Last year, in the wake of the arrest of Kermit Gosnell, Operation Rescue came to town. They met in the basement of St. Agnes Church in West Chester. As PW reported in March, the militant anti-abortion organization was there recruiting volunteers to gather doctors’ names and schedules by pretending to be mothers of daughters who were seeking abortions. Volunteers were told they’d find it surprisingly easy to lie, and that the Holy Spirit would tell them what to say. It was described as playing a fun detective game.
Last week, Operation Rescue debuted the result of its labor: The tagline for AbortionDocs.org is “the largest collection of documents on America’s abortion cartel.” The online database “endeavors to list every surgical abortion clinic, every ‘abortion pill-only’ clinic, and every abortionist in the United States.”
“Secrecy and darkness are only good for rats, cockroaches and the abortion industry,” declared Operation Rescue President Troy Newman to a basement full of the faithful.
“Unfortunately, it’s become an act of courage for a physician to be willing to perform a legal medical procedure,” says Dayle Steinberg, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania. “They’re intimidated, threatened, and as everybody knows, worse. They’ve been murdered.”
Since 1977, the National Abortion Federation has documented eight murders, 17 attempted murders, 41 bombings, 175 instances of arson, 391 invasions, 100 butyric acid attacks, 662 anthrax threats, 523 instances of stalking and 418 death threats against clinic workers.
“It’s just another form of terrorism against abortion providers,” says Jen Boulanger, executive director of the Allentown Women’s Center, a health-care facility that also provides abortion care. “It’s a form of harassment and intimidation of abortion providers, to discourage them from continuing to provide services.”
Boulanger knows a thing or two about harassment. Last month, the AWC relocated from Allentown to Bethlehem. The new facility is only a few miles away, but clinic workers hope the new location in an industrial park surrounded by private property will help shake the aggressive, menacing anti-abortion protesters who regularly swarmed the old place. “There’s more private property around the entrance,” says Boulanger. “Protesters cannot get up to the door.”
Without a “buffer zone” like the one in Pittsburgh that mandates protesters stay a certain number of feet from the front door of a clinic, and as long as it’s public property, protesters can get close—shoving-fliers-into-pockets-while-screaming close, or creating-a-gauntlet-of-arms close—to patients trying to enter or exit the building.
A few years ago, it got so bad in Allentown that AWC staff used blue plastic tarps as mobile tunnels, shielding and guiding patients to the door.
“It enraged the protesters because they weren’t allowed to do what they wanted to do, which was really get at the women,” says Susan Frietsche, senior staff attorney of the Women’s Law Project, which has represented the AWC. “So [the protesters] filed a lawsuit. They claimed the AWC was engaged in a conspiracy with the city of Allentown to deprive the protesters of their First Amendment right to protest.”
They lost, and then filed an appeal, which is still pending.
Boulanger says that she’s noticed that facilities with layouts that enable protesters to get very close to patients tend to attract more militant activists. “Proximity brings out bullying personalities,” she says. “The closer that they were to us, the more aggressive they became.”
It gets way worse than just chanting outside the waiting room window and throwing plastic fetus dolls.
“[Protesters] papered my neighborhood with these bright orange fliers that stated who I was and what car I drove and where I lived, and asked my neighbors to call me … and tell me to stop killing babies,” recalls Boulanger. Her mother, who lives in another state, received a letter telling her she should be ashamed of herself for raising a bad Catholic.
“We’re cautious when we open our mail,” says Boulanger. “It’s just how we live. We live in a culture of terror.”
Still, despite these threats, Boulanger is outspoken about her work. In 2009, she wrote a Huffington Post essay, “Come Together to Prevent My Murder,” about “the upswing in aggression and violent rhetoric by protesters” in the weeks following the murder of abortion provider and pro-choice champion Dr. George Tiller by Scott Roeder.
“What scares me more is the service not being available for people,” Boulanger says. “If you think about it all the time, you’ll drive yourself crazy.”
The number of abortion doctors has been declining since the ’80s.
With a quick search around the database, it’s apparent it is in its infancy; names of clinics and individual doctors are listed and the addresses are Google-mapped, but most still need personal addresses and photos—except Gosnell, who is filed under Pennsylvania despite the fact that he is not a practicing doctor.
Under the leadership of 44-year-old Troy Newman, Operation Rescue has become known for zeroing in on defined areas and then pressuring individual clinics and practitioners until operating becomes unreasonable or impossible.
Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia physician charged with murdering babies for decades, worked uninterrupted in a wide-open darkness of institutional failure. And a year-long investigation reveals how he got away with it for so long.
A timeline of events in the case against Dr. Kermit Gosnell.
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