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Clinics that provide abortion services are increasingly worried about security

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Before Roe was overturned, some medical clinics that provide abortions faced harassment, vandalism and arson. Now Colorado Public Radio's Matt Bloom reports that providers are taking new security precautions while recalling a history of violent attacks.

MATT BLOOM, BYLINE: The shooting at a Planned Parenthood on a snowy day in 2015 remains fresh in the minds of many people in Colorado.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Tragedy in Colorado Springs. Tonight, we know that three people have been killed in a standoff with a gunman who barricaded himself inside a Planned Parenthood building.

BLOOM: Among the dead were two people accompanying patients and a police officer. The shooter pleaded guilty and described himself as a, quote, "warrior for the babies." He has not faced trial because he's been found mentally unfit. But health care workers worry the Supreme Court decision and political rhetoric lately could inspire more attacks.

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LAUREN BOEBERT: Abortion is not health care. It is murder.

BLOOM: That's Colorado Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert. That kind of language has an impact, says Melissa Fowler with the National Abortion Federation, the country's largest association of providers.

MELISSA FOWLER: You've seen more politicians really being bold and out, talking about abortion providers, demonizing providers. And in some cases, it seems to be more acceptable for people to be out about their extremist behavior that perhaps they did secretly before.

BLOOM: Incidents of blockades, assaults and break-ins at clinics have all more than doubled over the past three years, according to a recent survey from NAF. Reported stalkings of clinic staff jumped 600% from 2020 to 2021. Fowler says numbers are expected to be even higher this year due to the recent Dobbs decision.

FOWLER: Unfortunately, because we've been tracking this and we see it every day, it's not surprising.

BLOOM: There's a long history of violence against abortion providers.

WARREN HERN: All of this is bulletproof windows, OK?

BLOOM: The doors to Dr. Warren Hern's clinic in Boulder are locked. And the reception desk is protected behind a thick layer of glass. In 1988, a man carrying a high-powered rifle fired five rounds into the office's front window.

HERN: One of the bullets almost hit one member of my staff. I had just walked through. Whoever fired the rifle was trying to kill somebody.

BLOOM: It's just one of many attacks on Dr. Hern's practice over his nearly 50 years of performing abortions. He's grateful that Colorado and many states have a buffer zone rule that keeps protesters at least eight feet away from patients as they enter the building. But he says it's not enough to protect people.

HERN: It's stressful for the patients if they encounter the demonstrator. But we give the patients a ride in our van between here and the hotel so they don't have to face that every day.

BLOOM: He's seen more threats over the phone and through email in recent weeks, something that he believes will get worse.

HERN: I think that the threat to our lives is permanent. It's not going to go away. The anti-abortion people have shown that they're willing to accept any level of violence up to and including assassination and bombing.

BLOOM: A few years ago, he started sleeping with a rifle by his bed. Dr. Rebecca Cohen says the recent Dobbs decision was a wake-up call. But they started maxing out security at her clinic in Denver even before that.

REBECCA COHEN: We have been taking security measures of, you know, not revealing our clinic location to people that don't have an appointment, making sure that we really do screen any potential employees, any potential volunteers.

BLOOM: They're also limiting the number of visitors patients can bring with them. All the precautions, Cohen says, have taken a toll on staff.

COHEN: That's hard for us as health care providers as well, right? Like, we came into this to take care of people. And just what it means to take care of someone has gotten so much broader and so much more difficult.

MICHELLE THORSEN: No shame. No condemnation.

BLOOM: On a recent afternoon, anti-abortion activist Michelle Thorsen stood atop a 10-foot ladder outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Denver, calling out to a patient over a fence, a tactic activists have been using for years.

THORSEN: You can leave any time. Don't feel like you have to stay if you're not willing to go through with it.

BLOOM: Thorsen is with Love Life, a Christian group. She views this work as saving lives and not as violent or threatening.

THORSEN: Maybe there have been some groups or some individuals in the past that have kind of given us a bad rap because, you know, of their delivery or their technique. But that's not our goal at all.

BLOOM: Will Duffy, another protester here, says he thinks the pro-life movement should escalate its activism.

WILL DUFFY: We're going to be going to the homes of abortion providers and trying to accomplish a few things.

BLOOM: He's president of Colorado Right to Life.

DUFFY: One, make sure that their neighbors know what they do for a living. Also, hopefully, get them to maybe reconsider what they do for a living.

BLOOM: He says his group never condones violence. But they're willing to go to extremes for a cause they believe in.

DUFFY: One of our slogans is, no child-killing with tranquility. So we don't think you should just have a perfectly fun, peaceful life if this is what you do for a living.

BLOOM: How far is he willing to go? Up to where the law allows, he says.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Bloom in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matt Bloom
Matt is a passionate journalist who loves nothing more than good reporting, music and comedy. At KUNC, he covers breaking news stories and the economy. He’s also reported for KPCC and KCRW in Los Angeles. As NPR’s National Desk intern in Culver City during the summer of 2015, he produced one of the first episodes of Embedded, the NPR podcast hosted by Kelly McEvers where reporters take a story from the headlines and “go deep.”

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