Thursday, June 03, 2004

Attacking the providers

Blue Mountain Women's Clinic in Missoula, Montana, is one of those places doing important work in a forsaken environment, providing a range of great medical care for women in western Montana -- and yes, abortions and other reproductive choices.

It's important because in a place like Montana, as Mother Jones reported some time back, the Christian right's stealth campaign again abortion has focused on denying access to abortions by drying up the number of places able to provide them.

When I lived in Missoula, some good friends of mine worked at Blue Mountain. I knew that abortion was hardly the only work going on at the place -- but I also knew they felt strongly about keeping it available there, because it was choice that was increasingly not being offered elsewhere in the state and indeed the broader region, including Idaho, Wyoming and eastern Washington.

The place was burned to the ground in 1993 by a right-wing fanatic turned arsonist. The clinic kept running in other locations until a brand-new facility was built, thanks to a strong showing of support from the community.

This clinic was the target of frequent anti-abortion protests in the early 1990s, most of them organized by Operation Rescue, the ultra-right outfit associated with a couple of abortion-doctor murders in Florida. But after the arson, the protests largely went away.

Via Z Magazine, it appears the protesters have returned with a vengeance:
In September 2003, a person with well-known ties to Operation Rescue, Marilyn Hatch, set up camp at the clinic picketing and harassing patients and staff. With a long history of anti-choice activism, Hatch had three previous arrests, all from 1994, when she was apparently traveling throughout the country on her "mission" to obstruct clinic access. In March 1994, she was arrested during an Operation Rescue blockade of a clinic entrance in Birmingham, Alabama. In May of that year, she was arrested for obstructing the entrance to the Planned Parenthood in Waco, Texas. In June, she was arrested for violating FACE (the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act) when she and four others chained themselves to old cars in front of a clinic in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. During that year, Hatch was on the payroll full time for Operation Rescue.

In her currently resurrected career of clinic harassment, Hatch's strategies to harass, confuse, and intimidate patients has become more aggressive. During her first weeks at the clinic, she began by telling patients that she was "here to help them" by providing counseling. ("Sidewalk counseling" is currently in vogue with anti-choice protestors throughout the country.) As those techniques failed to draw any free "counseling" takers, she changed her tactics and began shouting misinformation at women and their partners as they entered the clinic. Clutching her bible, she would yell, "Ask about the breast cancer link." (The National Institute of Health reported in March 2003 that there is no medical evidence linking breast cancer to abortion.) She would often shout at the partners, "Be a man, don’t kill your baby" or, "This will damage you for life, you won't be able to have babies again."

Hatch also targets clinic staff. Her tactics include photographing staff and their license plates and trying to befriend staff by telling them, "You can get a better job" or leaving business cards for "abortion workers," urging them to report employers for discrimination and payroll fraud. In one instance, Hatch singled me out as the director of the clinic and threatened to tell my neighbors that I kill babies.

Why is this happening now? Possibly because of the direction coming from the top:
Public discourse on abortion has become more heated during George Bush Jr.'s presidency. One of his first actions after taking office in 2001 was to reinstate the global gag rule on abortion. The gag rule prohibits family planning organizations that receive U.S. funds from using their own funds to counsel about or refer for abortion or to lobby their own government for a change in abortion laws.

Bush's nomination of nine conservative judges to federal circuit courts has also reignited the abortion debate, as most of the nominees either refused to answer questions about their positions on abortion or were blatantly and vocally anti-choice. Circuit court judges are often nominated to the Supreme Court and with President Bush's public statements in favor of the repeal of Roe v. Wade, national organizations such as NAF, Planned Parenthood, and the National Organization of Women pressured Democrats to filibuster the nominations of these extremist judges.

Bush's policies to withhold the $34 million that Congress had traditionally appropriated for the United Nations' International Family Planning Program (UNFPA), has damaged the U.S.'s standing internationally. The fund provides the largest internationally funded source of population assistance to developing countries, providing reproductive and maternal health services to millions of men and women in more than 150 countries. The Fund's programs help impoverished and underserved women throughout the world. Bush's withdrawal of support was based on the funds' work to promote contraceptive education and access to safe abortion services.

With Bush on their side, extreme right pundits have set the climate for renewed aggression aimed at abortion clinics, physicians, and families looking to access their safe and legal right to reproductive health care.

The religious right has been especially vocal in pushing Bush farther rightward on the abortion issue. The result is that Bush's sympathy for anti-abortion extremists has become fairly clear.

That sets an example that plays out in dangerous ways. And it genuinely harms women in the process.

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