(WOMENSENEWS)–The May 31 murder of Dr. George Tiller, the prominent Wichita, Kan., abortion provider, is putting reproductive health clinics on guard and causing pro-choice advocates to measure the depth of their loss.
On Tuesday Tiller’s lawyers announced his Kansas abortion clinic–the only one in the state outside Kansas City–would close.
In response to the murder–allegedly at the hands of an anti-choice extremist who shot the late-term abortion provider while he was serving as an usher at church–armed federal marshals and private guards are patrolling threatened U.S. clinics.
“We have in-depth security measures in place,” says Diane Quest, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the largest U.S. provider of abortion services, with more than 850 health centers. “It would be inappropriate to discuss our security measures in detail. But we are grateful to federal, state and local law enforcement for the way they have responded to this incident.”
In 1993, Florida’s Dr. David Gunn was the first identified as murdered by anti-choice extremists.
The following year produced a peak of abortion-related violence, when 52 percent of clinics came under some kind of attack, according to a February survey by the Feminist Majority Foundation of Arlington, Va.
1998 Murder in Buffalo, N.Y.
The violence of the 1990s included the shocking 1998 murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, who was shot and killed in front of his wife and four children in Buffalo, N.Y. The murder marked the climax of a series of five sniper attacks in four years in northern New York and Canada.
At the time, Slepian was the fourth doctor and seventh person in the United States to be killed because of their involvement with performing abortions.
Since the end of the 1990s antiabortion violence has abated from its peak, but has remained intense. In 2008, 20 percent of reproductive healthcare clinics suffered violence, according to the Feminist Majority survey.
Most often the violence took the form of blockades, facility invasions and stalking. But it also included bomb threats, death threats and physical attacks.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, worries the violence may intensify now that the antiabortion forces have lost President George W. Bush, a key ally in the White House.
“We suspect a call was made to escalate harassment and intimidation because of election defeats,” Smeal says.
Tiller weathered dramatic adversities: a 1993 gunshot attack, a clinic bombing and 30 months of federal marshal protection before his murder.
The battle to save abortion services has also been losing ground on other fronts, says Nancy Keenan, president of the Washington-based NARAL Pro-Choice America.
“Over time, there has been a concerted, comprehensive effort to set up obstacles to prevent women from obtaining safe, legal abortions,” says Keenan. “And now, Dr. Tiller’s tragic murder is bringing these issues to the forefront.”
The average abortion provider in the United States is more than 50 years old. The number of providers nationwide–1,700–is about half of what it was 30 years ago, reports the Philadelphia-based Medical Students for Choice.
Nearly 90 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion services, reports the New York-based Guttmacher Institute.
“Providers are daunted by the dramatic increase in state restrictions passed since 1992,” says Louise Melling, director of the reproductive freedom project for the New York-based American Civil Liberties Union.
Range of Restrictions
Such restrictions include gestational time limits (enforced in 37 states); parental permission in for minors (34 states); waiting periods (24 states) and counseling mandates (17 states). Many restrictions, Melling says, wind up requiring patients to make multiple trips to he doctor.
After Bush-supported legislation banned intact dilation and extraction–the procedure used in 85 percent of second-trimester abortions–in 2003, later-term providers such as Tiller became a vanishing breed.
“Fewer than 50 providers in the U.S. now offer abortion at up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, or fetal viability,” says Alison Edelman, a spokeswoman for the New York-based Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. “And Dr. Tiller was one of only three providers who offered abortion during the last trimester.”
Tiller offered abortions to women who learned only in the third trimester that their deformed fetuses had genetic abnormalities and would not survive outside the womb. He also served adolescent girls who were victims of rape or incest and who were not physically developed enough to carry pregnancies to term.
“Dr. Tiller was a physician of last resort,” says Susan Yanow, a spokesperson for the Cambridge-based Second Trimester Access Initiative. “Now, the women he served have few resorts left.”
Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.
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