders in establishing and defending the efficient destruction of more than 30 million preborn children in this country. Why are the victims of one Holocaust perpetrating another?"

In Burlington, in 1990, one demonstrator arrested in the same wave of protests as Charles Kopp, called the ruling judge, Matthew Katz a "Jew bastard." After Katz jailed one group of protesters, a busload of reinforcements picketed his house and unfurled a banner which read: "Judge Katz Let My People Go."

A few months earlier, the Buffalo, N.Y. Pro-Choice Network wrote a memo to its Vermont counterparts. It warned that Victim Souls of the Unborn Christ Child, on trial in New York, had chosen Burlington as a "main target" in part because the governor, Madeline Kunin, was a "feminist, pro-abortion Jew."

Other incidents pointed to anti-Semitism within the anti-abortion ranks. An administrator at the Brookline, Massachusetts, clinic in which a gunman killed two receptionists, received bomb threats and hate mail before the 1994 attack. "The hate mail was really graphic, really violent. It usually centered on killing Jew doctors. It said things like, `Hitler was right.'"

Although there is no evidence that anti-Semitism fueled the killers of the doctors shot in the string of abortion murders in Canada and Northern New York in late October, four of the five were Jewish and the fifth had a name that might have been Jewish. Five days after the last of those killings, which officials speculate may be linked, nearby Hamilton, New York police found a poster of Slepian, a Jew, in the station washroom. The obstetrician- gynecologist's face had an "X" through it and the words "Killer, Jew, Nazi" were written across the photo.


In Vermont, despite years of phone and mail threats against abortion providers, U.S. Attorney Tetzlaff is aware of only one arrest for an abortion related crime – except for those committed openly at demonstrations. In 1994, a woman was found innocent by reason of insanity of leaving a Molotov cocktail near a St. Albans Planned Parenthood facility.

More recently, Judge Katz, who sentenced Kopp and others, found that he had been listed in the Christiangallery, a web page, which, under a red banner of bright dripping blood denounces "the baby butchers" and their fellow travelers, including Senator Patrick Leahy. The site includes such details as licence plate numbers and names of children and spouses. Katz was surprised to learn that his name is on the website. "I haven't had anything to do with the issue in eight years," he said, referring to his role in sentencing. "Back then, they used to picket my house and call all night. The whole business is implicitly threatening. When someone pickets your house when no one around, is it to get message out or it because your children are at home?"


Around the country, over the past 5 years, according to the National Abortion Federation (NAF), there have been at least 13 attempted murders, 202 death threats, 28 incidents of assault and battery, 390 stalkings, 12 bombings, 52 acts of arson, 20 attempted acts of bombings and arson, 20 butyric acid attacks, 173 bomb threats, 37 invasions, 322 acts of vandalism, 21 burglaries, and 4,725 incidents of hate mail and phone harassments.

"Has terrorism been effective?" asks NAF Deputy Director Susan Dudley and answers her own question with a chill edge. "Certainly. We see doctors and staff members who reach the breaking point; women who are harassed so severely that they can't exercise their constitutional right." At Vermont Planned Parenthood facilities and the Women's Health Center, staff have faced harassment, received threatening phone calls and live with an undercurrent of fear. Doctors wear bullet proof vests; providers grow weary of suspicion and familiar with fear.

While the violence has failed to affect the rate of abortions in Vermont, it has succeeded in intimidating those on the front lines. One person connected to a facility that provides abortion at first declined to talk. But with years of danger and decades of commitment battling for control of her voice, she agreed to speak anonymously. "How much can you allow yourself to be silenced" she asked, "when we are in such a violent culture? For me it was the Brookline shooting that made me realize we have to balance the dangers of speaking out and those of remaining silent. We have always felt very strongly the need to provide care."

But part of the pro-life movement counters with its own reading of a culture of violence, one in which abortion is equated with murder and the government and laws are agents of sin. They believe that abortion providers are simply reaping what they sew.

