After a shooter killed three at a Colorado clinic, current and former employees across the US have spoken up about the ‘constant state of fear’ in their daily lives
If Bryn Greenwood had called the police every time someone threatened to kill her, she doesn’t see how the Planned Parenthood clinic where she worked at the time could have kept its doors open.
“You report a phone call like that, the police show up, and the clinic gets shut down for half a day,” said Greenwood, recalling her years as an administrative assistant for the reproductive health organization’s branch in Wichita, Kansas. “And truly, there were weeks where every single day, someone called and threatened to kill me.”
Greenwood found herself dwelling on these memories from more than a decade ago after a shooter on Friday killed three people and injured nine others at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. And she was not alone. Although the murders marked the first time in more than two decades that an attack on an American abortion clinic has turned deadly, violence toward clinics has always been a constant. According to the National Abortion Federation, an association of abortion providers, between 1977 and 2014, eight abortion providers or employees have been murdered, and 14 have been the target of attempted murder. There were 42 bombings and 186 instances of arson against clinics in that time period – and there have been four new arson cases at Planned Parenthood clinics in the last four months.
Sunday night, Greenwood went on a public tear. She used Twitter to recount the numerous arsons, overnight shootings, and stink bomb attacks against the Wichita, Kansas Planned Parenthood where she worked a decade ago. The location was not actually an abortion clinic, but a health clinic where women received cancer screenings and STI tests.
Reached by phone, Greenwood described hearing so many death threats that they no longer penetrated. She did not feel vulnerable until the day someone lit a fire with lighter fluid poured under the clinic’s back door. The fire alarm sent partly dressed women fleeing exam rooms for the parking lot.
And she is far from the only person to come forward with disturbing stories of almost daily threats or violence.
“Nothing’s changed, in so many years,” said Susan Holland, who worked for Planned Parenthood in Nebraska for years, including as a clinic director. At another clinic, not affiliated with Planned Parenthood, Holland volunteered as an escort for patients through the throngs of protesters. The threats hurled at her were so numerous that she couldn’t recall any single one.
What did strike her was something she saw inside the clinic: the doctor’s bulletproof vest draped over the back of his chair, his gun on the seat.
“Abortion providers have to take security measures that, you ask someone at any other healthcare location, and they would laugh,” said David Cohen, a Drexel University law professor and co-author of Living in the Crosshairs, a recent dive into the dangers many abortion providers say they face. “Some just live with it. For others, it’s highly consuming of their mental energy. They’re traumatized by it. They have a constant state of fear.”
Cohen said actions such as carrying a gun or wearing a protective vest are not extraordinary. He and his co-author, Krysten Connon, interviewed dozens of doctors, and at the end of every interview, they asked each person if he or she owned a vest or a firearm. “We had several people who took us back to their office and said, ‘Here it is. I never thought I would need one as a medical provider, but here’s my bulletproof vest,’” Cohen recalled. Many other abortion providers he interviewed park their cars at rendezvous points so private security officers can drive them the rest of the way to the clinic.
The most memorable doctors used costumes, Cohen said. One doctor who flies across the country to perform abortions wears a Halloween mask on the ride from the airport. Another wears what she calls her “Elvira disguise”: a black wig; oversized sunglasses; and a long black trench coat. The disguise is so effective that picketers she encountered outside her home believed they were meeting her son.
The threats touch even the most mundane aspects of organizations that provide abortion. Nick Chapman was a data analyst for Planned Parenthood when someone mailed fake anthrax to the tiny San Francisco administrative office where he worked. The hoax contributed to Planned Parenthood losing its lease. At its next office, the group installed bulletproof glass security doors.
And the intimation of violence touches patients as often as it does employees. Vicki Haacke, a counselor and doctor’s assistant for several Planned Parenthood clinics in Iowa, remembered protesters writing down patient and employees’ license plate numbers when she worked there in 2010. The details recalled testimony from Planned Parenthood’s Massachusetts security chief three years earlier. Michael T Baniukiewicz said two protesters frequently dressed in hats and shirts bearing the Brookline, Massachusetts police name in order to collect the names and home addresses of abortion patients. The same protesters would speak to patients through megaphones at close range: “You’re going to burn in hell.”
Speaking over the weekend, Dawn Laguens, the executive vice-president of Planned Parenthood, said the organization has always experienced and prepared for violence.
“Equality for women has always been contentious and triggered backlash,” she said. “It is in our DNA” to prepare for attacks. But the scale of threats and abusive protests has grown since anti-abortion activists released videos edited to show Planned Parenthood employees apparently selling fetal body parts in violation of the law. The accusations in the tapes, released this summer, are false. Still, in September, the FBI alerted police departments across the country to the heightened number of incidents against Planned Parenthood.
Even clinics not affiliated with Planned Parenthood are experiencing fallout.
In Huntsville, hundreds of activists at a time have gathered to protest at the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives with signs and chants denouncing Planned Parenthood. “We’re not even a Planned Parenthood clinic,” said Dalton Johnson, the owner. “It’s becoming a constant battle.”
But although the size of the protests have increased, he said, the intensity has not. Johnson has received constant verbal and written death threats for years, and for a long time he has only opened the mail in the privacy of his office. “That way, if something is in the mail, at least it’s contained,” he said. Trespassers are a constant issue.
“The Planned Parenthood spillover is new,” Johnson said. “Yelling at me, ‘Hey Dalton, how would you like it if somebody killed you?’ That’s standard. That’s business as usual.”