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Commentary Last Updated: Jun 5th, 2009 - 01:01:49

A �debate� without civility and a murder
By Howard Lisnoff
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jun 5, 2009, 00:16

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I know something about the abortion rights debate that has once again risen to the level of national attention.

Two very recent events, President Obama�s speech during graduation ceremonies at Notre Dame University, and the nomination of Federal Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, have fueled passions over this issue anew. During his speech to the graduates, the president called for �civility� from both sides in addressing the issue of abortion. In the 12 years I served as an escort at two clinics that provided abortions to women in Rhode Island, I learned something about the complete lack of civility on the part of anti-abortionists!

In May 1998, I wrote an article for The Humanist magazine about my experiences over several years at those clinics. The verbal and physical attacks against escorts and patients at abortion clinics were unrelenting and vicious. On one occasion, anti-abortionists called me a Nazi. On another morning, I was asked if I was Jewish by another anti-abortion protester, as if a person�s religious persuasion had anything at all to do with escorting patients. On another day, these wild-eyed zealots attacked the escorts at the height of their power during the period when lethal attacks were being carried out against personnel at clinics. During that time frame, I used a technique called perimeter search from basic training in the military to determine if anyone, who might be a threat, was lurking in nearby abandoned buildings or in cars.

Equally distressing was the constant barrage of insults, both verbal and physical, against patients and those who accompanied patients to the clinics. From the 1998 Humanist article: �You�re carrying a life within you. Don�t kill your child.� �You make a beautiful couple. Have your baby. We can offer help to you. We have a home where you can live with ten other women like yourself.� In the 12 years that I performed escort duty at abortion clinics, not a single person was convinced to turn back after having been approached at the clinic as a patient. Some of the people entering the clinic did try to talk with anti-abortionists who held gruesome pictures of fetuses above their heads as they harangued the patients. Other patients, or the person accompanying them, often used expletives in response to the catcalls and hollering that were incessant, or tried to explain that they did not have the economic resources to have a child.

Sometime during the years I served as an escort, I was assigned to work on Saturday mornings when prayer swelled the number of anti-abortionists from less than 10 to well over a hundred. The atmosphere was insane on those mornings. The chanting and hollering grew to an unbearable din, and the single police officer that each clinic hired was unable to keep adequate tabs on behavior amidst all of the confusion. On those days, scores of churchgoers poured out of the nearby Catholic church only a few hundred feet from one clinic and overwhelmed the handful of escorts.

Over the years I learned many things as an escort, as federal funds were denied by anti-choice governors for use in performing abortions. I watched as the misnamed partial-birth abortions were banned by the courts and the anti-abortion movement placed the term �unborn child� into the national lexicon, effectively removing the word fetus from the debate. I saw states pass legislation making parental notification the law when young women sought out abortions. I witnessed bills passed that forced doctors in some states to discuss the alternatives with women who wanted abortions, and mandatory-waiting periods enforced before an abortion could take place. Also, of great importance was the effect the anti-abortion movement had on young women who were pregnant and had carried out their pregnancies to term without the psychological or financial resources to provide for their children. Over the years, even the number of physicians who were trained to perform abortions dwindled. Few would want to enter a medical practice where their lives were threatened in the course of a day�s work.

In many states, the so-called civility on the part of anti-abortionists has led many legislatures to enact laws that moved anti-abortion protesters away from the clinics to a place where they will not directly interfere with patients as they approach the door to a facility. When I served as an escort at Planned Parenthood, one protester wailed ceaselessly for hours on end directly in front of a window in the waiting room of the clinic. One day when I had to briefly go into the clinic during escort duty, I became aware of the bone-chilling effects of the protester�s cries and screams as the noise entered the waiting room where patients sat. I tried to imagine how this scene would play out at any other doctor�s office, with someone who was disgruntled yelling from the sidewalk outside an office. Of course, that could never happen, or be allowed for even a second, at any other doctor�s office!

So, returning to the president�s call for civility, I�m reminded of those many years on the streets outside of clinics. The atmosphere at these clinics was such that it seemed as if Roe v. Wade never happened in 1973. While the president may be well intended in his call, just one day at street level outside of an abortion clinic or a women�s health facility would easily convince him otherwise in this so-called debate!

Note: This article was written just prior to the assassination of Dr. George Tiller, a physician who performed late-term abortions in Kansas. The suspect in the murder, Scott Roeder, was a known anti-abortionist and right-wing radical. He posted a significant anti-abortion comment on the website of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. A direct line can be traced between the rhetoric and actions of the anti-abortion movement and the alleged action of people like Roeder.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be reached at

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