(WOMENSENEWS)–Kristina Romero has worked in the field of reproductive health care for over three decades. She started as a receptionist in a clinic that did not perform abortions and is now a regional director for multiple clinics, a small subset of which offers abortion services. Her clinics serve people from urban, suburban and rural parts of her politically conservative West South Central state. Though Kristina is responsible for many clinics, her home base is a clinic in the same suburban college town where she has spent her entire career.
Kristina did not experience much protest until the clinic began performing abortions in the late 1990s. Before then, the clinic where she worked provided basic family planning services and was rarely targeted. "No protesting. Nothing. We were just providing family planning, and the protesters maybe didn’t like that, but it didn’t motivate them."
When the clinic decided to start offering abortion care, Kristina’s nearly 20 years of peace and quiet working in family planning clinics came to an end. Kristina’s "under the radar" clinic was transformed into a focal point for local anti-abortion sentiment. The anti-abortion protest was instantaneous: "When we did our first abortion, which the protesters figured out before we were done with construction of the clinic, they were outside waiting." The new level of protest bothered Kristina’s employees, and the first group of them, who had been working with Kristina for years, could "only take so much" and eventually left.
Over time, the protesters began using tactics both to shame patients and to target the clinic’s employees. The protesters stand at the entrance to the clinic’s parking lot and badger the patients when they come in. "They get screamed at. The protesters write down their license plates. They send them cards. They make phone calls to their homes."
Protesters also swarm the clinic and harass the people who work there. "These window blinds," Kristina explained while pointing to the huge windows that surround the conference room table in one of her clinics, "you can pull them down, you can look through them and you could find the protesters at the windows, looking in."
Kristina herself has been and continues to be subject to targeted harassment. When entering or exiting the clinic, the protesters use Kristina’s personal information against her. "They call you by name. They know your kids’ names. They know your mom and dad’s names. They know where you go to church." Kristina has also received cards in the mail that describe what type of car she drives and where she drives it. To Kristina, this information is proof that someone is following her.
Protesters also individually target others who work with Kristina. She and her coworkers regularly receive e-mail from protesters at their work and personal e-mail accounts. "You’d be sitting there doing your normal work and an e-mail from a protester pops up. That’s a little freaky." The protesters have even targeted a volunteer who works at Kristina’s clinic. "She was in her 80s, it was her birthday, and the protesters cut the heads off of a bunch of roses and put them on the fence around her home with a card that said, ‘Hopefully you’ll have another birthday and here’s your dead roses.’"
Perhaps the riskiest part of Kristina’s job is when she drives the doctor to and from the clinic. Because of past violence against abortion providers, the doctor does not drive directly to the clinic. Instead, the doctor drives to another public location to meet Kristina, and then Kristina drives the doctor to the clinic in her own car. For extra security, Kristina and the doctor vary the locations where they meet. Kristina hopes that with this system in place the protesters do not see the doctor’s car, so they cannot use the car to discover the doctor’s identity or follow the doctor. This system is not foolproof, and Kristina understands the risks. "That’s always that moment when your heart starts beating a little harder."
One of the more vocal protesters at Kristina’s clinic has followed Kristina to a pickup location. On more than one occasion, the protester was there with a camera. Kristina joked, "He’d always shoot, but he was luckily shooting with a camera, not a gun." One time, the protester discovered that Kristina’s pickup location was going to be a grocery store parking lot. The protester went into the grocery store and tried to convince the store manager to take action because abortion providers were in the parking lot. Luckily for Kristina, the manager did not heed the protester’s request and instead called to Kristina to warn her about what was happening.
Because of this protester’s attempts to follow her, Kristina has tried even more deceptive measures, including using someone as a decoy. "One time when we went to one of the pickup locations, there was a decoy. I didn’t have the doctor. And the protester who had followed me was running through the parking lot down low with his camera." The decoy doctor yelled, "Some guy’s running between the cars," so Kristina drove to where the protester was running and pulled up alongside him. Thankfully, the incident did not escalate. When Kristina reached the protester he stopped and "just stood there with his camera."
Kristina has also been followed home. Sometimes when Kristina drives to pick up the doctor, she leaves from her home instead of the clinic: "One day I left to pick up the doctor and I got to the corner of my house and there’s a big picture of the doctor with a bulls eye on him, and every corner that I turned was another picture, so obviously they’d followed me. And that was probably one of the creepiest days. The pictures were all up the main street I travel on, all the way back to my house."
The signs on Kristina’s route were similar to the signs that had appeared before the murders of several of the doctors around the country–large "Wanted" signs with the doctor’s name and picture. Even though the signs showed the doctor’s picture and name, it was clear to Kristina that they were targeted at her as well. The posters were stuck in the ground all the way from Kristina’s house to the clinic. The doctor would never see the signs; rather, the signs lined the route that Kristina traveled. "It was for me to be scared. It was for me," Kristina said in recalling the signs. "There’s nothing in my experience with the protesters that stands out more than that morning when I got up to go get the doctor and saw the doctor’s picture all over town."
Taking a Toll
This targeted harassment has taken a toll on Kristina and has affected how she lives. She installed a security system in her house. When she drives home from work, she consciously tries to take different routes so that protesters cannot follow her and learn her routine. "It’s stressful. You get sick more. It gets into your head, it gets into your heart. It gets to be really hard to take." This perspective on life is one that most health care providers would likely consider completely foreign to them, but for Kristina, targeted harassment has become a normal part of life.
Kristina is concerned not only for her own safety but for her children’s safety as well. As a result of the targeted harassment she faced, Kristina moved her son from public school to a private school where the administrators were aware of her profession. "They knew not to let him go with just anybody and that if somebody came to pick him up that wasn’t me, they would call." The school was supportive, and thankfully nothing ever happened there, but Kristina’s children were affected. "They would get scared. They would get upset at times when they’d hear or see things."
As a result of anti-abortion violence around the country, Kristina obtained a bulletproof vest. Kristina had been cautious in the past, but "there was just a different reality when doctors started getting shot." Kristina wonders, though, whether it will make any difference. "I think you can wear a vest, but most of us now think that they’re going to
shoot you in the head. Unless they’re shooting from a distance or something with a pistol, they’re going to walk right up and shoot you in the head." Kristina has not bought a gun, even though she has been told to do so by others.
Despite the harassment, despite being followed, despite the bulls eye signs throughout her neighborhood, despite purchasing a vest and considering carrying a gun, despite playing cat-and-mouse games to transport medical care providers and despite the toll all of this takes on her children, Kristina continues to work in this field.
Kristina insisted that she will not back down because she is confident she is doing the right thing. "If I quit, maybe there’s not somebody else wanting to do it. I’m also stubborn. I’m a little pigheaded. I don’t want them to win. I think what I’m doing is right. I think what we’re doing is right. I think a choice is right."
Reprinted from "Living in the Crosshairs : The Untold Stories of Anti-abortion Terrorism" by David S. Cohen and Krysten Connon with permission from Oxford University Press USA, © 2015 by Oxford University Press. The book is based on interviews with 87 abortion providers from around the country about their experiences with being the targets of anti-abortion extremists.
David S. 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. Krysten Connon is a 2012 graduate of the Drexel University School of Law. Following law school, Connon worked as a federal judicial law clerk. She is currently an attorney in private practice in Philadelphia.
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