Group asks Justice Department to protect abortion clinics

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 22, 2009 

WASHINGTON — An abortion-rights group said Wednesday that doctors and clinics that perform abortions in six states "are routinely targeted" for legal and physical harassment, including death threats, and called on the Justice Department to do more to protect clinic workers.

In a report, the Center for Reproductive Rights said that women seeking to terminate pregnancies in those states face a dwindling supply of providers as threats and intimidation take their toll.

Nancy Northup, the center's president, said the number of physicians and clinics providing abortions has fallen by 25 percent since the 1990s.

Two of the states, Mississippi and North Dakota, have only one abortion provider. The other studied states were Missouri, with three, Alabama, with seven, Pennsylvania, with about a dozen, and Texas, with about 40.

Even in states with multiple clinics, however, most are clustered in urban areas, leaving women in less populous regions to travel long distances for the service.

The center concluded the study before the killing in May of Dr. George Tiller, who ran a well-known abortion clinic in Wichita, Kan. An abortion opponent has been charged with shooting Tiller inside his church as Tiller was serving as an usher during Sunday services.

"Dr. Tiller's murder focused attention on this problem for a moment, but people don't realize that abortion providers operate under siege, legal and physical, every single day," Northup said.

Anti-abortion protests have become regular occurrences outside of abortion clinics. Some physicians wear bulletproof vests, try to shield their home addresses from public records and take other steps to protect their privacy and safety, Northup said.

The report recommended that the Justice Department devote more resources to the problems that abortion clinics face. It also suggested better cooperation between state, local and federal law enforcement.

In addition, the center called on the medical community to take steps to increase the number of abortion providers and to take a public stand against clinic violence and harassment.

Abortion became legal nationwide in 1973 as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade. About a third of all women will have the procedure during their reproductive years, according to the report.

The group said it singled out the six states for study because they were geographically diverse and illustrative of the problems abortion providers face.

All six have some sort of laws restricting abortion, regulations that apply only to abortion providers and recurring problems with clinic protests, intimidation and threats.

Mary Kay Culp, the executive director of Kansans for Life, which opposes abortion, said she hadn't seen the report.

She said, however, that the timing seems linked to the debate over whether federal funds should be used to pay for abortions under the proposed health care reform bills.

"I can't help but think it's nothing more than an attempt to scare the American people away from being informed and concerned about the massive abortion mandates that are in the proposed health care reform bills," Culp said, "and that will remain there unless explicitly excluded."

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