"The spirit of murder that was ushered into our nation on January 22, 1973 [Roe v. Wade] has claimed another victim," said Rev. Flip Benham, director of Operation Rescue National. "This time it was an abortionist in Amherst, New York. Mr. Slepian had murdered thousands of baby boys and girls and last night was himself murdered."

Other pro-life advocates openly applaud Slepian's assassin."The shooter is a hero," says Rev. Donald Spitz, director of Pro-Life Virginia." His deeds are just and righteous because he saved the lives of innocent children whose lives were to be taken ... by the murderer Slepian."


The increase in violence has coincided with a decrease in open grassroots activism. "In northern New England, that decline is the case in anti-choice above ground organizations," says Rebecca Brookes, director of marketing and communications at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. "It does feel like the movement is much more violent, underground, and terrorist."

In 1990, when Operation Rescue and Victim Souls of the Unborn Christ Child (a.k.a. Lambs of Christ) targeted Burlington, they were able to mobilize scores of mostly out-of-state protesters who blocked clinics and went to jail for civil disobedience. "Two years ago, they didn't get enough people," says Brookes, to mount a campaign in Vermont. Meanwhile, Operation Rescue, now Operation Rescue National, plagued by financial woes and divided by internal strife, has all but disappeared as a grassroots force.

In the years following the public confrontations between waves of demonstrations and walls of clinic supporters, the legal and moral terrain has shifted and both sides have seen their positions erode.

The FACE (Freedom of Access to Clinics Entrance) Act, passed by Congress in 1994 changed the nature of demonstrations. It became a federal offence to participate in violence at a clinic, block access, or intimidate people attempting to use a clinic. The murders and bombing associated with the issue further depleted the above ground movement by alienating the general public and driving away some moderates. The pro-life movement became unable to mount large protests, attract media, and effectively block clinic access through acts of civil disobedience. Vermont Right to Life, however, has remained active and attributes its staying power to its emphasis on non-violence and its ability to bring its message into the mainstream.


While public acceptance of abortion remains wide and solid, the pro-choice movement has lost some practical ground since Roe v. Wade. That decision granted women a "negative" right: it protects them from intrusion by the state, but doesn't guarantee that they can actually get an abortion. Indeed, in the last decade, many women find that obtaining an abortion has become more difficult, dangerous, and expensive. Now, 15 states require a minor to get parental consent, and 15 call for parental notification. Other states require waiting periods or state residency or exclude elective abortion from Medicaid coverage.

Although Vermont Planned Parenthood requires no parental notification, its internal process, routinely requiring two visits, imposes a defacto waiting period, says Brookes, "We are trying to change it to one visit if the woman prefers. Some women don't need extra obstacles." The obstacles to which Brookes is referring disproportionately impact lower income people. Two visits can mean the burden of two days off work and extra child care and travel costs. Some women under managed care face additional impediments or delays in approval when their primary provider either opposes abortion or does not wish to be associated with the procedure. As in the days of illegal backroom abortion, economic class remains a predictor of how easy it is to get an abortion.

And even in Vermont, difficulties faced by a women wishing to terminate her pregnancy can be unexpected and subtle. According to Allie Stickney, president of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. "We just had an incident last week when a hospital technician refused to do an ultrasound – probably to determine the age of the fetus – because he found out that the woman was going to have an abortion."

Nonetheless, access here remains relatively high, with 16 sites – including some hospitals, clinics, and private doctors' offices in Burlington, Barre, Rutland, and one in near-by Lebanon, New Hampshire– women are rarely more than two hours away from help. As a test site first for RU-486 and later for methotrexate another drug for medical abortion, Vermont women have a variety of choices.

While the number of providers in Vermont has remained steady, in most of the country, it has sharply declined. There were 31 percent fewer providers in 1992 than in 1978 and according to Guttmacher Institute spokesperson Susan Tew, "that trend is continuing." Only one in six counties, nationwide, has an abortion provider and in non-metropolitan areas, where 94 percent of counties had no abortion services in 1992, women sometimes travel hundreds of miles to doctors who fly from site to site to provide only occasional services.

