If We Care About Maternal Health, We Have To Address National Clinic Violence

Tomorrow is International Maternal Health Day, an important opportunity to discuss the challenges that women around the world face when trying to access the full range of comprehensive reproductive healthcare. It would be negligent to pretend that the United States stands as a model to the rest of the world in this regard, especially considering the near constant legislative attacks on birth control and abortion from the political right and the escalating rates of violence and threats against reproductive health clinics.

The Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) periodically conducts a National Clinic Violence Survey to measure anti-abortion violence, harassment, and intimidation that clinics are experiencing. FMF’s most recent survey found that the number of clinics experiencing the most severe types of violence and threats of violence nearly doubled between 2014 and 2016, from 19.7% to 34.2%. This aggression most frequently manifested itself in clinic blockades and invasions, stalking of staff, death threats, and bomb threats. But it can also escalate to extremely dangerous scenarios. Just two months ago, a man drove a stolen truck into a Planned Parenthood clinic in East Orange, New Jersey, injuring a pregnant woman and two others.

Aside from severe violence and threats of violence, 63.2% of clinics reported experiencing frequent and regular anti-abortion activity in the first half of 2016, including disruptive protests and demonstrations, with nearly a quarter of the country’s clinics experiencing protests every single day. Oftentimes anti-abortion demonstrators will hold posters depicting fake photos of dismembered fetuses and shout manipulative statements or threats. One clinic reported that protesters repeatedly tell staff and doctors to “watch our backs” and “nobody cares when a murderer gets killed.”

Anti-abortion violence and harassment don’t just discourage women from seeking abortion care; it discourages patients of all types from seeking out the reproductive healthcare they need, from pap smears to birth control. In a recent New York City court case against anti-abortion protesters, a clinic escort recounted the trauma experienced by one patient who was coming into the clinic after a devastating miscarriage, but was met outside by protesters accusing her of murdering her baby. In a different case concerning the same clinic, a protester is accused of telling clinic escorts, “You never know when death may come…You could die by a bullet.”

Threats such as this one are not empty. Since 1993, at least 11 people have been killed in attacks on reproductive health clinics, including the 2015 shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood that killed three people. 46.4% of clinics said their doctors and staffs were personally targeted with threats and intimidation in the first half of 2016, and nearly 30% of clinics said that anti-abortion extremists distributed pamphlets that featured pictures, home addresses and personal information of doctors and staffs under headlines like “KILLERS AMONG US” and “WANTED.” The threat to their lives is so great, that some doctors cannot even live in the same state as their clinic, and are forced to fly in-and-out daily.

Abortion rights supporters stand outside the Jackson Women’s Health Organization Inc., Mississippi’s only commercial abortion clinic in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013. Activists pro-and anti-abortion marked 40 years since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling established a nationwide right to abortion, with protests at the Capitol and at the clinic. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The intent and result of these threats and violence are to limit access to abortion care, which is a critical component of maternity care. Although wealthy women with private insurance are able to go to private physicians and make their healthcare decisions in peace, it is low-income and young women, and disproportionately people of color, who are forced to walk a gauntlet of protesters and hecklers just to get an ultra-sound, birth control, a pre-natal prescription, or care for a miscarriage or abortion.  There is no other type of doctors’ office in the entire country that experiences any similar level of vitriol, harassment and violence.

The sidewalk in front of a health clinic should not be the battleground for a national policy debate, and advocating for the “right to life” does not give someone the right to terrorize doctors and patients. The fact that these dramatic performances play out on our streets every day highlights the disregard that a far-right portion of the public holds for access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare.

It cannot come as a surprise then that the United States is currently experiencing the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world, and black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth related incidences than white women.

Prioritizing maternal health, and thus the lives of women and especially women of color, requires recognizing that abortion care is an integral and inescapable component. One-in-four women will have an abortion by the age of 45. Maternal health can never be achieved if harassment and intimidation forces a woman to carry her pregnancy to term against her will. That is by definition an unhealthy situation.

Learn more about What Women Want in their maternal and reproductive healthcare.

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