Special Reports

Abortion providers voice safety concerns

Two weeks before George Tiller was shot in his church, he called colleague Susan Hill in North Carolina.

Tiller wanted her to send pictures of activists who had recently been threatening Hill and her staff. He said he was seeing new abortion protesters outside his Wichita clinic and wondered whether they were traveling around.

"I said, 'I don't know, George. I think there's something coming,' " recalled Hill, who operates clinics in four states. "He said, 'I do, too.'

"We knew it. You smell it. Strange things were happening in our Mississippi clinic and in North Carolina, strange people were coming around. And he admitted that for the first time, he really believed that something was going to go down."

In the days since Tiller's death, abortion-rights activists across the country say they sensed more protesters and an uptick in violence before the shooting. That more clinic vandalism and protesters singling out certain clinic employees or physicians with threats.

Now, abortion-rights activists worry that laws aren't strong enough or law enforcement in some parts of the country isn't diligent enough to prevent further violence. Especially now, with a president in the White House who supports abortion rights.

That's when extremists can feel desperate, activists say.

"I think when they're out of power, they feel much more threatened," said Nancy Keenan, president of the NARAL Pro-Choice America. "I hope we don't see history repeated."

In the early 1990s, during Bill Clinton's presidency, violence and protests escalated at clinics across the country. That included the "Summer of Mercy" protests in 1991 at Tiller's clinic and Tiller's shooting in 1993 outside his clinic.

It subsided after George Bush was elected.

Immediately after Tiller's shooting death, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder requested extra security outside clinics across the country. On Friday, the Justice Department launched an investigation into Tiller's death.

"There has to be a way to stop this," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "This is way beyond freedom of speech. It's a campaign of terror."

Paying for protection

Tiller wore a bulletproof vest for years and drove an armored vehicle he paid to equip himself.

Other physicians who provide abortions, especially late-term abortions like Tiller did, said they pay for their own protection. Many clinics have private security, and physicians use individual safety precautions.

Warren Hern, director of the Boulder, Colo., Abortion Clinic and one of the handful of doctors who performs late-term abortions, said he and his clinic are constantly harassed.

"I'm doing something legal," Hern said. "Why should I have to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions of dollars, to keep from getting shot and to protect my patients? This is madness."

In the 1990s, at the height of the abortion-related violence, President Clinton signed the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances act into law. It established criminal penalties and civil remedies for violence, damaging conduct or obstruction that affects clinics, providers or patients.

The Clinton administration brought 36 prosecutions under the act between 1994 and 2000.

During Bush's presidency, there were half as many prosecutions, according to the Department of Justice.

Despite the law, some physicians say they still don't get the protection they need.

A few months ago, clinic owner Hill said an abortion protester showed up at her home in Raleigh, N.C., at 10:30 p.m.

She ordered him off her property and sent him a certified letter the next day saying if he came near her again, she would sue him in civil court for "millions of dollars."

"Nobody else would do anything," Hill said of the man, who's pictured on the Internet kissing an AK-47. "I got it to the feds, I got it to the local police. We got research done, and we never heard from any of them."

Hill said she and about 10 other abortion providers stay in constant contact.

"Any of us who have had threats, we all talk to each other or e-mail each other about once a week, and we share information because nobody else will share it with us," she said. "It's sort of a self-protective consortium."

LeRoy Carhart, a doctor who operates an abortion clinic in suburban Omaha and who worked part time at Tiller's clinic for the past 10 years, said authorities have to do more.

"The little things escalate," Carhart said. "They put crosses in our yards. I guarantee if you put a cross in the police chief's yard, you'd be in jail. Yet they get away with it.

"Then they get away with their bull horns and their wanted posters. Then they get somebody who's a little off-beat and not rational, and that probably is true in this case."