Interview with Law Professor David Cohen

Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism

January 12, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper |


Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism

In December 2015, Sunsara Taylor interviewed David Cohen about the book he co-authored, Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism (Oxford University Press, 2015). Cohen is a law professor at Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, where he teaches constitutional law and gender and the law. Prior to teaching, Cohen was a staff attorney at the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia and litigated cases involving abortion clinic safety, reproductive rights, Title IX, and LGBT family law.

From the preface to Living in the Crosshairs: “Because of their work, abortion providers have been murdered, shot, kidnapped, assaulted, stalked, and subjected to death threats. Their clinics have been bombed, attacked with noxious chemicals invaded, vandalized, burglarized, and set ablaze. Individual abortion providers have been picketed at home and have received harassing mail and phone calls. Their family members have been followed where they work, their children have been protested at school, and their neighbors’ privacy has been invaded. Partly as a result of this terrorism, medical facilities providing abortion services have decreased by almost 40% since 1982, 89% of counties in the United States have no abortion provider, and only 14% of obstetrician gynecologists perform the procedure.


Sunsara Taylor: David Cohen, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. You, not long ago, co-authored the book, Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, together with Krysten Connon. Could you start by describing this book and telling us why you wrote it?

David Cohen: Sure. Thanks so much for having me here for the discussion. The book looks at the lives of abortion providers around the country and in particular at the types of targeted harassment and individualized terrorism they face as a result of being abortion providers. The book came out of a case I’d been working on for a long time and then Krysten, my co-author, helped at the very end, representing an abortion provider in Allentown, Pennsylvania, who had been sued by protesters who protested her clinic. The protesters not only sued her individually with some crazy claims, but they also picketed her home, they sent fliers to her neighbors calling her a “murderer,” giving out her personal information. They sent mail, hate mail to her mom who lived somewhere completely different than she did, and one of the protesters who wrote an online newsletter, still does write an online newsletter that he mailed to people in jail for committing violence against abortion providers, included her name and information about her as well.

Because of this, she wore a bulletproof vest to work and it really was one of those things where, you know, I’d actually been doing this work for a long time and I knew the full story, but Kysten heard this for the first time and, shame on me for not reacting this way since I’d known this for so long, but Krysten’s reaction was, “This is horrible! And this is something people don’t know about, that someone who is engaged in a lawful job in the United States, providing constitutionally protected health care, wears a bulletproof vest to work because she fears for her life.”

So it was really from starting to think about her experience from that lens, which is: a lot of people don’t know about this. People might know about protesting that happens outside a clinic or just the general debate about abortion. But we didn’t think people knew about the ways that anti-abortion extremists target individuals, and that’s why we wrote the book, and the book tells the stories of people around the country who have suffered from this kind of targeting and talks a little bit about what the law can do better to try and improve their lives, and offers some solutions to the issue.

ST: I found myself very emotional reading these stories. It’s disturbing, the level of harassment, the invasiveness of it, the way it permeates every aspect of abortion providers’ lives, and I wonder, precisely because it is so unknown and untold, if you could take us through a few of the stories so people really get a vivid sense of what this means.

David Cohen: Absolutely. I mean, if people know anything about this topic, what they know is the high-profile violence, like what happened in Colorado Springs a couple of weeks ago. That certainly got all the media attention it deserved and it probably deserved more, because it quickly left the media landscape once San Bernardino happened. But, you know, that kind of thing gets the attention. When Dr. Tiller was murdered or assassinated in 2009, that made national news and there’s been seven other killings in the past 20+ years of abortion providers, and those things are known and people hear about them. But what they don’t hear about are the everyday experiences of abortion providers. We are not trying to say this happens to all abortion providers, that’s far from it, but it happens to a lot and it happens all over the country. Not just in the most conservative parts of the country but in liberal parts, too. And it really affects abortion providers’ lives.

What we’re talking about are things like home-picketing, showing up at someone’s house on a Saturday or Sunday morning, with anywhere from five to 100 people, or even more. The picketing could be, you know, very peaceful except for the invasion that just being outside someone’s home is, to very loud and aggressive and seemingly very threatening. This happens to abortion providers around the country.

We talked with people who have been followed around town. They’ve been followed leaving work. They’ve seen anti-abortion protester extremists who followed them into a local business and started harassing them and yelling at them in the middle of the hardware store, or while they’re eating dinner at a restaurant and they’re recognized.