After Slepian was gunned down in Buffalo, GYN Womenservices, the only abortion clinic in the city of 300,000, had no physician on staff. There were only three providers in all of western New York.


The debate over abortion is centuries old, rooted for some in God's law, and for others in man's desire to control women. A 1871 document by the American Medical Association, preached that a woman seeking abortion "becomes unmindful of the course marked out for her by Providence, she overlooks the duties imposed on her by the marriage contract. She yields to the pleasures – but shrinks from the pains and responsibilities of maternity."

Many supporters of a woman's right to choose abortion believe that the medical establishment – even that portion that supports a woman's right to choose – is still failing women. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists came out with strong statement, but doctors have not rallied round," says Dudley, of the NAF. "Because of marginalization and stigmatization, they have allowed themselves to see abortion as political question rather than public health question."


Fear is clearly one factor in the reluctance of some doctors to come forward. Few professional choices incur the risk of intimidation and assassination, donning a bullet proof vest, or driving a different route to work each day. Stigmatization is another factor. Even a pro-choice student who planned to offer abortion to her patients worried about "being pigeon-holed."

The medical teaching establishment is also opting out. Since 1976, the number of ob/gyn residency programs that routinely provide training in first- trimester abortions has fallen 52 percent. Half of doctors now offering abortions are over age 50; 13 percent over 65, reports Tew. Still, says Dudley, "People providing abortion today are extremely committed to the public health necessity. It is very hard to scare them off. Each individual provider may have their breaking point and after an assassination, some will say that enough, but others will redouble determination. And are younger people and will call us and say this is outrageous. We want to be trained."

Christine Staats, a second year medical student at UVM is concerned about the availability of training. This summer, she went to Baltimore to work at Planned Parenthood Clinics as part of an internship sponsored by Medical Student for Choice. She also joined the American Medical Women's Association. "Some students don't join because it is a pro-choice organization. Some are opposed, probably for ethical reasons, but also because it carries a stigma. We had a talk at UVM about reproductive rights and only six women showed up. Only 10 classmates came to vigil for Dr. Slepian. UVM just did a week-long women reproductive health unit and only on the last day after questioning by students did the lecturer mentioned D&C and never used the word "abortion." Staats is also one of a dozen or so UVM members of the local chapter of Medical Students for Choice, a national organization dedicated to making abortion training an integrated part of medical education. The organization represents 4,000 medical students across the country.

If some things are better in Vermont than in the rest of the country, University of Vermont Medical College is not one of them. It is one of the 88 percent of medicals schools that does not offer routine training in abortion to its residents, says Marjory Meyer, associate professor of Maternal Fetal Medicine. Indeed, since no elective terminations are performed in the hospital, residents have to go out-of house for formal training. Only 1 percent of Vermont abortions take place in hospitals, in contrast to 7 percent nationwide.

At UVM "They have the option to learn [outside the hospital]; there is a time and rotation," says Meyer. In any case, "they have to know about terminations and information about abortion as a part of residency training. The procedure itself is very similar to [those performed after a miscarriage], so technically they are all trained to do that."

But removing abortion from doctors offices and hospitals to clinics ghettoizes the procedure, charge some critics. In Vermont, as elsewhere, when hospitals shift the responsibility and the dangers of obtaining or learning to preform abortion they are placing it in a category separate from other common medical practices.

"There needs to be more of a dialog on how we can stand together and fight the stigmatization of abortion," urges one Vermonter connected to a facility that provides abortion "It is the most common procedure for women, anyone who has had one or knows a woman who has chosen one, can help change this climate. We have to think about how we as a community – especially when there is a potential Vermont suspect [in the Slepian murder] – can respond. I want people to talk about it and figure out what they can do."