WICHITA, Kansas (Reuters) - The patients are gone and so are the protesters. Once the site of daily anti-abortion picketing, the Kansas clinic run by murdered doctor George Tiller is busy only with workers shutting down the facility.
But as an uneasy peace settles over Wichita, abortion rights supporters say the fatal gunshot that closed Tiller’s clinic is part of a wave of attacks threatening to and, in some cases, succeeding in stopping women’s access to abortion.
Tiller’s murder on May 31, 2009, was one of more than 60 threats and incidents of violence so far this year, according to the National Abortion Federation, an association of North American abortion providers.
“It’s a reign of terror against abortion providers,” said Vicki Saporta, the federation’s chief executive.
Saporta is part of a coalition of abortion rights leaders who met last week with Justice Department officials to plead for more protection for abortion clinics.
In recent years, U.S. clinics have been bombed, set on fire, threatened with anthrax and acid, and physicians have been stalked and patients harassed.
During the first half of 2009, along with 67 burglaries, assaults and other violent incidents, there have been 1,400 reports of hate mail and/or harassing phone calls received by clinics, the highest level in a decade, according to the federation.
Abortion is a perennially divisive issue in America, cutting across social, religious and political lines.
A spike in violence was seen in the 1990s during the administration of former President Bill Clinton, who supports abortion rights, as does President Barack Obama.
Abortion opponents see Obama’s election as another setback and his nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court as hindering their goal of overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that legalized U.S. abortions.
Debate over abortion intensified this spring when Tiller, a top target of abortion rights opponents, was prosecuted on charges he illegally performed some late-term abortions, in the third trimester of pregnancy.
Opponents hoped Tiller would be convicted and his clinic closed, but he was acquitted in March.
Tiller was shot and killed while attending church, and a Kansas City-area anti-abortion activist was arrested and charged for the murder.
The violence and intimidation hasn’t been limited to Kansas.
On Wednesday, a Memphis, Tennessee women’s clinic was evacuated because of a bomb threat. That same day, two men in New Mexico were convicted of fire-bombing an Albuquerque abortion clinic.
At many clinics, door locks have been glued to keep people from entering. Patients sometimes must run a gantlet of shouting protesters to enter, and pictures, names and addresses of various abortion providers have been featured on anti-abortion websites.
About one in five of nearly 700 free-standing U.S. health clinics providing abortions experienced violence over the last year, according to the Feminist Majority Foundation.
“It is threatening access,” said Kathy Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation who calls the activists “domestic terrorists.”
Many abortion opponents have denounced the violence and condemned Tiller’s killing. Conservative Christian leaders and others heading national organization opposing abortion say they hope to stop abortions by influencing lawmakers and courts and not through intimidation.
But some say extreme methods are justified. They liken their cause to that of ending slavery and overturning racial segregation, both of which were once legal in the United States.
“Our mission is to crush child killing underfoot,” said Randall Terry, founder and former leader of Operation Rescue, which maintained a “Tiller Watch” on its website before the doctor’s murder. “We will win this war. George Tiller’s death has the potential to propel us more quickly to our goal.”
Terry is promoting a training course for the “pro-life warrior” and said he wants to spur new teams of community activists around the country.
The violence and threats, combined with legislated restrictions in various states, are frightening providers and hindering women, said Dionne Scott, spokeswoman for the Center for Reproductive Rights.
“The legal restrictions, the violence and the intimidation are making it more difficult for providers to give the service to women,” she said. “The right is being eroded.”