We heard many stories of death threats that are conveyed through the mail or online or on phone calls to the house. One of the people we talked to, her kids answered the phone and she got a death threat. Or her kids got the death threat. Other people told us stories of their kids’ schools being protested as a way to get at the parent who is working at an abortion clinic.

We heard stories of physical assault, trespassing, vandalism, personal information being disclosed that is usually private information, hate mail being sent to someone’s home or their parents. Probably, you know… it’s all outrageous... it really is all outrageous but probably the most outrageous thing that we heard, and we heard two stories about this, was a provider’s parent being protested at their nursing home. Here we have someone who’s taking their extremism to such a level that they go to a nursing home to protest or scream or harass someone whose kid is working at an abortion clinic. That level, it just boggles my mind still. When I look at those sections of the book, and read those stories, to think that someone would do that.... But these kinds of stories, they happen all over the country and they really show what abortion providers, many abortion providers in this country, have to live with in order to provide this legal, necessary medical care.

ST: It’s shocking, the level of harassment that the individual providers go through. In addition to the threats, the kinds of things, targeting their children, or in your book, you detail protesters coming to the wedding of a provider’s son or the funeral of a provider’s husband, and these kinds of things that even encroach upon what ought to be a part of somebody’s very private and personal life.

David Cohen: Yeah, we call this in the book “secondary harassment” because most of what we talked to people about was directed at the providers themselves but some of it is directed at other people. It’s almost like the extremist is saying, “I know that by harassing you, the provider, I’m not gonna get anywhere because you’re so stubborn and pigheaded and I’m not gonna affect you. BUT if I harass someone or terrorize someone who is close to you, whether it’s your neighbor or your kid or your parent or your spouse or anyone close to you, then maybe you’ll stop doing this because you care about them.” So this kind of secondary harassment, and I think your reaction is the same we have, which was everything we write and talk about in this book should be, people should look upon it negatively and not part of the normal democratic process, but this kind of targeting of someone else whose, you know, kids or parents, or other loved ones or neighbors, it just feels particularly worse. Maybe it shouldn’t feel worse, because it’s not like the abortion providers deserve it in any way—so, I guess, there’s maybe a sense of these other people deserving less, but no one deserves it and it should happen to no one. It just shows how outrageous these anti-abortion extremists who target individuals are, that they would go to all of these lengths to try and stop abortion.

ST: You also brought out the ways the anti-abortion terrorists and harassers utilize the state, and I’d like to ask you to talk about this in a couple different ways. One that you highlighted is lawsuits and other ways that anti-abortion fanatics use the state to go after providers and then get all kinds of personal information about them or tie them up in the courts and waste their money. Then, the other was people who are actually in law enforcement who are in positions of the state who really abuse their authority and their power to themselves target providers.  

David Cohen: Yeah, I mean it’s absolutely both of them. So you know if you get a really determined anti-abortion extremist in political power they can use the power of the state in some very abusive ways. We saw that with Dr. Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, before he was assassinated. The attorney general for the State of Kansas, Phil Kline, was doing everything he could possibly imagine to harass Dr. Tiller, and actually ultimately Phil Kline was disbarred because of what he was doing. He was using the power of the state to indict Dr. Tiller and investigate him and get his patient records and put him on trial and literally put him on trial, and it was when he was ultimately… Dr. Tiller was acquitted in the trial just a few months before he was assassinated. And Scott Roeder, who assassinated George Tiller, was sitting in the courtroom when Dr. Tiller was acquitted, and it was… he said it was his disappointment and horror that Dr. Tiller was acquitted that led him to ultimately assassinate Dr. Tiller. You see, there the power of the state used in this way just egged on this extremist.

That’s one category, like you said; the other category is the anti-abortion extremists who are not part of the state but use the state to investigate providers and harass providers, filing complaints, often anonymously alleging that the provider is doing something wrong; or filing a lawsuit and doing the same thing, and that means that the provider is now tied up in the state investigatory apparatus. That takes up time, that takes up energy, and [there are] potential penalties. And you see this as a tactic all over the country with anti-abortion protesters monitoring the clinics so that if they ever see an ambulance leaving the clinic they report that and they file complaints against the clinic for doing that, when in reality that’s actually good medical practice. If there’s a problem—abortion has one of the lowest complication rates of any surgical procedure, it’s incredibly safe, but as with any medicine, there can be complications and when they arise, if something happens that is outside the skill of the doctor, then it’s good medical practice to call an ambulance and have that person transported to the local hospital to be taken care of. That is following the guidelines. That’s doing exactly what you’re supposed to. It is not a problem. But the anti-abortion extremists turn it into a problem and start investigations because of it. It’s a big problem to be able to use the state in that way. Abortion providers face this targeting from not only the individuals, but also the state apparatus.

ST: You mentioned that some people have heard about the high-profile cases of now 11 people who have been murdered by anti-abortion violence, clinics that have been bombed, clinics that have been destroyed and vandalized, although even those things don’t get as much attention as they should. But what you’re describing altogether is actually a much bigger sea of anti-abortion terrorism. These are not isolated acts. They are not all centrally coordinated, but it truly is a movement in which thousands and thousands of people participate in different forms and different levels of harassment of different providers all over the country. Is that true?

David Cohen: Yeah. I mean, I haven’t thought about it numerically the way you just put it, but if you think of all the home protests targeting individuals and you think of all the hate mail that’s been sent and phone calls and personal information that’s been used against people, you’re right, there’s thousands and thousands of people out there targeting abortion providers. And I agree with exactly what you said, which is we are not saying in our book and no one is saying that these people are a part of a secret organization that’s coordinating this targeted form of harassment. That’s not what’s happening here. But they are all part of the United States where this kind of targeted harassment flows from extreme rhetoric that’s used around abortion and they are sort of just carrying out what’s part of the political dialogue. When you call people murderers, when you call them killers, when you say that they are selling baby parts, there are gonna be people who hear that and say, Wow, I have to do something about that and I’ll do things that are beyond the normal course of political recourse.

ST: This goes a little bit beyond the scope of what you address directly in your book, but I’d like to explore your thinking in terms of what you think is the view of women that animates this anti-abortion movement—both from those in power, people demonizing abortion and passing laws that are closing down abortion clinics across the country, as well down to the level of people acting on their own, or with their congregation, or with these decentralized ways on the street to harass the women or providers of abortion. What is the view of women, and what would this society look like if they actually had their way?

David Cohen: I don’t think it’s just one thing, but it’s all negative. For some people, women are just absent, they don’t even care about women’s lives, women’s health, women’s needs, women’s wants; they just completely erase the woman from the picture, which is a huge problem, obviously. With other people, I think there’s this idea that women are public, their bodies are controllable by the public, and the public has an interest in what women’s bodies do. For other people, it’s a matter of control over women, controlling women’s sexuality, controlling women’s reproduction, controlling women’s place in society. I think there can be a lot of different strands to this that sort of answer the question, “What does it say about women in society and people’s view of women in society,” and it’s all negative and it’s all horrible and it’s all against a progressive view of equality and gender equality, and I think it really goes to the heart of what’s happening here, which is that these people don’t think of women as fully participatory people within our society.

ST: You detail all of these horrendous things that abortion providers have to go through—the amount of harassment, the amount of stigma, the amount of shame, the amount of isolation, the amount of fear that’s instilled by the anti-abortion movement. This has taken a toll. But overwhelmingly the people that you spoke to were pretty defiant in the face of this, and I want you to share a little bit of what were some of the motivations that made them feel that it was worth it to withstand all this.

David Cohen: We’re very lucky that, for the most part, abortion providers do not let this make them stop. It does prevent some people from going into the field and that’s a huge problem. That’s not the only reason people don’t go into the field, but it’s one of the reasons people don’t go into the field, and that’s a big problem. But once people are in the field, they tend to say that, for various reasons, they’re not gonna let this kind of terrorism and kind of targeting stop them.

Of the 87 people we talked to for the book, only one of them stopped performing abortions because of the harassment we talked to them about, and that’s consistent with studies that have found numerically that less than 2 percent of abortion providers around the country leave the field because of this kind of targeting.

But the reasons that people continue are really inspiring and just show the level of care and commitment that abortion providers have. Some of it is because they feel this really close connection with their patients and this satisfaction they get from helping them in this time of need and this time of medical need, as well as physiological and social need. If you think about it, being an abortion care provider is one of the areas in medicine where you can solve a person’s immediate medical problem relatively quickly. You think of a lot of other medical issues and they take years to resolve, if they can ever be resolved, and they take a lot of care, whereas abortion is, especially a first-trimester [abortion], is a quick, easy procedure with very few complications that will change someone’s life and change it for the better. It won’t solve any of the problems a person had that led them to this moment in life, but it will solve that medical problem, and for some providers it’s really rewarding to be able to help women through that time in their life and be able to solve that problem.

Others feel this deep commitment to the movement, whether they identify the movement as reproductive rights, reproductive choice, reproductive justice, women’s rights, human rights, whatever it is. They see whatever they are doing as being part of this broader movement, which is something that most medical care providers don’t have. And so the people we talked to identified this as a major part of it in saying, “I could have been a dermatologist but what would I have been connected to?” That as an abortion provider, they’re connected to this movement.

Another reason is that some people are just stubborn, where they say, “If I leave, I’m gonna leave on my own terms, I’m not gonna leave because someone forces me out.”

And then the final answer we got that we weren’t really expecting, frankly, when we asked the question why do you continue, was that some people said they continue because they remember or they were told stories from a relative about the era of when abortion was illegal, and when abortion was illegal women were injured by unskilled abortion providers, back-alley providers, and some women died. A lot of women died. So they remember this time when illegal abortion didn’t mean no abortion, it meant unsafe abortion, and they said to themselves that if I leave because of this terrorism, then I am getting us one step closer to that time when abortion was not available from skilled practitioners and women will have to resort to other means that will make them unsafe. So they saw their continuing on as a way to protect women’s health and to prevent us from slipping back into that era before Roe v. Wade.

ST: Over the last few summers, I’ve been part of, with the organization, been part of traveling the country and organizing people to stand up for abortion rights and that was one of the things, too, that the first time we traveled—up to North Dakota, down to Mississippi, from coast to coast—every single place we stopped, and this blew my mind, it was not something I was anticipating, every single stop we made strangers came up and told us about loved ones who died from illegal abortion. And these are stories that people have carried, largely in secret, in shame—but they’re very, very common. I think almost everybody has a story like that in their family and most people have no idea.

David Cohen: Exactly, that’s exactly true, and I mean part of the reason that the title of the book says “untold” is not just because the media isn’t telling these stories, but in some respects a lot of the people that we’ve been talking to haven’t been telling these stories. Their story of their great grandmother who died of an illegal abortion is not something that they tell to many people, and because of abortion stigma and because of the shame that surrounds the issue in this country, they keep quiet about it. And it’s the same thing with the harassment, the harassment is something they internalize, they look at it as normal in their field so they don’t think it’s worth talking about and because of that, that’s another reason why these stories are untold, people just not talking about it.

ST: I just wanted to note, a minute ago you said of the 87 providers you interviewed, only one stopped providing abortion because of the harassment. I wanted to note for our readers that of the 87 that you interviewed, all but five of them have experienced this harassment directly. So this is not something that happens to 10 out of 100 and only one quit, this happens to the overwhelming majority of people with only a very small number quitting. I just think that’s worth noting.

David Cohen: Right, although we didn’t have like a representative sample of providers around the country. We were certainly trying to find people who have had these experiences. But the Feminist Majority Foundation did a study that was released earlier this year that found that this kind of targeted harassment of providers has gone up in the past four years. They did a similar study in 2010 that found about a quarter of clinics around the country had staff members who were suffering this kind of targeting, and the most recent survey found that last year, 2014, four years later, over half of the clinics in the country had staff workers who suffered this kind of individual targeting. So it’s more than doubled in the past four years, the incidents of this kind of targeting, which is VERY concerning.

ST: What’s your sense of why that is?

David Cohen: I think is has a lot to do with the political climate, that there’s been a record number of abortion restrictions passed around the country over the past four years. Ever since the Tea Party took over a lot of state legislators in 2010 there’s been this huge domination in the political realm of thinking: what are we gonna do to restrict and stop abortion, and so the legislators do it through the political process but there’s always extremists who take their message and do it through this targeting. So I think that they go hand in hand and I think that’s what we’re seeing.

ST: I wanted to circle back because I think perhaps we didn’t draw it out fully enough for everybody who may not be as familiar with it. But we both talked about people’s personal information, address, name, children’s names, this sort of thing being disclosed by anti-abortion harassers, but I wondered if you could just describe why is that significant and how does it fit into this picture?

David Cohen: Using people’s personal information is a key tactic of this anti-abortion targeting and terrorism because the anti-abortion extremists dig through public records, they do whatever they can to find out as much information as they can about abortion providers and then make that information public. Knowing people’s personal information can be a very innocent thing, but when it’s done by the people that we’re talking about, there’s a subtle and often not-so-subtle message behind it which is, “I know who your kids are, I know where you live, I know what car you drive, I know where your husband goes to work, and I’m telling you I know this information, not so that we can strike up a bond and have a deep, meaningful relationship, but I’m telling you this information so now you know that I know this personal information about you, and maybe I’ll use it in a way that will harm you, so if I know your kids’ names, then I might be able to go to their school and picket, and if I know where your husband works, I know I can do the same thing, if I know where you live, I can come to your home.” The use of this personal information is either the first step into doing something worse or it’s a not-so-veiled threat that I’m gonna do something worse now that I have this information.

ST: And of course it’s a threat against a backdrop where there’s all kinds of people who have been motivated to carry out that violence. Even if you yourself don’t do anything to further target a provider, if you are putting that information out publicly you are knowingly making it available to a whole sea of people who have been whipped up to think that providing abortions is tantamount to murder, and some of whom have been whipped up to feel they are called on by god to act violently—or even murderously—against the provider. So, you are handing it over to all that.

David Cohen: That’s exactly right. All of this takes place against the backdrop where there have been extreme acts of violence. Now 11 people murdered by anti-abortion violence, arsons and bombings and other physical attacks. And abortion providers know this. They are keenly aware of this history that’s happened to people in their profession, and so having this personal information, showing up at someone’s house, going to their other work place, it is particularly threatening to an abortion provider because of this history, and the anti-abortion extremists know it and play on that and they use that to their advantage because they know that all they have to do is stand in front of someone’s house and it makes that person scared because of this history. So it really is this deliberate use of fear of violence to try and accomplish their political goal, and that’s why we call it terrorism.

Terrorism is violence or the fear of violence to try and accomplish a political goal that people can’t accomplish through normal political channels, and that’s where anti-abortion extremists find themselves. They’ve been unsuccessful for 43 years now, next month, in overturning Roe v. Wade, but they’ve been very successful at restricting access to abortion, though abortion is still legal throughout the country as much as they’ve tried to make it otherwise, and they are frustrated. They are angry that this is not something they have been able to resolve through normal political process, and so they resort to violence and so they resort to fear of violence to try and accomplish that goal. That is terrorism.

ST: Well, that was going to be my last question. Why do you call it terrorism? So, I’ll just ask you one more thing related to that, which I thought was very interesting. The Department of Homeland Security had actually categorized anti-abortion extremism as a form of domestic terrorism at one point, but because of political backlash, they removed it from being categorized as domestic terrorism. This was just a few weeks before Dr. Tiller was assassinated. Do you want to say anything about why that was removed, what were the forces that pushed back against that?

David Cohen: There was a lot of political pushback to the release of those two documents in 2009. It was in 2009 that the Department of Homeland Security released those documents. Anti-abortion forces were pissed about this. Military forces were angry because the document also talked about the risk of terrorism from people who used to be in the military and then get involved in these militia movements. There were a lot of organizations that really pushed back against these documents. Janet Napolitano, who was the head of the Department of Homeland Security at the time, issued a statement saying that these documents were released before they were supposed to and she withdrew them. So the backlash worked. It made the Department of Homeland Security fearful of labeling the anti-abortion extremists as terrorists and of course, as we said, a few weeks later Dr. Tiller was assassinated by domestic terrorists. They called it what it was supposed to be called and then they backed off and then they were proven right.

ST: Any closing words?

David Cohen: One thing that I think is important to talk about a little more is that this deeply affects abortion providers’ lives in ways that make them change what they do with their life, in terms of taking different routes to and from work, wearing disguises to and from work, thinking about where they own property so that it’s a safer location, and ultimately thinking about having a bulletproof vest or purchasing a gun or carrying a gun to protect themselves. Some of these things I just mentioned, it’s just shocking when you take a step back and you say these are doctors, nurses, and administrative assistants, volunteers who work for a lawful profession, providing health care in the United States, not in a military zone, and they’re thinking about bulletproof vests and guns, something is REALLY wrong when that’s the reality for a lot of abortion providers.

ST: Well, I agree with that, and I thank you for coming back to that. I do think that everyone who is reading this, people who are learning about this and haven’t heard this before, we have a responsibility to stand up and be part of changing the political atmosphere and taking on and defeating the war on women that is driving all this. You are absolutely right, this is not a situation that anybody should have to live with, and no one should accept. That is on all of us! I want to thank you, David, for joining us for this interview, thank you for the work you did on the book, and I hope to talk to you again soon.

David Cohen: Thank you so much. I really appreciate this.



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